Juneteenth Now a Federal Holiday, Celebrating Emancipation

union role in emancipation examined in first half of two-part special feature

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Enslaved people in Texas finally obtained their freedom June 19, 1865. The date became the holiday “Juneteenth,” the oldest commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. How did the Union help achieve that goal?

Union Army soldiers
The abolitionist movement of the 19th century reached its peak with the advent of the Civil War, followed by the subsequent 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by A. J. Russell / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In Texas’s Declaration of Secession, dated January 28, 1861, the state specifically cited “Negro slavery” as having “established the strongest ties between [Texas] and the other slaveholding States of the Confederacy.” The Declaration also complained that “non-slaveholding States” sought to destroy slaveholding states and decried the “debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color.”

However, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, and informed the public that the Civil War had ended and that one of the reasons they were there was to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This date, known as “Juneteenth,” is now an officially recognized federal holiday.

Slavery and the Civil War overlapped often, with many states’ Ordinances of Secession listing the former as cause for seceding from the Union. In his video series America’s Long Struggle against Slavery, Dr. Richard Bell, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, filled in the space between Texas’s secession and Juneteenth.

In the first half of this two-part series on Juneteenth, Wondrium Daily looks at the Union government and its military and some of the largest parts they played in emancipation.

Three Years to Galveston

“Throughout 1862, a coalition of antislavery activists and politicians lobbied the ever-cautious Lincoln relentlessly about [the destruction of slavery], demanding that he make emancipation a target of the Union war effort,” Dr. Bell said.

Chief among them was Frederick Douglass. While emancipation may not have been chief on Abraham Lincoln’s mind when the Confederacy seceded, eventually Lincoln took the abolitionists’ cause to heart.

“On July 22, 1862, five days after signing the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln presented his cabinet with a draft of what became known as the Emancipation Proclamation,” Dr. Bell said. “In that first draft, Lincoln boldly asserted that the war powers clause of the United States Constitution allowed him to circumvent the Fifth Amendment, and strip disloyal rebels of their property of slaves in order to save the Union.”

Two months later, on September 22 of that year, Lincoln made his plan public. He warned rebels that if they failed to lay down arms by the end of the year, he would declare slavery abolished in all rebel states. Unsurprisingly, they rejected his ultimatum. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, committing the Union army to “recognize and maintain” the freedom of all survivors of Confederate slavery.

Little happened immediately. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t declare freedom for the enslaved people living in Union border states, nor did it apply to Confederacy territory under Union control such as New Orleans. However, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that going forward, any new Confederate territory captured by the Union would officially be free soil.

The Road to Juneteenth

“The destruction of slavery within the United States would now seem to depend on the advances made by the Union Army,” Dr. Bell said. “At Vicksburg in Mississippi on July 4, 1863, a Union victory succeeded in dividing the Confederacy in two and turned over control of the entire Mississippi River to the Union Navy.

“Within 18 months, General Sherman would lead his famous rampage through Georgia, bringing ‘the breath of emancipation’ to that region of the Confederate heartland.”

Before long, Union troops occupied Charleston. On April 2, 1865, they captured the Confederate capitol of Richmond. One week later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the steps of a courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Union troops spread throughout the American South to enforce its outcome, including the fateful ride into Galveston on June 19 of that year.

However, these landmark events from 1862 to 1865 only detail one side of the story. In the Confederate states, some enslaved people fought against their own captivity while others escaped. The second half of Wondrium Daily‘s two-part look at Juneteenth, which will publish June 22, examines their struggles.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily