The Watch Night tradition dates back to 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that took effect on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of the bloody civil war. The proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The Emancipation Proclamation was zealously anticipated. Historians pointed out that many black Americans gathered in groups around clocks or watches eagerly awaiting the arrival of midnight on December 31, 1862 because the Proclamation was to take effect on the first moment of January 1, 1863.
Despite its extensive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was restricted in many ways. It pertained only to states that had withdrawn from the Union, leaving slavery unaffected in the loyal border states. It also expressly relieved parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control.
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