Jeffery S. Prushankin: The real story behind Juneteenth

On June 2, 1865, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith met with Union General Edmund J. Davis aboard the USS America in Galveston harbor and surrendered the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, the last remaining major Confederate command. Ironically, both men were from St. Augustine, Florida, but each had chosen different paths during the American crisis.  

By June 1865, there were few Confederate commands remaining — Stand Watie’s Cherokees in Indian Territory and the CSS Shenandoah on the high seas remained. Yet, it was Smith’s surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department that finally brought the military conflict of the Civil War to a close. On August 20, 1866, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed an official end to the war.  The legality of slavery, however, was a different matter.

On June 18, 1865, just over two weeks after Smith’s surrender, a large Union occupation force led by General Gordon Granger arrived in the Houston/Galveston area and established a U.S. military presence. The timing of their arrival is consistent with the logistics involved in transporting, supplying, and supporting thousands of soldiers — as well as in converting the military mission from combat operations to occupation & reconstruction.  

The following day, June 19, Granger stood on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and read aloud “General Order No. 3.”  

He announced an end to slavery in Texas under the guidelines established by Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation (issued September 22, 1862 and taking effect January 1, 1863), freeing slaves in Confederate held lands. Black Texans rejoiced at the news that they were now free and celebrations among the approximately 250,000 enslaved Texans ensued across the state. 

At least that is how the popularly accepted version of the story goes. Sometimes, however, the social and cultural history of events does not align with the facts. This is one of those instances.

What is clear is what General Order No. 3 stated: “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.”

Primary source documents indicate, however, that Granger did not read the statement from a balcony and the degree to which he held abolitionist sentiments remains unclear. What is clear is that Union military brass did not trust Granger and that his commanding officer, General Phillip Sheridan, ordered a subordinate to deliver the pronouncement.  

Sheridan wrote most of General Order No. 3, and upon receipt of the directive, Granger directed one of his staff officers, F.W. Emery (a dedicated abolitionist), to edit the decree. The result was the June 19 Proclamation that provides the foundation for the Juneteenth holiday. 

As Biblical as the popular narrative may appear, Granger did not deliver the liberation of Texas slaves from his balcony pulpit. That is myth, not history. In fact, he instructed U.S. soldiers in his command to distribute the order and to post handbills in public places including churches.  

Moreover, Texas slaves were not shocked by the announcement of their freedom. A network of communication between slave communities existed and flourished both prior to and during the Civil War. Slaves in Texas knew of the Emancipation and knew that the presence of the Union army meant they were free. Granger’s General Order No. 3 was a mere formality. It was the presence of federal troops that made it a reality. 

Former enslaved Texans did rejoice and in 1866 helped organize the first celebration of “Juneteenth.” Within years, the Texas Supreme Court gave June 19 the status of a legal holiday, but celebrations waned with the imposition of Jim Crow laws. In 1980, Texas codified Juneteenth as a state holiday. By 2008, nearly half of the states in the U.S. observed the occasion. By 2014, forty-three of the fifty states recognized Juneteenth as ceremonial holiday, and in June 2021, the United States officially designated Juneteenth a national holiday.

It is historically significant to note that slavery in the United States ended officially with passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. By that time, most Border States (slave states that stayed in the Union during the war) had outlawed slavery, but several thousand people remained enslaved in some of those states. The 13th Amendment freed them. 

Juneteenth clearly has a long and important history.  It is not a contrived holiday, but it is to some degree, it is history misunderstood.

Jeffery S. Prushankin holds a Masters in History from Villanova University and a Doctorate in History from the University of Arkansas. He taught U.S. History at Penn State Abington and Millersville University. Prushankin currently works at Central Bucks South High School.

One thought on “Jeffery S. Prushankin: The real story behind Juneteenth”

  1. Did the Texans actually call it Juneteenth in 1866? I thought they called it Freedom Day.
    Contrived means deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously. We both agree this holiday was not contrived. The Biden Administration is extremely political and ridiculous… but I still agree it was not contrived. Thank you for your article. Can you do one on Villanova and their new policy of specific songs played before sporting events? I’d like to hear your take on their perspective and decisions.
    We do perhaps disagree that these are sensitive topics that require pussyfooting and being “politically correct.” If you are going to be an historian, be brave.

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