WASHINGTON, June 19, 2014 – The American Civil War devastated the United States, but in April of 1865, only days before Easter, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate forces at Appomattox, in Virginia. On June 18, 1865, over two months after this historic event, U. S. Army General Gordon Granger marched 2,000 Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas to secure the state and oversee procedures for the emancipation of the slaves.
On June 19, 1865, while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Granger read the basic contents of “General Order No. 3” that essentially represented the practical fulfillment of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth is a celebration of this day. Unfortunately, there is limited knowledge of this holiday, yet it is also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day. However, it is a holiday that deserves a more substantial place in America’s history. Although known primarily as a day of celebration for the emancipation of the slaves, it should be is a day to celebrate everyone’s freedom – not just for black Americans, but for all Americans. In actuality, it would have been highly unlikely that in 1865, white Texans would have joined in singing, dancing, and feasting with former slaves. Nevertheless, because of thousands of white men and boys who died fighting during the Civil War, slavery ended in the United States.
Today in America, there is still a pervasive resentment from this divisive time: from descendants of former slaves toward the descendants of former slave owners, and from those descendants of former slave owners toward the descendants of former abolitionists and the yankee army that broke the Old South, and from many who absorb the poison of resentment and bitterness as a sponge would absorb liquid. Nevertheless, because of thousands upon thousands of white men and boys who shed their blood during the Civil War, the slaves were emancipated and waited no longer to receive their freedom. Today this fact is obscured by such resentment and racialist mentality.
In reality, over 620,000 men and boys died during the American Civil War, and the majority of those who died were white men and boys who fought against a Confederacy that would have preferred to retain the institution of slavery and the entrenched white aristocracy and their structure of power that had existed from before the birth of the U.S. This is the time in which the roots of racism in North America were grown. Unfortunately, many who learn U.S. history have essentially been taught that slavery existed in within the U.S. for ‘hundreds’ of years, but that would be a fallacy. James Fort was created in the colony of Virginia in the summer of 1607, and slavery was introduced in Jamestown about eight years later.
The institution of African slavery existed in North America from 1615 until the time of Emancipation Day in 1865. However, over 160 years of that period was under British rule. In his Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s words serve as a point of reference for how long slavery existed in the U.S. when he stated: “Fore score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal…” By 1863, slavery had existed in the U.S.A. for 87 years. The Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court provoked Lincoln to get back into politics in Illinois, and to speak out against slavery as morally wrong.
Lincoln’s view of slavery was one of the reasons he put together his Proclamation of Emancipation. As early as mid-1862, Lincoln became intent on freeing the slaves, but he knew that there was no way to legally do so because the Dred Scott decision determined there was not really anything substantial in the Constitution that specifically prohibited slavery. It is one of the reasons that Lincoln felt the need to view the Constitution in light of the Declaration of Independence, the original vision of the Founders. Lincoln believed that winning the war was linked to the abolition of slavery.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation was essentially an executive orderthat had the authority of the Constitution only as long as the Union was engaged in conflict with the Southern States. Lincoln understood that his Proclamation of Emancipation was essentially meaningless when the Civil War came to an endbecause it would have been quite ironic if the Union prevailed in the war and had only the Proclamation in place as it would have meant that hundreds of thousands of men and boys would have died in the war without accomplishing much more than ripping the nation apart.
Unfortunately, the Civil War did slash at the very foundation the Union, yet even the war did not end slavery. Lincoln realized he needed to accomplish much more than proclaim the emancipation of the slaves via an executive order because it could not really free many slaves. However, his resolve to truly emancipate the slaves became refined. Ending slavery required the dead serious will and determined actions of an extremely focused president and Congress to set in motion the political and governmental machinery to ensure that slavery was finally made to be unconstitutional in the U.S.A.
Sadly, Abraham Lincoln never saw his efforts come to fruition as he also gave his life to reaffirm the foundations of the United States. In the end, Lincoln’s determination helped to push the Congress to approve the legislation for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and finally it got out to the states for eventual ratification. In reality, when all the smoke had cleared and the dust had settled after the Civil War, the U.S. came just a bit closer to the dream of many of the founding fathers. Although Lincoln would not see the results, he must have sensed that the very survival of a government intent on such high ideals could ensure eventual freedom for all people.
Lofty ideals are quite hard to live up to and hard to live by. This is not a hard concept to understand intellectually, but it is a hard concept to actualize. The taste of freedom was a long time in coming as the true cost of freedom comes quite high, and more often than not it comes only after that price is fully paid. This incredible victory over slavery was powerful. Unfortunately, by June 19, 1865, the slaves were realizing their future freedom, but America was realizing its future without President Lincoln.
On that day, for those former slaves in Galveston, for the people who had been in bondage for their entire lives, all of their previous suffering became history as people who were once owned as property were told they were free by the U.S. Army. Former slaves, despite the shock and disbelief would not have needed any political discourse to instruct them on the significance of their liberation. The freshness of freedom on that day in Galveston demanded immediate response. The freed slaves in Galveston who realized they were free didn’t need permission from their former masters, could freely dance and sing.
Genuine expressions of joy and jubilation overwhelmed those present, and it is reported that they sang and danced with joy. In such a precious moment of realized liberation and freedom, celebration suspended practical considerations of the legal fine points and all logistical implications. It is logical to assume that the blacks in Galveston did not need a history lesson to instruct them on the fundamental change that had just occurred in the United States of America. Yet, this part of American history is difficult to come to grips with as it involves emotions that are even revived today.
The true focus on U.S. history in this time should be on the victory over slavery when white as well as black soldiers from the Army of the Republic defeated a Confederate Army that was absolutely intent on defending the institution of slavery at the cost of death. Unfortunately, most people focus in on the problems caused by the enslavement of human beings. Freedom Day deserves a more substantial place in the nation’s history. It should be a day in which all Americans should celebrate their freedom. It should be a day in which all Americans could reflect once again on the nation’s true origins.
President Lincoln understood that America had been founded as a nation dedicated to freedom; but the existence and toleration of slavery meant that the ideals of the Founders had yet to be fulfilled. The Founders had only managed to create the foundation for the Land of the Free; they had managed to plant the seeds for freedom to grow and mature. So it is that each generation of Americans are challenged to tend to the further development of the Land of the Free. It is the continual challenge of a nation conceived in Liberty to continue to develop and further such ideals or lose recognition of their value.