Emancipation and Juneteenth Day

There was a lot going on in history on 19 June: Robert Peel started the Bobbies/Peelers in London, the first organized police force in 1828; USS Kearsarge sank the Confederate raider Alabama in the Bay of Biscay in 1864; Maximilian I of Mexico was executed in 1867; the first Father’s Day was observed in Spokane, Washington in 1910; the Marianas Turkey Shoot (also called the battle of the Philippine Sea) destroyed much of the remainder of Japan’s naval aviation in 1944; and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953.

It’s not often that historians can point to a single moment in history and declare: there is where it was all changed, where the fates were fixed.  On 19 June in 1862 and in 1865, such an event occurred, but not for the reasons usually ascribed.  On 19 June 1862, Congress passed a law prohibiting slavery in US territories–not the states, and not everywhere that Federal troops didn’t stand in the Confederacy.: that would come later.

This was landmark legislation because it completely repudiated the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and ended the Southern notion of “popular sovereignty” in the territories being the controlling factor.  Though Lincoln was still on a lawyerly fence about a general emancipation, he was discussing the matter with his cabinet even at this early date.  The Congress’ action on 19 June galvanized and accelerated Lincoln’s thinking. Though the news of the horrible carnage at Shiloh in April had reached Washington and most of the Union by then, it hadn’t sunk in yet to the halls of power or the general public that the river of blood spilled in the Tennessee pine barrens decided that the conflict would not end with two separate countries.  It would, though, soon enough .

Fast forward to 19 June 1865, when Gordon Granger and his XIII Corps landed on Galveston Island.  Lincoln was dead; most of the principle Confederate armies had given up and gone home, but still word of the Emancipation had yet to reach this somewhat remote former Confederate territory.  Granger read General Order #3 almost as soon as he got off the boat:

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 masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

There were a thousand or so slaves in Galveston at the time, and a great celebration ensued.  The next year the anniversary was observed, and has been on 19 June ever since.  The day had been called Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, even though the actual emancipation was 1 January 1863.  But because the commemoration/celebration started on 19 June and the local vernacular “Juneteenth” was catchy, the tradition stuck.

Like most holidays in America, business has grabbed the opportunity, but not as much as other “greeting card” holidays like St. Valentine’s or Grandparent’s Day.  So 19 June didn’t free all the slaves, and it didn’t grant them any more rights than they had before but it did signal the end of chattel slavery in the United States.  And that’s worth taking note of.

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