In his now-famous speech, Frederick Douglass asked an important question: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Juneteenth was a partial answer.
In 1852, at a July 4th Independence Day celebration, Douglass gave this prophetic speech where he challenged Americans for not living up to their founding documents, as well as the Church for not rooting out slavery and providing Africans the same rights and liberties as whites. (Note: This blog post uses the term “Africans” because that is how slaves were referred to at the time.)
Douglass questioned the Church using the words of white, evangelical pastor, Bible commentator and anti-slavery advocate Albert Barnes, author of the most popular Bible commentary in the antebellum era, “Barnes Notes on the Bible.” In an 1848 publication, “The Church and Slavery,” Barnes challenged his fellow Christians: “It is probably that slavery could not be sustained in this land if it were not for the countenance, direct and indirect of the churches. It is probable that there is not power enough out of the church to sustain the system.” Unfortunately, the Church in America did not end slavery without four years of bloody war.
It is common to read histories of the American Civil War where the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865 is said to be the end of the war. Some explanations of the war fail to realize that Lee’s army was not the only army under arms for the Confederate States. Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee facing Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi in Texas were still active. It was not until June of 1865 that all the Confederate armies surrendered and the slaves in Texas were officially liberated by Union troops. June 19 became known as Juneteenth to liberated slaves, and day of celebration was born.
To fully appreciate the story of Juneteenth, one must go back to the late 1840s when the United States engaged in war against Mexico over territorial disputes. Northern anti-slave advocates such as Barnes opposed the war with Mexico because he, like other abolitionists, saw it as a land grab to add more slave territory to the Union. Texas was founded as a slave republic, and victory over Mexico did exactly what Barnes feared. His instincts were correct, but he could not have imagined the way in which Texas would provide a haven for slavery 20 years later, as the Civil War chipped away at the institution.
After the election of 1860 and President Abraham Lincoln’s victory, Texas seceded from the Union, joining the Confederate States of America as its westernmost state. At the time of secession, Texas held 182,566 souls in bondage, making up 30% of the state’s population, but this number would increase.
For the first two years of the war, Union troops fought to restore the Union, but that all changed in 1863. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing all saves in the rebellious states. From that day on, as the Union Army advanced through the Confederacy, it served as a liberation force. In many ways, Lincoln’s decision to enact the order was forced on him due to slaves freeing themselves with their feet and making their way to Union lines before the law went into effect. The order also provided the Union with additional tools to defeat the C.S.A. (Confederate States of America), encouraging slave revolts and escapes. The order also provided recruits for units like the 54th Massachusetts. By the end of the war, 10% of the Union Army was made up of African troops. Approximately 179,000 black men served in the Army and 19,000 in the Navy.
Plantation owners realized that the war reduced the number of slaves and as the C.S.A. faced military setbacks, owners took matters into their own hands, especially after they lost access to Mississippi River. Here in Pennsylvania, the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863 and the defeat of the Lee’s Army get most of the attention as the “Hightide” of the Confederacy. But at the same time, a little-known general by the name of Grant was captured the port city of Vicksburg, Miss. This gave the Union Army control of the Mississippi River and cut the C.S.A. in half. Beginning in 1862 and in earnest after the fall of Vicksburg, more and more slave owners throughout the Confederacy began moving their slaves to Texas for “safe keeping.” This method of hiding slaves in the westernmost part of the Confederacy became known as “refugeeing,” and the slave population in Texas skyrocketed. Based on tax records and these are spotty, it is estimated that by 1864 there were at least 241,000 slaves in Texas but, the number was probably much higher.
After Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, the Union Army under Grant bludgeoned the Army of the Northern Virginia until April 9, 1865, when Lee agreed to surrender at Appomattox. Lee had wanted to negotiate a peace settlement between the U.S. and C.S.A., but neither general had the authority to do this. In hindsight, Grant’s refusal to accept a peace worked to the advantage of the millions of freemen still in the Confederacy.
Between April and June 1865, the Union armies defeated the Confederate Army under Johnston in North Carolina and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi in Texas. Defeating these armies further disheartened southern soldiers and may have reduced insurgencies. Additionally, the commander in chief was able to enforce laws in conquered regions and operate with constitutional war powers. In peacetime, laws are enforced by judges and politicians—not armies. It is one thing to defeat a nation’s army; it’s another thing to impose the terms of surrender. The Union Army was in a better position to impose the terms of surrender in a war footing than in a peacetime.
When Lee surrendered to Grant, some leaders in Texas did not believe it would affect them. Texas had not been invaded during the war; therefore, it had not felt the hardships Virginia had experienced. It was the only Confederate state with its own foreign border, which Texans were able to use to avert blockades. It was even alleged that President Jefferson Davis planned to make his way to Texas and save the Confederacy from there. Due to the steady string of defeats by Southern armies, the soldiers from Texas were not interested in continuing the war, and by June 1865, Texas surrendered.
In most of the Confederate states, the lack of government after the surrender allowed for rioting, theft and all-around chaos, and Africans were killed and tortured. Southerners surrendered because they could not continue the war, but their resentments were not quelled. They could not take out their anger on Union soldiers, so they took it out on freemen. To complicate matters U.S. President Andrew Johnson was already appointing leaders (some of who were C.S.A. government officials) in the former C.S.A. states, including Texas. Under the order of Gen. Phillip Sherman, Gen. George Gordon entered Galveston, Texas, to bring peace. On June 19, 1865, he issued Order No. 3, which finally announced the freedom of slaves still being held in Texas. Slaves were to be hired as wage labors on their plantations. For thousands of Africans in Texas, this was the first time they heard about their freedom. For the first time in American history, slaves has been declared free throughout the nation. In Texas, as early as 1866, freemen celebrated liberation on June 19, much like the rest of country celebrated the Fourth of July.
Yet, the story does not end there. Slavery did not die on June 19, 1865. Many Africans were tormented for celebrating their freedom, and the resentment harbored against them unleashed a torrent of violence. It is one thing to announce the end of slavery; it is another to enforce the order. On April 10, Lee and Grant met again, and Lee warned Grant that the South was a big country and he might have to march over it many times before the war ended. If the end of slavery was the war aim, it would take more than the surrender of armies to accomplish this goal. The Union Army learned that the only way emancipation would take place was through the occupation of the South. As the Union armies occupied more of the interior parts of the C.S.A., they found slavery lingered in remote holdouts, including in Texas—even after Order No.3.
The time between June 19 and December 6 was tenuous. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had been ratified by Congress in January, but it was not until December that the amendment was ratified by enough states to become part the Constitution. There were some slave owners who hoped they could find a way to come back into the Union and keep their slaves. Even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Union occupation was still required to protect Africans so they could exercise their newly achieved rights; protection was not always adequate.
Freemen in Texas and across the South found that the declaration of freedom was one thing; how it would be lived out on the ground was completely another. Even famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a bit overly optimistic when he wrote in the June 30, 1865, edition of The Liberator:
“Hitherto the returning anniversary of the Fourth of July since the Declaration of Independence was given to the world has been a bitter mockery to the millions held in the galling chains of chattel slavery on our soil and a satire upon all of professions as a free and Christian people. On Tuesday next, for the first time, it will be celebrated with something like a semblance of consistency and in the spirit of universal emancipation.”
In reality, no one seemed to understand what it meant in real and practical ways for former slaves to have absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property—between themselves and former masters—as stipulated in General Order No.3—especially since the order advised freemen to stay at their present homes and work for wages and that idleness would not be tolerated. In Texas alone, at least five different understandings of this new reality existed. Plantation owners, freemen, Union officers and those with economic interests in the southern economy all had different views. General Order No. 3 did not provide a mechanism for how labor contracts were to be established. It implied that everything would go on as before, except freemen were to be paid. It did not leave space for freemen to refuse to work on plantations or seek other employment. In all fairness to Gens. Sheridan and Gordon, Texas was in a state of chaos at the time with little if any government or policing. Yet, the order still demonstrates a myopic view of freedom for Africans.
Some plantation owners flat-out ignored Order No. 3 and threatened former slaves with torture or death for leaving. In other instances, plantation owners were willing to pay freemen but still wanted the same amount of control over their new “employees” as they had when they were slaves, including the right to beat them. Freemen received conflicting reports from Union officials. At times, they were told they were free to go as they pleased. Yet in other instances, where Union officials were more concerned with stabilizing the economy in the South, the need for agriculture labor was paramount. In these instances, freemen were forced to labor for former masters and carry passes when they were not on the plantations.
Africans did not see real change until the Reconstruction efforts led by Radical Republican Congress were implemented, and organizations such as the Freedmen’s Bureau were created. Between 1866 and 1876, Africans were more like African Americans, meaning they were experiencing rights as Americans. Black male suffrage was passed in the former Confederacy, and many former slaves were elected to political office. Hiram Revels of Mississippi was elected to the same Senate seat vacated by Jefferson Davis. Yet even during this period, insurgents and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan harassed African Americans. With the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the emergence of the Jim Crow South, Africans had to fight for the right to even celebrate Juneteenth.
This story should remind us that freedom is not instantaneous. It is for this reason that men such as Frederick Douglass did not end his fight for African equality after the war. It is why a white, evangelical pastor such as Albert Barnes was convinced that only through the ballot box could Africans protect their freedom.
Today we celebrate the advances that have been made, but is important to be mindful that it was a long, hard road. Just as the Declaration of Independence declared freedom, it did not guarantee it. Order No. 3 only declared freedom for Africans. It was just the beginning, as Africans struggled to become part of the imagined community of the United States of America. Former slaves had to fight from being seen as Africans to African Americans.
If you would like to know more about this period in American history, see the resource guided provided by the Charles & Gloria Jones Library staff at LBC | Capital: libguides.lbc.edu/Juneteenth.
(Dr. Mark Draper is Director of Library Services and a faculty member at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School. He earn his PhD in Historical Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he where he was Jonathan Edwards Fellow, along with two master’s degrees from Drexel University and Biblical Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in history from Temple University. His research interests include the history of evangelicalism and 18th and 19th century evangelical social reformers and theologians such as Edwards, John Wesley and Gilbert Haven.)