Before New Year’s Eve became a time to go to parties and watch the ball drop in Times Square, New Year’s Day was marked by quieter celebrations, festive meals, and church services.

New Year’s Day was especially poignant in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. Not only was the nation in the midst of a bloody war whose outcome was uncertain, but this was the day that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect. In cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., African-American churches held special “watch night” services, gathering together to anticipate the promise of freedom.

In Portsmouth, Va., for example, families packed the AME church, praying and singing well past midnight; the next day, they celebrated in the streets, riding horses and raising banners. After shaking hands for three hours at the traditional New Year’s reception at the White House, Lincoln rested his aching hand to make sure that his signature would not waver, and signed the final copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The hopes and fears of a nation at war were also reflected in a print in the Fairfield Museum’s collection titled, “New Year, 1863,” engraved by Illman Brothers of New York.

George Washington’s image appears in the center, perhaps reflecting the hope that the nation he had founded would continue to endure. A dead tree trunk labelled “1862” is accompanied by an image of a man on crutches being led away by an angel, representing the losses of the old year; while on the opposite side, a band of angel figures carrying flags, bayonets, and a cannon are marching, perhaps to military victory. At the bottom, an idyllic scene of six children in a boat drawn by two swans, carrying tambourines and a cornucopia seems to promise happier and more prosperous times ahead.

About the Fairfield Museum & History Center

The Fairfield Museum & History Center and Museum Shop, located at 370 Beach Road, is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Members of the museum and children under 5 are admitted free. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit

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The year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.