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11th annual Watch Night commemorates arrival of Emancipation Proclamation

Mike Jaquays
Staff writer
Posted 1/2/23

The festive and historic Watch Night of Dec. 31, 1862 was commemorated Saturday.

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11th annual Watch Night commemorates arrival of Emancipation Proclamation


PETERBORO — The festive and historic Watch Night of Dec. 31, 1862 was commemorated Saturday by retired Navy Commander Owen Corpin, as he shared his 11th annual celebration of the arrival of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This year's event, some 160 years after the initial Watch Night, started inside the National Abolition Hall of Fame with tours and refreshments. Former Oneida Mayor Max Smith sang the spiritual "Oh Freedom" to kick off the ceremony. Then, Corpin told the audience the history of Watch Night, explaining that on Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln revealed his preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation that would soon free the slaves.

Lincoln started talking about making the executive order as early as July 1862, Corpin explained, but had actually held back on announcing the proclamation until the Union army had won a decisive battle. Lincoln did not want it to seem like it was coming from a position of weakness but after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 — the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War — the president had that catalyst for the proclamation's reveal, Corpin said.

His final Emancipation Proclamation order was official at midnight Jan. 1, 1863, with three objectives: to free the slaves in the seceding states, to guarantee the United States Army and Navy would safeguard those freed slaves and to allow Blacks to be enlisted into the military.

The supporters of freedom reveled and celebrated the evening before — New Year's Eve — in churches, meeting halls and their homes to anxiously await its arrival.

"The anticipation was like a child before Christmas," Corpin said.

Presidential executive orders were not as commonplace back in the mid-1800s as they are today, Corpin noted. He has even seen one in direct action — he recalled a visit from then-president George H. W. Bush while Corpin was in the Navy. Bush was given a flight jacket. The president liked the jacket and wondered why the aviators didn't wear their own. He was told they were not allowed to, and the next day the president signed an executive order proclaiming they could wear that brown aviator jacket whenever they wished, Corpin said.

A Watch Fire lighting outdoors concluded the celebration, with Corpin explaining that back in the early days of warfare the opposing sides did not battle in the darkness of the night. Each lit a fire for the solders to seek out and find their own side to await the battle to resume in the morning light.

Corpin now lights the fire each New Year's Eve as a beacon not only for the souls of soldiers who have perished but for those of all freedom seekers and their supporters to find their way to Peterboro, he said.

"Peterboro was a safe haven for them," he explained, thanking the work of abolitionists like Gerrit Smith there. It remains that safe haven to this day, Corpin promised.

He read, along with several volunteers, the entire text of the Emancipation Proclamation while standing by the fire. That day back in 1862 was a balmy day much like New Year's Eve this year, Corpin noted.

He implored the people in attendance to think back to those days and what it must have been like during that evening's party.

"You can imagine a lot of people who were out gathered in churches or wherever," he told the audience. "They had this document; it had been around and reprinted and everybody knew it was happening. They were really waiting for this to get to that point."

The National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum is located at the Smithfield Community Center, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road in Peterboro. For more information on any of their programs, call 315-280-8828, email or visit


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