In December 1861, the Civil War was well underway. Both the Union and Confederate armies had marched into Washington County that summer, and western Marylanders were suffering from wartime shortages. African Americans hoped the war would bring freedom to the enslaved. But in 1861, the Union army was not in the business of freeing slaves. That time still lay in the future.
In Hagerstown, the members of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church on Bethel Street planned to celebrate this first wartime Christmas with a “Religious Festival.” For this they sought and received permission from the town’s government.
The festival was a success, although we don’t know what it consisted of. Afterwards, the congregation published a notice of thanks in the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light in early January. They mentioned the “attention and patronage of the Military Department.” Soldiers were always looking for entertainment; apparently they found the A.M.E. festival a pleasant Christmastime diversion.
The ad (pictured below) also reminds us of the less happy side of living in Hagerstown as a black person in 1861. The congregation thanked local citizens “who protected us.” Had there been some trouble at the festival? Had white neighbors intervened on behalf of the church members? Or was the protection legal, or political? We may never know, but the reference reminds us of the precarious position that free blacks lived in, even as they celebrated Christmas at their own church.