Juneteenth and the Emancipation Proclamation

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Provided by Prince William Public Libraries | Written by Mary Kitiyakara, Senior Librarian/RELIC Manager

Juneteenth is a celebration that marks the anniversary of the Union troops entering Galveston, Texas, the last of the Confederate-held territories, to free the enslaved people under General Order 3 on June 19, 1865.

However, it did not mark the end of slavery in the United States; the Emancipation Proclamation had limitations, but it paved the way for the 13th Amendment to be ratified that same year.

Emancipation Proclamation

The country was entering its third year of war since it began in South Carolina at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam was a significant victory for the Union army and President Lincoln because it gave him the opportunity to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. This document was seen as a military strategy targeting the Confederacy’s economy and military strength, which depended on slave labor to maintain the plantations while everyone was at war and as soldiers to strengthen their military.

Knowing this, President Lincoln issued a final version on Jan. 1, 1863, signing into law the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that states “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom” (NARA, Record Group 11 General Records of the United States).

The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states that seceded from the United States, with the exception of Confederate states under Union control and loyal border states of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. However, despite its limitations, it allowed for the newly freed men to join the military: “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”

On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General’s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. This order designated all African American regiments as United States Colored Troops (NARA, Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office).

June 19, 1865 – Galveston, Texas

On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended with the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, but as for the enslaved people, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states under Confederate Army control. It took time after the war for the troops to reach Texas under the command of Major General Granger to issue General Order 3 on June 19, 1865, which stated, “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor” (NARA, Record Group 393 Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands 1817–1947).

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution

On Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, and it states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Although the Amendment legally ended slavery, it allowed for slavery and involuntary servitude to be administered as a prison sentence, which led to a new form of enslavement for those unjustly imprisoned.

On the positive side, these laws allowed for freedom, education, citizenship, voting rights, and independence for freedmen and women to achieve accomplishments that would not otherwise be possible.

Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the beginning of the end of slavery and the positive milestones that came as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Please click the hyperlinks below to learn more about these events and view the primary source documents in the National Archives online.

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