The Sorrow Songs

I On New Year’s Day in 1863, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was stationed in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, presiding over a large group of Unionist whites and formerly enslaved black workers who had gathered to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. A prominent prewar abolitionist, Higginson had recently become commander of one of the first black regiments in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. At the emancipation ceremony that Higginson had arranged, a local planter who had converted to abolitionism read the great document. There was a presentation of colors. Then, unexpectedly, as Higginson started to wave the flag, an elderly black man near the platform broke into song: “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty.” Two women joined, followed by others in the crowd. Higginson could hardly contain his emotion; everyone started to cry. “I never saw anything so electric,” he wrote in his diary; “it made all other words cheap, it seemed the choked voice of a race, at last unloosed; . . . art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it.” Higginson had arrived in the Sea Islands five weeks earlier. He was part of a wave of northern whites who, during the turmoil of the war, experienced their first sustained encounters with southern slaves. As Higginson later recalled, one thing that this group mostly shared was their view of black people as “intensely human.” This differentiated them sharply, in Higginson’s mind, from southern slave owners, who had long claimed to understand their slaves better than northerners but tended in practice to see them (according to Higginson) as “merely a check for a thousand dollars, or less, from a slave auctioneer.” Still, even though abolitionists tended to be relatively

Already have an account? Log in

Want to keep reading? Join our community:


Support great writing by becoming a full subscriber to Liberties Journal.

Subscribe Today

Free Preview

Sign up with your email address, and access two free articles per month.

We hope you've enjoyed your free articles!

Become a full subscriber for only $50/year, (33% off cover price).

Thank you for supporting great writing.

Subscribe Today
Log In Subscribe

Sign Up For Free

Read 2 free articles a month after you register below.

Register now