Recalling Enslaved People’s Struggles as Juneteenth Declared a Holiday

civilian role in emancipation explored in light of new federal holiday

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

June 19 is now a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On that day in 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce Lee’s surrender to Grant. Enslaved people played a vital role.

Broken shackles and hands
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified on December 6, 1865. Photo By shutting / Shutterstock

Although Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it would be another two and a half years before the enslaved people in the seceding state of Texas would be able to truly celebrate their freedom. The Confederacy rejected the Proclamation and continued to practice slavery until General Robert E. Lee surrendered and the Union Army arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to enforce the outcome of the Civil War. “Juneteenth,” as it’s known, is now a federal holiday.

In the first half of a two-part series commemorating emancipation and the Juneteenth holiday, Wondrium Daily looked at some of the steps the Union took to free enslaved people, from Lincoln drafting the Emancipation Proclamation to soldiers enforcing abolition throughout the South.

However, enslaved people played a major role in this transition as well, waging their own kind of war from within the Confederacy. In his video series America’s Long Struggle against Slavery, Dr. Richard Bell, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, explained the unrest in the slaveholding states.

An Uprising of the Enslaved

While history books and grade school lessons often attribute emancipation solely to Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the truth is that enslaved people had mounted attacks on slavery in the Confederate states ever since the war began.

“Over four long years, 400,000 slaves would abandon their Confederate masters and strike out for Union camps,” Dr. Bell said. “One married couple even risked suffocation by having friends pack them in rice casks to be shipped closer to the Union line, while an enslaved ship pilot named Robert Smalls actually commandeered a Confederate steamer to deliver himself and his family to the protection of Lincoln’s Navy.”

By the end of the war, one in eight slaves had deserted. What about the other seven? They were often too far to make a run for it, even with the Underground Railroad, so they fought from the South. These 3 million plantation slaves helped others escape, became spies for the Union, and even turned on their owners.

“They sabotaged cotton production, which was the key to the Confederacy’s economic viability, by feigning ignorance and illness, by destroying tools, by standing idle and refusing to work, and by resisting instruction and punishment,” Dr. Bell said.

And the longer the war waged, the more emboldened many slaves became. According to Dr. Bell, three enslaved people on an Alabama plantation threatened their overseer with death if he punished them for any reason; in Mississippi, slaves on a plantation lashed the son of their absent master 500 times before shooting him to death. One slaveowner in Louisiana claimed to have heard three of his slaves “plotting to kill every white man in the region,” Dr. Bell said, before “marching up the river to meet Mr. Lincoln.”

Rebellion Takes Its Toll

The enslaved people who rose up against their oppressors eventually caused enough concern to warrant action from the very top of the Confederacy. The May 1862 revolt on a plantation owned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which Dr. Bell said ended in the destruction of Davis’s mansion and cotton crop, surely caught their attention.

“Each of these daily mutinies undermined the Confederate war effort, forcing the southern war machine to exempt thousands of white men from military service in order to set them to work trying to suppress these domestic insurrections,” Dr. Bell said. “In effect, enslaved people’s resistance forced the Confederate States of America to fight on two battlefronts simultaneously.”

Therefore, slaves helped to destroy slavery in many parts of the Confederacy before the Union Army ever arrived. Dr. Bell said that Union General John Logan acknowledged this to his recruits even before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. General Logan said that if the war went on long enough, there would be no slaves left for the Union to free.

“So it’s time to rethink the commonly held view that the scratch of Lincoln’s pen on the Emancipation Proclamation was the signal event in this nation’s struggle against slavery,” Dr. Bell said. “On the contrary, slavery died on the ground and it died a thousand deaths, a fact formally and finally commemorated by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in December 1865.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily