Friday, June 19, 2015

150 Years Ago Today - "Freedom Day" - Juneteenth in Galveston, TX - 1865

"Juneteenth" monument on the grounds of Ashton Villa in Galveston, TX - p[hoto by James M. Schmidt

Note: An abbreviated form of this post about Juneteenth appeared on this blog on 18 June 2012 (here) - I've updated it as an expanded post with an excerpt from my book, Galveston and the Civil War (2012) and have included links to some exception material from Andy Hall's "Dead Confederates" blog.

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." -General Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3, Galveston, TX, June 19, 1865

In commemoration of "Juneteenth," I am pleased to provide an excerpt from my book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (History Press, 2012)

"Freedom Day"
by James M. Schmidt

The war may have been over, but there was now a peace to keep. Major General Gordon Granger—newly appointed as commander of the Department of Texas—arrived in Galveston on the morning of June 19, 1865, and that very day, he issued several orders from his headquarters in the city: one asserted his authority over the state, another declared that all acts of the state’s governor and legislature since secession were null and void and yet another made the state’s cotton public property and the quartermaster the sole agent for its purchase and sale. The most important order, however, was his “General Orders No. 3”:

 Gen. Gordon Granger - Library of Congress
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere. (1)

Note - See Andy Hall's "Dead Confederates" blog for a post (here) that includes an image of a rare handbill with General Order #3

Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 (after the Battle of Antietam), and the final proclamation on January 1, 1863 (the same day as the Battle of Galveston), they actually had a minimal immediate impact on the lives of most of the millions of the nation’s enslaved African Americans, especially the slaves in Texas. The proclamations did have a significant effect on the prosecution of the Civil War, on the political landscape and in the international community, but it was only with battlefield victories— many of them hard-fought and won by ex-slaves in uniform—that the proclamations could be enforced. Granger’s order, then, was very important in that it legally abolished slavery in Texas forever.

Ashton Villa - Photo by James M. Schmidt
Local tradition has it that General Granger read his order and the Emancipation Proclamation from the balcony of the home of James M. Brown (also known as “Ashton Villa,” and, ironically, constructed, in part, with slave labor) in Galveston. Other historians have suggested the order may have been issued from Granger’s headquarters on the Strand or from the United States Customhouse. Where or whether the order was read aloud, it was posted throughout Galveston and printed in newspapers in the city and throughout the state. In postwar interviews, slaves throughout Texas remembered masters calling them together to read Granger’s order and learning they were now free. (2)

Owing to distance, poor communication and the reluctance of masters, it took time—weeks or months sometimes—for the news to reach slaves on plantations in the inland frontier; even then, the reaction to the news varied from slave to slave or family to family as they contemplated how to embrace their freedom. Some ran away immediately; others stayed and
continued their work but for wages. In Galveston, lawyer William Pitt Ballinger awoke to find that three of his slaves had “up and left [at] night upon hearing the news of their emancipation.” Ballinger wrote that he was “saddened by their running” but told his family the three “were free to do as they pleased—the law was with them.” As further witness to the mixed reaction to emancipation, two of the ex-slaves headed for New Orleans while another soon returned to the Ballinger household. (3)

Galveston’s ex-slaves rejoiced on hearing the news. Confederate major H.A. Wallace recalled that when he reached the island, he found some ex-slaves at the wharf throwing their hats in the air. When Wallace inquired why they were celebrating, the men declared, “We’s free now.” Wallace asked, “What makes you free?” and they answered, “Yankees come down on ships on the outside to free us.” The day has been remembered ever since as “Juneteenth” (a portmanteau of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” also called “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day”). Beginning in 1866, African Americans in Galveston and throughout the state began annual celebrations of Juneteenth with church services, parades, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and more. (4)

Still, it would take time for that freedom and equality to be fully realized. Even Granger’s order was “stated in a patronizing tone,” as one historian declared, requiring the freedmen to find work and forbidding idleness. Fewer than 2,000 Union soldiers patrolled the whole of Texas, hindering the safe passage or harbor of ex-slaves in the midst of returning Confederate veterans or masters reluctant to yield their human “property.” Even in the presence of the Union occupation, the Galveston Weekly News defiantly declared that “the attempt to set the negro free…and make him, politically, the equal of the white man, will be most disastrous to the whole country and absolutely ruinous to the South.” (5)

As one historian noted, slavery may have been over in Texas, but “[its] bitter legacy had only begun to unfold.” (6)


(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vol. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880–1901., ser. 1, vol. 48, part 2, 929.
(2) Andrew Hall,
“Juneteenth, History and Tradition,” Dead Confederates Blog.
(3) Moretta, John A. William Pitt Ballinger: Texas Lawyer, Southern Statesman, 1825–1888. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2000, 174.
(4) McComb, David G. Galveston: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 84.
(5) Cotham, Edward T. Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, 185; Galveston Weekly News, June 28, 1865.
223. Campbell, Randolph B.
An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, 251.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Very apropos considering all the current controversies surrounding the flag. Neat post:)