Sesquicentennial of Juneteenth

Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

General Orders
No. 3

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 rights, and rights of property between former master and slaves and the connec-
tion heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and free laborer.
The freedmen are advised to remain 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, there or elsewhere.

by Order of G. Granger, Major General Commanding
F.W. Emory, Major and A.A. Gen’l

Today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the name that has become associated with the liberation of slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War. Texas, as the western-most state of the Confederacy, was largely spared the presence of federal troops until the end of the war. Indeed, it became a common practice of slaveholders from outside Texas to “refugee” their slaves there in an ultimately vain effort to prevent their liberation.

Remembering this event would be of little importance outside of Texas except that in recent decades June 19 has become something an unofficial date to remember and celebrate nationwide the end of slavery in the United States. Why exactly, I am frankly not sure. But in essence, it is appropriate because Juneteenth represents an ad hoc commemoration of what was a largely ad hoc event. That is, while there are numerous milestones during the Civil War in slavery’s demise, for most slaves their liberation, that is the moment when they could finally effectively be free in practice, occurred incrementally throughout the war and its aftermath. Indeed, stories abound (likely apocryphal) of slaveholders on isolated plantations trying to keep the news of the end of slavery from their chattel.

But it is important to remember that even the liberation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865 that slavery was not completely dead yet in the United States, legally or practically. Legally, slavery had still not ended yet in Kentucky or Delaware which, thanks to their status as loyal slave states, were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (which interestingly was the authority cited by Union occupation authorities in Texas in June 1865 to order freedom for the state’s slaves). Kentucky slaveholders in particular, many Unionists, stubbornly held on to their human property in the belief that their loyalty during the war should somehow exempt them from any sort of emancipation. Indeed, slavery in those two states would not come to an end until final ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

So while Juneteenth is a convenient day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, it is important to recognize that nearly any day of the year would be equally appropriate. An important reason for this fact is that African Americans played an active role in their own liberation. While the so-called “self-emancipation” thesis can be rejected as overly simplistic, and even many of the scholars identified with it are not so simple-minded as to believe the slaves brought down slavery all by themselves, it is equally naive to believe slavery ended by the fiat of some governmental authority, whether it be Abraham Lincoln or Gen. Gordon Granger, who issued the now famous General Order No. 3, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. Emancipation was a process, in which many slaves were prime movers in their own liberation, whether it be by fleeing to Union lines, joining the federal army, giving information to Union troops, working more slowly in the fields, or in myriad other ways. In that process, the Union Army, northern politicians, humanitarians, etc. also played notable roles.

So celebrate emancipation on Juneteenth. But feel free to celebrate it any other day, and in any fashion you feel appropriate. And honor the spirit of emancipation in your daily lives, for that is the most meaningful way of all to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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2 Responses to Sesquicentennial of Juneteenth

  1. John Tucker says:

    I am writing in regards to the Juneteenth. Last year, I found that our local news reporting quite interesting but historically inaccurate. The need to celebrate Juneteenth (June19) is aspiring and is a great thing for Americans of African ancestry and America as a whole but it need not be whitewashed or embellished with inaccuracies.

    As for the facts behind Juneteenth.

    Folks who helped sponsor the event reported that Juneteenth was a celebration of the end of slavery by way of President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation. This is historically incorrect.

    Juneteenth occurred on June 19, 1865 in the state of Texas. This is when the slaves of Texas received news that the war had ended and slavery was going to be abolished. Up until that time it was still the law of the land. Slavery was not abolished by law until 18 December 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment although it was in the hands of congress from 1862 and during the later stages of 1865 while the war was still raging, congress took no action. Some states such as West Virginia did not ratify it until February 1866. Then still another amendment, the 14th, had to be passed to allow them the right that every American has and that is to vote.

    President Lincoln’s proclamation was originally crafted in late 1862 and revised in January 1863, but he needed a platform or victory to announce it formally. It had been issued prior to that but the impact was not felt until late 1863. It was a political and military stroke of genius but in reality it failed to free any slaves tectenelly.

    But note that emancipation was already on its way

    Emancipation dates:

    1777: Vermont Consitution abolishes slavery
    1780: PA Gradual Emancipation
    1783: Mass. SC declares slavery illegal
    1783: NH Gradual Emancipation
    1784: RI and Conn. Gradual Emancipation
    1787: Slavery abolished in Northwest Territories
    1799: NY Gradual Emancipation
    1802: Ohio Constitution abolishes slavery
    1804: NJ Gradual Emancipation
    1820: Indiana SC declares most slaves free
    1828: NY abolishes slavery
    1847: Slavery abolished in PA
    1862 Washington City

    By the Civil War, except for the 4 border states and the seceded states, slavery had been legally and practically (gradual emancipation) abolished in the rump states of the Union.

    Lincoln’s time came with victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Without those victories and had Lincoln’s proclamation, it would have had no substance and would appear to be that of a nation in direr straights. Therefore in 1863, during the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Lincoln makes his famous speech and during that time people sometimes recognize as the time the emancipation was formally announced.

    The facts behind the Emancipation were that it only freed slaves in the states currently in rebellion. That is the Confederate States of America. No slave states in the union (West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland or other Union lands) were mentioned. There were also several large areas in the Confederacy (i.e. counties in Virginia, all of West Virginia and New Orleans and areas there) that were exempt from the emancipation.

    The only area of which slaves were freed during the war was the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) and that was in 1862. No other slaves were freed at anytime during the war and the proclamation did little from that standpoint but was a great political tool in the form of keeping England, France and Russia from supporting the Confederacy.

    Lincoln is remembered as the great emancipator but as the war started his concern was that of saving the republic and not of abolishing slavery unless it also could save the nation. Although his personal writings reflect his personal discuss for slavery, his political feelings were that of the nation and its feelings. After all, slavery was the law of the land. It was not illegal or considered immoral to own another man.

    For the south….This was a war which started over slavery.
    From the norther view, The slavery issue was there but not the culminating factor until much later in the war. The union refused to recruit or allow for blacks to volunteer for federal service until in 1863. Even then blacks were segregate, treated with mistrust and for sometime not paid. While in the Confederate blacks were used as servants, bodyguards, teamsters while a small handful even fought for the south. Most of course were FORCED to serve not only the master in human form but the master being the state.

    Truly, this was a confusing time. A true understanding of the war and its elements is not taught in a modern day history class, as to give the student a real understanding and feeling of what these Americans went through.

    Slavery was a horrific institution. The ending should be celebrated but the truth also needs to be celebrated. Freedom came with a price. Americans of African decent were often shunned and had their rights trampled on by both the former Confederate States but more surprising by Union states. After the war they were set adrift without any teaching or preparation for freedom. Many in the former union states who some say fought for the Negros freedom, hated them.

    Reconstruction and Jm Crow and Black Laws destroyed any chance for the Americans of African decent to bend in to American society for almost another 100 years. The reality was that before, during and after the war, many northerners who wanted freedom and equality for Negros wanted nothing to do with the struggle it would take to give them that.

    We have failed our children. When we teach history and black history, but our children are not taught about Fredrick Douglass, Robert Smalls, Elizabeth Freedman or other great blacks of the Civil War era and before. Our kids have no idea what the 13th and 14th amendment mean. We need to teach history as it was and not as it is taught now. (Revisionist).

    Our media along with us need to assimilate history and truth from a journalistic and news forum standpoint and I hope that you will use this information that I have provided.

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