On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and instructed his armies to implement the order as they advanced into Confederate states. Among the first slaves to be liberated were those on J. J. Smith's cotton plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina, which had been occupied by the Union army since late 1861.
Newly freed men, women, and children are recorded at the historic moment as they assembled for their departure. Timothy O'Sullivan made this view of more than a hundred individuals standing in front of their former quarters, their meager belongings packed in burlap bundles as they begin their lives of freedom. The numerous blurred figures indicate the moment's transitory nature. Even though many in the group look up toward the camera to be photographed for the first time in their lives, the act of being recorded was clearly subordinate to the emancipation at hand.