Who is Esther Hill Hawks? … I first learned of her while reading Mike Pride’s book, Our War. As I dug deeper into her story, I simply could not believe I’d never learned about her in school! But a full account of her amazing career as a doctor, nurse, teacher, and abolitionist will have to wait until later. TODAY we focus on the above passage in the diary she kept while working with the “freedmen” and new soldiers of the groundbreaking 1st South Carolina Regiment…
Interested readers will find several helpful photographs & notes in this online collection of the wartime letters of Seth Rogers; Rogers was the surgeon of the 1st South Carolina Regiment.
I’ve based the panel of the “colored soldiers” making “short speaches” on the drawing “Emancipation Day in South Carolina” at the Library of Congress:
Many other interesting accounts of the day can be found online…
And of course we can read the original Emancipation Proclamation here.
I’ve shown the white officer Col. Higginson working hard to win over his Black soldiers and their relations. According to his own account, he did indeed receive the regiment’s colors in the official program, and then passed them on to two of his soldiers as color guard. Higginson also adds a detail which Hawks does not mention:
Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it on recalling, though it gave the key-note to the whole day. The very moment the speaker had ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice, (but rather cracked and elderly,) into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow,–
“My Country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing!”
People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came, this interruption, not set down in the bills. Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; it seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it; and when I came to speak of it, after it was ended, tears were everywhere. If you could have heard how quaint and innocent it was! Old Tiff and his children might have sung it; and close before me was a little slave-boy, almost white, who seemed to belong to the party, and even he must join in. Just think of it!–the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people, and here, while mere spectators stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words, these simple souls burst out in their lay, as if they were by their own hearths at home! When they stopped, there was nothing to do for it but to speak, and I went on; but the life of the whole day was in those unknown people’s song.
The mutual distrust, hope, suspicion, and curiosity between former slaves and Northern soldiers comes across clearly in the photographic work of Concord’s own H. P. Moore, currently on display at the NH Historical Society Museum in Concord (or online at the Library of Congress). Moore worked mere miles away from Hawks at the same time. His portfolio, as provided by the NH Historical Society, has proven immensely helpful in drawing the people of this place & time. Many of the former slaves in the above comic are actually based on Moore’s subjects.
The NH Historical Society has also collected the photos & commentary into a fascinating book.
One line near the end of Hawks’ account seems particularly illustrative of racial relations in 1863:
This remark stood out to me only as I drew the final panels of the account. There is at this feast clearly more than enough food for the freed slaves; Hawks even notes the women taking extra meat home in their aprons. However, the “white folks,” even committed abolitionists like Hawks & her husband, apparently need a special provision to eat. Is it even an option to sit at the feasting table with the the freed slaves? Or do the “white folks” (officers, teachers, superintendents, etc.) feel they require separate “provisions” before they can partake in the feast? Again, we are reminded of H. P. Moore’s haunting images : so close, yet so far away…
1 January 1863