Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Juneteenth, A Flag day Celebration

Hari Jones, Curator
African American Civil War Museum 

Juneteenth, a Flag Day Celebration

Juneteenth commemorates the news on June 19, 1865, that slaves in Texas were free. The general order, read on the steps of Ashton Villa at 2328 Broadway in Galveston, came almost three years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.

Houston Chronicle Friday, June 15, 2012

I like that Juneteenth falls near Flag Day for Juneteenth is truly a patriotic day if it is celebrated for the historically correct reason.  If you are celebrating Juneteenth because you believe that the news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not get to Texas until June 19, 1865, you have been co-opted by the wrong reason.  A close examination of historical events in Texas with particular attention given to the voices of African Americans who lived in Texas during the Civil War is required to get to the historical roots of the celebration.  Such an examination of facts demonstrates that the news of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was certainly in Texas in 1862, that the news of the final Emancipation was certainly in Texas in 1863 and that Juneteenth is worth celebrating for a more uplifting and patriotic reason.

In Texas, one of the earliest Union bombardments was the bombardment of Galveston in September 1861, the first year of the war. (Harper’s Weekly, September 7, 1862, “Bombardment of Galveston”)  At eighty six years old Jacob Branch remembered the bombardment, “One morning Eleck and I git up at crack of dawn to milk.  All at once come a shock what shook the earth.  De big fish jump clean out de bay and turtles and alligators run out deir ponds.  Dey plumb ruint Galveston!  Us runned to de house and all de dishes and things done jump out de shelf.  Dat de first bombardment of Galveston.”  (“Jacob Branch”, Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives, edited by Norman R. Yetman, page 41) Early in the war, African Americans in Texas like Jacob Branch felt the effects of the War of the Rebellion.

According to the 1860 U. S. Census, Galveston was the largest city in Texas with a population of 7,207 of which 1,200 were enslaved.

Residents of African descent in Galveston were introduced to Union forces in person a year after the first bombardment.   Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright, commanding the Navy gunboat Harriet Lane, took possession of the largest city in Texas and raised the Stars and Stripes over the old U.S. Customs House on October 4, 1862.  Three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry arrived there on December 25, 1862 (A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion compiled by Frederick Dyer, page 792).
The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been issued three months earlier on September 22, 1862. In this proclamation, Abraham Lincoln warned the Rebel states that he would declare free their slaves if they did not cease their rebellion by January 1, 1863.  There was great anticipation of Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation wherever the Union held territory in the Rebel states.  Though the enslaved eagerly waited for the Day of Jubilee, an impending Rebel attack led by Confederate General John McGruder tempered the anticipation of those around Galveston.


In the early morning of January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Rebel forces under McGruder recaptured Galveston.  Disappointed by the Union’s departure, enslaved freedom seekers in the Houston and Galveston area sought other means of emancipation.  Jacob Branch reported, “After the war starts lots of slaves runned off to join the Yankees.  All dem in dis part heads for the Rio Grande river.  De Mexicans rig up flatboats out in the middle of de river, tied to stakes with rope.  When the cullud [African descent] people gets to de rope de can pull deyself ‘cross de rest of de way on dem boats.  De white folks rode de ‘Merican [American] side dat river all de time, but plenty slaves git through anyway”  (“Jacob Branch”, Yetman page 41).  Accordingly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and Galveston was recaptured, enslaved persons in Texas emancipated themselves by escaping and joining the Yankees.

 Harriet Lane.           Rebel Gun-boats.               Owasco.           Westfield being blown up.     Mary Boardman.


In early 1863, Union military strategy demanded that efforts be focused on the control of the Mississippi River and therefore the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Three months after the Union captured Vicksburg and seven months after the Rebels had recaptured Galveston, the Union turned its attention back to Texas capturing the Gulf Coast of Texas from Brownsville to Indianola in the fall of 1863.  (Harper’s Weekly, November 28, 1863, “The Texas Expedition”, December 12, 1863, “The Texas Campaign” and January 16, 1864, “Texas”)  Henry Lewis an enslaved person residing near Liberty reported that he heard Union guns near the Sabine Pass.  The 1st Corps d’Afrique (later redesignated the 95th USCT) participated in the Sabine Pass Expedition in September 1863. (Dyer, page 2117)  Five African American regiments joined General Nathaniel Banks on his Texas Expedition in the fall of 1863. (Dyer, pages 2117 -2121)  By late November 1863, the Union Army with African descent soldiers brought the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas long before June19, 1865.  Enslaved persons certainly knew about their declared emancipation before their proclamation was enforced in June.  Lewis reported, “When de War come on I seed soldiers every day.  Dey have de camp in Liberty and I watches dem.  I heard the guns, too, maybe at Sabine Pass, but I didn’t see no actual fightin’.   Dey sent the papers down on March fifth, I done heard, but dey didn’t turn us loose den.  Dis is the last state to turn the slaves free.  When dey didn’t let dem go in March, de Yankee soldiers come in June and make dem let us go.” (“Henry Lewis”, Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives, edited by Norman R. Yetman, page 206)  The story of the Yankee soldiers of African and European descent “making” slaveholders free their slaves is the story of Juneteenth that is worth celebrating.

On April 3, 1865, the 25th Army Corps comprised of exclusively United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, captured Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.   After the capture of the Rebel capital, the Army of Northern Virginia was is full retreat.  In the early morning of April 9, 1865, a brigade of African descent soldiers of the 25th Army Corps led by the 41st USCT skirmished with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia south and west of a small Virginia town called Appomattox Court House.  After a five-hour skirmish, Lee decided he could no longer continue to prosecute the war.  Later that day he surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia because that is where Union soldiers of African descent stopped his army.  Thirteen USCT regiments witnessed Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.  The war was over in the minds of most soldiers, but most of the Rebel states did not surrender immediately; therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation still had to be enforced.  By the end of May 1865 all but one had surrendered.  The Confederate government in Texas still refused to submit to Federal authority.  The Rebel governor Pendleton Murrah hoped to make Texas the seat of the new Confederacy, but the Lone Star State had become the priority of Union efforts.
From November 1863 to May 1865, seven United States Colored Troops regiments were among the Union troops on occupation duty along the Gulf Coast of Texas.  The occupation troops in Texas needed reinforcements in order to completely suppress the rebellion there.  On May 22, 1865, the then famed 25th Army Corps received embarkation orders.  Thomas Morris Chester, an African American war correspondent, wrote:  “That the negro corps, under General Weitzel, has received marching orders is well known throughout their camps, and they are beginning to put on the war-paint with the impression that they are going to Texas.  They look forward to the period of embarkation with a great deal of satisfaction.”   (Thomas Morris Chester, Black Correspondent: His Dispatches from the Virginia Front edited by R.J.M. Blackett, page 353)  By June 13, 1865, nine regiments of this famed “Negro Corps” that had captured Richmond were in Texas.
Unable to repulse the Union Army comprised of mostly African descent soldiers, Governor Murrah along with his two top generals, McGruder and Smith, accompanied by 10,000 Rebel troops crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico in the early morning of June 15, 1865. (Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas by Jerry Thompson, page 150)  Chased out of Texas by Yankees soldiers who were largely of African descent, the Rebel government surrendered the Lone Star State in fact to these sable Yankees.  On the next day June 16, 1865, Texas officially surrendered to Federal authority; and the last state in rebellion was finally brought back into the Union.  The Stars and Stripes was returned to the Texas state house that June.  The Union was preserved that June.  That June a victorious Union Army with African American soldiers as standard bearers liberated the enslaved of Texas who were declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Given these facts, Juneteenth is not at its historical roots “when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation got to Texas.”  The news was in Texas in the persons of African descent Yankee soldiers and sailors in 1862 and 1863.  Juneteenth is when such Yankee soldiers and sailors brought Texas back into the Union and freed the enslaved by enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation.  As Henry Lewis reported, “Dis is the last state to turn the slaves free.  When dey didn’t let dem go in March, de Yankee soldiers come in June and make dem let us go.” (“Henry Lewis”, Yetman, page 206)  Throughout Texas the news and most importantly the enforcement of the Proclamation arrived at different times.  Bill Homer of Fort Worth reported, “After surrender, Missy reads de paper and tells we’uns is free, by dat we’uns kin stay till we is adjusted to de change.” (“Bill Homer”, Yetman, page 170)  The change to be adjusted to was brought on by a military victory in which Americans of African descent played an important role. 

If you are celebrating Juneteenth because you believe that June 19, 1865 is the day “when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation got to Texas,” you are celebrating for the wrong reason.  When I celebrate Juneteenth, I am celebrating a military victory over the Texas Rebels that resulted in the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in all the ten states that were in rebellion in 1863 as well as the successful effort to keep the Republic indivisible.  School children in Texas pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes because of the military victory that brought Texas back into the Union.  That’s why I like that Juneteenth falls near Flag Day.

According to the Houston Chronicle, there are 41 states that “recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, and Maryland currently has legislation pending that could make it the 42nd state.”  In each of these states the Juneteenth holiday according to legislation was established because the news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t get to Texas until June 19,1865.  While advancing and getting this false explanation into legislation across the country, the leader of the national campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday believes that this maybe “the year for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday observance in America, like Flag Day and Patriot Day."  Before the nation takes on the expense of another Federal holiday, we should at least get the history correct.  The Federal legislature should not be as careless and loose with the history as 41 state legislatures have been.  Falsehoods embedded in the law are not worth celebrating, but Flag Day and Juneteenth together are worth celebrating.