Parting Thoughts on Juneteenth

Juneteenth (June 19) has yet again rolled around and passed. What began as former slaves in Texas commemorating the arrival of the Union Army in 1865 and their liberation from bondage has morphed in more recent years into an informal date to remember freedom for all the slaves. There is nothing wrong with that. Holidays can serve an important purpose of focusing society on important events in the past. Indeed, many holidays in the United States serve that purpose.  (July 4, Independence Day,the grand daddy of them all is just around the corner.) Certainly, the end of slavery in this country is an event that deserves to be remembered, since it was a moment in which the United States took a giant step to living closer to its own creed of freedom.

Having decided an event is worth a public holiday, the question then becomes when and how should people celebrate it? About a year ago, Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, advocated in the National Review Online that a holiday should be established to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. I liked the idea of some sort of holiday to celebrate slave emancipation in the United States, but then and now I am not keen on focusing the celebration on the Emancipation Proclamation. I honor and revere this document, but the danger in celebrating it in particular is it would focus the remembrance on Abraham Lincoln instead of the slaves and promote the idea that emancipation came at a particular moment and due to the will of one man.

As Eric Foner has asserted (and as I concur) emancipation was a historical process. The end of slavery in the United States came slowly. It began with the First Emancipation in the North that started during the Revolutionary War and continued so long, there were still a handful of slaves in New Jersey on the eve of the Civil War. Slaveholders in the South, where the institution was more entrenched, did not join in the first emancipation except for some individual owners in the Upper South that took advantage of laws that made slave manumission easier. Any possibility of a voluntary end to slavery in the South ended with the rise of cotton cultivation that not only made slavery pay for slaveholders, but also pay handsomely. Making a fortune on “King Cotton” and convinced emancipation would ignite a bloody race war, white Southerners increasingly resisted the idea of freeing the slaves over the first six decades of the nineteenth century.  It would take a horrific Civil War to extinguish slavery in the American South, and even then slavery effectively ended incrementally over the course of the war, as slaves fled to Union lines, were freed when federal troops established control of where they lived, or as changes in federal or state law/policy went into effect in their location. There was not one moment in the Civil War, when all the slaves became free, certainly not when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. And the advent of the 13th Amendment, at the end of 1865, banning slavery in the United States, merely brought the process to an end by freeing the residual number of slaves  who had not been freed before over the course the Civil War.

In terms of a holiday, that creates a problem of how does a nation celebrate a historical process? Of course, for a long time emancipation was not celebrated outside the African American community, which has left a definite imprint on the commemoration of emancipation. As I wrote last year in response to Guelzo:

One important point about black celebrations of freedom was liberated slaves did it on a schedule that was meaningful to them. For example, one of the most famous emancipation celebrations is Juneteenth, typically celebrated on June 19. On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, recently arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops, issued an order enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. So July 22, 1862 [the date Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet] had no particular meaning to the Texas slaves because they did not effectively become free for nearly three more years. Neither did September 22, 1862 (when Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation public) or January 1, 1863 (when it became final) because on those days Texas slaves were still in bondage. So understandably, former Texas slaves began in 1866 commemorating the day they actually gained their freedom.

The same thing is true elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, May 20 is the unofficial emancipation commemoration day because on that date in 1865, Union general Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, bringing slavery there to an effective end. In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is May 8, locally called ”Eight o’ May,” commemorating the day the slaves there learned of their freedom. In Paducah and McCracken County, Kentucky, Emancipation Day is August 8, again when the slaves there learned they were free. Emancipation Day in District of Columbia, which falls on April 16, is the day Abraham Lincoln signed congressional legislation freeing slaves there, effectively making slaves there free (although in modern times, in practice the commemoration is shifted a day or two some years to give government workers a three-day weekend).

In short, if emancipation’s celebration in the United States was and remains a rather decentralized, ad hoc affair, perhaps it is because emancipation itself was a rather decentralized, ad hoc event. First, it effectively occurred at many different times in many different places. Second, Abraham Lincoln could exert his considerable executive power to make it happen, but in the end many other people’s cooperation was required to implement it against the wishes of millions of Americans in opposition.

So maybe the United States does not really need a formal national holiday to celebrate emancipation. Instead, the informal ad hoc manner it is celebrated today, through Juneteenth and other commemorations better captures what was a historical process that took nearly a century and involved a cast of millions. A formal national holiday would carry the danger of promoting the false notion that freedom came a definite moment due entirely to the action of one man and/or the actions of elites, instead of the lengthy, complex historical process in which the slaves themselves played a significant part as actors in their own liberation.

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Happy Juneteenth!

Originally posted on Civil War Emancipation:

From Wikipedia: “Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a holiday in the United States honoring African American heritage by commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865. Celebrated on June 19, the term is a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, and is recognized as a state holiday or state holiday observance in 41 states of the United States.”


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Harvard Presentation Video


I do not mean to keep touting my Harvard triumph, but it just came to my attention that the Dubois Institute at Harvard just posted the video of Freedom Rising Symposium on YouTube, so I am posting the video of my session. My presentation begins at about 48:00 minutes and I participated actively in the Q&A session that followed.

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Frederick Douglass on Decoration Day, 1871

Donald R. Shaffer:

A timely post from Andy Hall …

Originally posted on Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog:

On Decoration Day, 1871, Frederick Douglass gave the following address at the monument to the Unknown Dead of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a short speech, but one of the best of its type I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted it before, but it think it’s something worth re-reading and contemplating every Memorial Day.


The Unknown Loyal Dead
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is…

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Slow Death of the Fugitive Slave Law

One of the curious aspects of slavery’s end in the United States is that even after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect that 1850’s infamous fugitive slave law remained on the books, and some stubborn slaveholders even tried to make use of it to recover their human property. This fact should not be a surprising since four states–Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri–were exempted from the proclamation because they had not seceded but remained loyal to the Union. It also should not be surprising given the power of slave owners over federal government before the war. They were used to getting their way and it must have come as a rude shock to them during the Civil War when suddenly Washington authorities were no longer responsive to their demands. Still, even with the peculiar institution crumbling around them, a few pigheaded owners still tried to rely on federal law to recover their slaves.

A good example of a late usage of federal fugitive slave law is the case of a Maryland slave, Andrew Hall. His story is related by Kate Masur in her book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (UNC Press, 2010). She writes:

The pivotal legal decision concerning fugitive slaves came in the spring of 1863, in the case of Andrew Hall, a nineteen year-old fugitive who had fled the estate of his owner, George W. Duvall, of Prince George’s County, Maryland [adjacent to Washington, D.C.]. Hall had been working in the capital for several months when, in April 1863, Duvall demanded the arrest under the federal fugitive slave laws of Hall and the two other men with whom he escaped. Ward Lamon, the federal marshal [and a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln], apprehended Hall in the city market, and Hall’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus, requiring that their client be brought to court for a hearing.

Hall’s case had special significance because it was the first fugitive slave case heard since Congress had reorganized the upper reaches of the District of Columbia’s court system. In March 1863, Congress had terminated the long-standing Circuit Court and, against vehement protests from local lawyers and city officials, created the District of Columbia Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the president. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect months earlier, but the newly organized court retained [Walter S.] Cox as fugitive slave commissioner, an indication that it planned to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Observers thus watched the Hall case closely to see what course the new justices would pursue.

The case was heard in a courtroom filled with black and white spectators. After extensive testimony and considerable deliberation, the four justices remained divided on the merits of the argument, made by Hall’s lawyers, that the fugitive slave laws applied only to the states and not to the federal district. Finally, in a split decision, the court affirmed that it must uphold the fugitive slave laws, provided the would-be owners could prove Union loyalty. Since Duvall had affirmed his support for the Union, the decision implied that Hall must return to his owner’s custody. But Hall’s lawyers immediately asked military authorities to intervene to secure his freedom. A melee ensued at the courthouse, as Duvall tried to grab Hall while onlookers sought to protect him. Military authorities took custody of Hall, and Duvall’s lawyers, in turn, attempted to bring charges against Hall’s attorney. But Duvall was powerless as provost marshal officials escorted Hall away. Hall later enlisted in a black regiment then being organized in the capital, and the next winter the court dismissed Duvall’s lawsuit.

So, while the Fugitive Slave Act and related legislation officially remained in force until June 1864, when Congress finally did away with it, they became essentially void. Even if a slaveholder, like George W. Duvall, could find a court to validate his claim, enforcing it was an entirely different matter. It is interesting though that men like Duvall tried, even after the Emancipation Proclamation’s release, to reclaim their slaves. It bespeaks a class of people, long accustomed to the law being on their side, in denial, that even though they technically were protected by the government in their slave property, in practice that increasingly the opponents of slavery, empowered by the war, could deny them those property rights with impunity. Or perhaps it was that federal authorities finally were protecting the real owners of those human beings–the slaves themselves and their right to their own person.

Source: Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 2010), 29-30.

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Repost: The World Turned Upside Down

Dear Readers:

Please check out Jimmy Price’s fine piece on the founding of the U.S. Colored Troops:

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Missionaries of Freedom, Part 2


Source: Harper’s Weekly – May 9, 1863,

An earlier edition of Civil War Emancipation dealt with the phenomenon of slaves that had escaped to federal lines journeying back into rebel held territory to let family and friends know that they would become free once they arrived where Union  forces held sway. Such a trip could be dangerous because the Confederate Army did not take kindly to these missionaries of freedom, especially if they were armed, and apparently executed some of them when such unfortunates fell into their hands.

Yet the danger did not stop the trips into Confederate territory. Such was the testimony of Capt. C. B. Wilder, Superintendent of Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on May 9, 1863, before the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. The testimony transcript records:

Q  In your opinion, is there any communication between the refugees and the black men still in slavery?

A. Yes Sir, we have had men here who have gone back 200 miles.

Q  In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?

A  Yes–Thousands upon Thousands.  I went to Suffolk a short time ago to enquire into the state of things there–for I found I could not get any foot hold to make things work there, through the Commanding General, and I went to the Provost Marshall and all hands–and the colored people actually sent a deputation to me one morning before I was up to know if we put black men in irons and sent them off to Cuba to be sold or set them at work and put balls on their legs and whipped them, just as in slavery; because that was the story up there, and they were frightened and didn’t know what to do.  When I got at the feelings of these people I found they were not afraid of the slaveholders.  They said there was nobody on the plantations but women and they were not afraid of them   One woman came through 200 miles in Men’s clothes.  The most valuable information we recieved in regard to the Merrimack and the operations of the rebels came from the colored people and they got no credit for it.  I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind.  I asked them “Why did you come away and leave them there?” and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was.  “I am going back again after my wife” some of them have said “When I have earned a little money”   What as far as that?”  “Yes”   and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a months wages, and to get passes.  “I am going for my family” they say.  “Are you not afraid to risk it?”  “No I know the Way”   Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by paths and get through.  In that way I have known quite a number who have gone up from time to time in the neighborhood of Richmond and several have brought back their families; some I have never heard from.  As I was saying they do not feel afraid now.  The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid,  before they were afraid to stir.  There are hundreds of negroes at Williamsburgh with their families working for nothing.  They would not get pay here and they had rather stay where they are.  “We are not afraid of being carried back” a great many have told us and “if we are, we can get away again”   Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in.  Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman’s Cavalry when they returned from their raid.  The officers reported to their Quartermaster that they had so many horses and fifty or sixty negroes.  “What did you bring them for”   “Why they followed us and we could not stop them.”  I asked one of the men about it and he said they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat.  They would take best horse they could get and every where they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in.  I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom.  Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclammation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was.  Well, I gave them the evidence and I have no doubt their friends will hear of it.  Within the last two or three months the rebel guards have been doubled on the line …

So slaves within at least 200 miles of Fortress Monroe were making their way there to become free, and some returned home to spread the good news. While their journeys were not without risk, the war had caused the slave patrol system in Virginia largely to breakdown, since by that time nearly all the men who would have served in the patrols were gone to serve in the Confederate Army. The Confederates were detailing men to try to stop the exodus, but to judge from the slaves apparent confidence relating their escapes to Capt. Wilder, the effort was not terribly effect.

Indeed, Wilder’s testimony indicates, by Spring 1863, the greatest threat to the freedom of escaped slaves in Virginia came not from the Confederate Army but ironically from corrupt Union soldiers that for a price would cooperate with slaveholders seeking to recover their slaves. The captain complained that troops in the 99th New York Infantry “between Norfolk and Suffolk have caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them. . . . The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50.” Clearly, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, and a law by then a year old, specifically prohibiting the Union Army personnel from cooperating in the return of slaves to their owners, some northern troops were willing to help planters, in all likelihood rebels, recover their slaves.

Yet the slaves themselves were increasingly confident that even when that happened or they were caught on the way to Union lines, all they need do is wait for another opportunity to flee to Union lines which would come apparently soon enough. So despite crooked Union soldiers ready to help re-enslave escaped slaves, the missionaries of freedom were spreading the word that increasingly slavery in Virginia could not be enforced and that probably sooner rather later, slaves that fled would find freedom in Union-controlled territory.


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