Monday, May 11, 2020

General Weitzel and his "Elephant" - the Backstory of Juneteenth



In 1851, an abolitionist newspaper in Boston looked forward to the day when the United States could designate a date on the calendar to mark the end of slavery.  At the time, the British West Indies’ holiday of “Emancipation Day,” on August 1st, was widely celebrated in the United States.  But what would you call the American holiday when the day finally arrived?

We call the Fourth of July Independence, and the First of August, Emancipation day.  What shall we call that good which is coming? What shall we call the day that shall see the slaves of America freed?  By what name shall we honor it?  How set it apart in the calendar? . . . The Jubilee? Liberator’s Day? – Freedom’s Day? What?[i]

The author of that question suggested “Slave’s Day,” as a reminder of what was overcome.  But time, history and tradition has provided an alternate, more euphonious title – “Juneteenth.”  Other American “Emancipation Day” dates have come and gone, while Juneteenth has become better known and more widely observed.[ii] 

The American holiday of “Juneteenth” commemorates the end of slavery in the American Civil War.  Falling on June 19th, it celebrates the anniversary of the day in 1865 when General Gordon Granger read his General Order No. 3, finally establishing Union military control in the Confederate state of Texas, two and a half months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  It was not (as the holiday is frequently described) the day that “news” of surrender was delivered; news of Lee’s surrender had appeared in Galveston’s newspapers nearly two months earlier, no later than April 22, 1865.

The name of the holiday is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” omitting the long “i” in “nine” and compressing  three “n’s” into one, as the date may have been commonly spoken, or heard as spoken by people in Texas, where the word was coined and the holiday first celebrated.  An early reference to the holiday (by that name) in 1891 referred to it as the “Juneteenth siliibration.”[iii]

Although the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1869 brought an end to major hostilities of the Civil War, not all of the states in the Confederacy were under Federal control, especially in the more remote areas of the Deep South.  And Texas, they feared, might pose a continuing threat.

Then there are left Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.  All of these can be held by the Union troops until there is a movement in the right direction – all but Texas, which, from present appearances, will be made the rendezvous of the fugitive leaders and such of their followers as may choose a life of brigandage.

The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 3, 1865, page 2.

There were also fears that elements of the Confederate army might withdraw to Mexico, from which they could launch attacks, perhaps with the support of Maximillian I, the French-backed “Emperor” of Mexico, installed by Emperor Napoleon III in 1863.  Cinco de Mayo is perhaps the most familiar vestige of the French adventure in Mexico, celebrating an early Mexican victory over the French in 1862.  The French had landed in Mexico in December of 1861 and would, and would not leave until 1867, with the restoration of a republican government in Mexico and execution of the “Emperor” Maximillian in June of 1867.

”Napoleon III, crossing the American Continent on his Mexican Mule,” Harper’s Weekly, Volume 7, Number 323, March 7, 1863, page 160.

But in June of 1865, an invasion from Mexico into Texas was still a real possibility.  Establishing Union military control in Texas and along the border was still necessary to ensure a complete a final and lasting military victory.  It was not an irrational fear.  John Wilkes Booth, for example, assassinated President Lincoln in an effort to reignite the cause of the Confederacy.  It didn’t work in Maryland or Virginia, but without firmly establishing Federal control in Texas, the realities of the situation suggested it could.

Texas was the last state to submit to Union military control, two and a half months after President Lincoln toured the fallen Confederate Capital of Richmond, Virginia, two months and ten days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and two months and five days after President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s theater.

Immediately after entering Galveston, General Granger began issuing General Orders to establish a framework of military occupation and control over civil matters, including finally putting an end to slavery in the state.  Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had declared slaves in rebellious states free more than two years earlier, the order could not be enforced without Federal control. 

On June 19, 1869, after more than two years of waiting, the occupying Union forces finally fulfilled the promise of emancipation.  Granger’s General Order No. 3 read in part:

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.

The events of June 19th were made even more meaningful for people in Texas because, in a delicious bit of irony, a significant portion of the occupying Union forces were black soldiers, many of whom presumably had themselves been held in slavery a few years earlier.  


Galveston, Texas, June 20, 1865. – Galveston is now occupied by colored troops, constituting a provost guard for the enforcement of law and order.  General Granger left this morning for Houston with a sufficient force to occupy the city and protect the citizens in the vicinity.

The transports, laden with part of Weitzel’s corps, arrived several days ago, but were unable to cross the bar on account of the high sea that had been rolled up by a strong southeast wind.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 8, 1865, page 2.

Many of the black soldiers under General Godfrey Weitzel’s command had witnessed other significant moments at the close of the war; some were in Richmond with Weitzel when he escorted Abraham Lincoln during the closing days of the war, and others were with Weitzel at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.  Some of them had even participated in a brief mutiny before departing for Texas.  They were forgiven, as their actions were understandable under the circumstances.

The Norfolk Mutiny. – A letter from Norfolk explains the late mutiny among the Second regiment of colored troops.  It states that certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops, and that they would be kept there for five years, and these absurd statements were believed by the blacks.  When they were subsequently told by Gen. Graham that they had been deceived, and that they had been ordered to Texas as soldiers, they went back on board the vessel.  Thus ended the mutiny.

Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania), June 24, 1865, page 2.

That brief summary understates the excitement and drama of the event, even if it properly captures its quick resolution and limited operational significance.  During the mutiny, soldiers loaded their weapons and drew their swords before being disarmed without shots being fired.  Later arrivals, including four companies of the First United States Colored Cavalry, were disarmed as a precaution, apparently without knowing that they were walking into the aftermath of a mutiny.  It was a bitter blow to soldiers who had helped win the war to end slavery and were on their way to Texas to secure that victory.  Tears flowed.



They were formed in line, single file, and one by one stepped forward and laid down their arms.  They deeply felt their disgrace; every sable face was distorted with pain as they unbuckled their accoutrements and laid down carbine and saber.  Some ground their teeth in silent mortification, and tears rolled down the cheeks of others as they stepped in front of their fellows to lay down the honorable badges of their profession.  Company by company they were marched down the beach and deprived of their arms.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 1865, page 1.

The “mutiny” appears to have been resolved quickly, and the misunderstanding cleared, as the ships sailed on time and there was no further discussion of the event in the papers.

Ironically, for someone who commanded two divisions of black troops enforcing the end of slavery during the Texas campaign of June 1865, General Weitzel had been depicted three years earlier in a political cartoon which today is sometimes characterized (perhaps unfairly) as one of the “most racist political cartoons” ever drawn.[iv] 

The cartoon was a graphic illustration of the archaic, race-neutral idiom, “to be like the man who won an elephant won at the raffle,” a forerunner of the now-familiar idiom, “white elephant,” meaning something for which the cost of maintenance outweighs its value.[v]  The expression was used regularly during the war to describe anyone, regardless of race, who occupied or took any possession, occupation of possession of which might be expected to cost more than the value of taking it. 

For example, during the days following South Carolina’s secession from the Union, before any other states left and before the formation of the Confederacy, South Carolina reminded a northern reporter of “the man who won the elephant in a raffle.  They have jumped out of the Union, and now that they are out, they don’t know what to do with themselves.”[vi] 

And in the early days of the Union occupation of New Orleans, for example, Southern newspapers, believing that the approaches to New Orleans were still under secure Confederate control, suggested that taking the city put Admiral Farragut in “the predicament of the man who won the elephant in the raffle, and did not know what to do with his prize.”[vii] 

Similarly, Captain Semmes of the Confederate warship Alabama was left with an unwieldy burden after capturing one of Commodore Vanderbilt’s United States mail ships, the Ariel carrying 850 passengers and the U. S. Mail between New York and Panama, on their way to California.  “The thing that seemed to trouble him [(Captain Semmes)] most, was the impossibility of his burning Vanderbilt’s ship, which he could not do on account of the passengers.  The fact is, he had won an elephant in a raffle.”[viii] 

And at the end of the war, shortly after Generals Granger and Weitzel established civil control in Texas, and the United States had starting the task of absorbing the Confederacy back into the Union and restoring and repairing the ravages of war, a southern newspaper posed the question, “Yank has won the elephant; what will he do with it?”[ix]

Nevertheless, to modern readers unfamiliar with the idiom and the context in which it was used, the image of General Weitzel with his own proverbial “elephant” may seem shocking.


The political cartoon bears the caption, “The Man Who Won the Elephant at the Raffle,” with the date January 1863 penciled in across the hip of the elephant’s shabby, patched working man’s overalls.  An officer sits astride the elephant’s neck, in the position of a Mahout, while the elephant’s human face with African features casts a worried look down toward General Weitzel in the foreground.  Weitzel faces the reader, his palms upraised, wondering, “But what am I to do with the creature.”  The small-print adds, “See Gen. Weitzel’s Report to Gen. Butler, on capturing several hundred wagon-loads of N[-words].

Other than the casual use of the N-word, little else about the cartoon is particularly racist.  The face is generally realistic, not a grotesque, minstrel-like caricature like many cartoons of the period.  And the elephant is intended to represent the proverbial elephant won in a raffle, not literally elephantine or other animalistic qualities associated with anyone.  And in any case, the events that inspired the cartoon resulted in freedom and paid wages for thousands of people previously held in slavery, the creation and training of new regiments of black troops – all before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect; which may, in retrospect, overshadow any racist overtones perceived in the cartoon.

Three years before entering Texas with General Granger to establish Union control over the affairs of government, Godfrey Weitzel gained experience doing precisely the same thing in Louisiana.  The circumstances were different though, as New Orleans had to be conquered by force.  The Navy did most of the damage, clearing the sea lanes and river approaches into New Orleans.  General Butler followed, leading an army of 5,000 men into the city, including his Chief Engineer, then-Lieutenant Wetzel, who had finished second in his class at West Point.

General Godfrey Weitzel, Library of Congress, LC-B813-6804 X [P&P].


After pacifying New Orleans to the extent that the “enemy had ceased to threaten New Orleans and its outposts,” General Butler sent General Weitzel on a mission “to extend the area of conquest by reannexing the Lafourche district to the United States.”  In the last week of October, 1862, Weitzel took “a brigade of infantry, with the requisite artillery, and a body of cavalry” on a “series of rapid marches, one spirited action, and a number of minor combats” which “placed him complete and permanent possession of the country in four days.”[x]  The “1st Regiment Native Guards (colored),” under the command of Colonel Stafford, joined him on the expedition, taking and holding roads and railroads.[xi]


During the campaign, the enemy, who were apparently trying to send their slave “property” to Texas where they would be out of Union control, abandoned 400 wagon loads of enslaved people at Berwick’s Bay as the Union gunboats came into sight.  Like the man who won an elephant at the raffle, he didn’t have the resources on hand to take care of the thousands of people seeking refuge with his brigade.  He described in a letter which made its way into the newspapers.  His question about how to handle the situation was later paraphrased in the “Elephant in the Raffle” cartoon.

Gen. Weitzel and the Negroes.

Headquarters Reserve Brigade, In Camp, Near Thibodeaux, La., Nov. 1. 1862.

Major: Since my last dispatch I have received information that the enemy has evacuated Berwick’s Bay, and in such a hurry (as our gunboats were in sight) that they left over 400 wagon loads of negroes behind at Brasheur City.  To substantiate this report, the negroes are already returning.  Now, what shall I do with them?

I have already twice as many negroes in and around my camp as I have soldiers within.
I cannot feed them; as a consequence, they must feed themselves.

The New York Times, November 19, 1862, page 1.

In the end, however, the refugees were not as much of a burden as initially feared.  He found that they were good foragers, and since the refugees were not constrained by military discipline, they were free to roam the countryside, trading food and goods.

The private soldiers are strictly forbidden to leave the ranks to snatch up unconsidered trifles, like fowls, pigs, sheep and the like; but the negro, for the first time in his life, finds himself “better than the whites,” and levies his contributions at will.  Negroes, from all along the route, come flocking to the lines with such credentials in their hands.  If the black has not attached himself to any man in the brigade, he will answer your demand to sell by saying, “I does not want to sell ‘em – I want to go along – and I give ‘em.”  They are generally received under such circumstances, for two reasons – one is no man has a right to say to them nay, and the other that their game is quite palatable.

The New York Daily Herald, November 17, 1862, page 8.

“A Negro Regiment in Action.” The day after Weitzel’s excursion through the Bayou Lafourche, and hundreds of miles upstream, a regiment of Kansas volunteers became the first Union black troops to engage in direct combat with Confederate forces, during the Skirmish at Island Mound, in Bates County, Missouri, on October 29, 1862, which was depicted in Harper’s Weekly several months later. Harper’s Weekly, Volume 7, Number 324, March 14, 1863, page 168.
 
Surprisingly, perhaps, the African-American First Regiment Native Guards who saw action with Weitzel’s brigade in October 1862 were not the first black soldiers in New Orleans.  Before Admiral Farragut sailed up the Mississippi, a regiment of “free colored men” trained to fight with the Confederacy; at least one of them had also seen action in the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson decades earlier.

There was a review of troops in New Orleans on the 8th inst. A correspondent of the Mobile Register makes mention of a noticeable feature of it, as follows:

One of the most noticeable features in the review of the eighth, was the appearance of a large regiment composed of free colored men, and partly officered by men of their own color.  They are well armed, clad in substantial uniforms, seemed to be admirably drilled, and altogether made a very creditable appearance.  Among them was the company of the old veteran Jordan, the drummer of the Chalmette, who stepped as proudly as if again marching to victory under the command of the lion-hearted Jackson.  This regiment had their places in the line of march of the Division, and I did not observe that any individious distinction was made between them and others.

Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo, New York), February 15, 1862, page 2.

Many members of the “colored” regiments who saw action during Weitzel’s excursion through Bayou Lafourche had earlier been members of the free black Confederate units.  When questioned by General Butler about why they joined the Confederate cause, they responded that they “had not dared to refuse,” and that “they had hoped, by serving the Confederates, to advance a little nearer to equality with whites; that they longed to throw the weight of their class into the scale of the union.”[xii]

The former Confederate regiment became the First Regiment Native Guard, while the Second and Third Regiments were primarily made up of formerly enslaved men.[xiii]

After the battle, many of the refugees attached to Weitzel’s column took jobs for wages, ten dollars a month, working for “loyal” plantation owners, or on plantations seized from rebel owners and operated by the United States government.  Changes in military or political control over the plantations notwithstanding, the livestock and crops still needed to be tended and harvested, the economy kept alive, and the occupying forces and civilian population clothed and fed. 

The plan apparently worked better than some predicted. General Butler described the success of the operation in a private letter to President Lincoln.  Spoiler alert – free, motivated workers are more productive than enslaved, unmotivated workers.

“Our experiment,” wrote the general, November 28th, 1862, “in attempting the cultivation of sugar by free labor, I am happy to report, is succeeding admirably.  I am informed by the government agent who has charge, that upon one of the plantations, where sugar is being made by the negroes who had escaped therefrom into our lines, and have been sent back under wages, that with the same negroes and the same machinery, by free labor, a hogshead and a half more of sugar has been made in a day than was ever before made in the same time on the plantation under slave labor.”

James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862, New York, Mason Bros., 1864, page 525.

Weitzel was an early skeptic of arming and training the black recruits, at least in Louisiana, where he feared their presence would provoke “servile insurrection” of the formerly enslaved against the vastly out-numbered white population[xiv]  But General Butler set him straight, pointing out the obvious.

You say that since the arrival of the negro regiment you have seen symptoms of a servile insurrection.  But, as the only regiment that arrived there got there as soon as your own command, of course the appearance of such symptoms is since their arrival.

Have you not mistaken the cause?  Is it the arrival of a negro regiment, or is it the arrival of United States troops, carrying by the act of congress freedom to this servile race?  Did you expect to march into that country, drained, as you say it is, by conscription of all its able-bodied white men, without leaving the negroes free to show symptoms of servile insurrection?  Does not this state of things arise from the very fact of war itself?  You are in a country where now the negroes outnumber the whites ten to one, and these whites are in rebellion against the government, or in terror seeking its protection.  Upon reflection, can you doubt that the same state of things would have arisen without the presence of a colored regiment?  Did you not see symptoms of the same things upon the plantations here upon our arrival, although under much less favorable circumstances for revolt. . . .

In the mean time, these colored regiments of free men, raised by the authority of the president, and approved by him as the commander-in-chief of the army, must be commanded by the officers of the army of the United States, like any other regiment.

James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862, New York, Mason Bros., 1864, pages 520-521.

“Teaching the Negro Recruits the Use of the Minie Rifle,” Harper’s Weekly, Volume 7, Number 324, March 14, 1863.


Although Weitzel worried about “servile insurrection” of the local black population against the whites, he didn’t expect insurrection among his own white troops.  In early 1863, two white Captains and two white Lieutenants of the Thirteenth Maine were arrested and court-martialed for refusing to take part in a detail in which white Lieutenants would face the daunting prospect of having to salute a black Captain of the Native Guard.[xv]

Shortly afterward, all three regiments of the Native Guard would face combat.  Two companies of the Second Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard mounted a successful raid into East Pascagoula on April 9, 1863.[xvi]  Their commanding officer, Colonel Naham W. Daniels, described the raid in a letter to Brigadier-General Sherman, then in command of the defense of New Orleans.

The expedition was a perfect success, accomplishing all that was intended, resulting in the repulse of the enemy in every engagement with great loss. . . . Great credit is due to the troops engaged for their unflinching bravery and steadiness under this their first fire, exchanging volley after volley with the coolness of veterans, and for their determined tenacity in maintaining their position, and taking advantage of every success that their courage and valor gave them . . . . – all demonstrating to its fullest extent that the oppression which they have hitherto undergone from the hands of their foes, and the obloquy that had been showered upon them by those who should have been friends, had not extinguished their manhood or suppressed their bravery, and that they had still a hand to wield the sword and a heart to vitalize its blow.

George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1888, page 223.

And the First and Third Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard saw fierce combat at the Siege of Port Hudson, making six charges in a failed attempt to breach the Rebel defenses. The New York Times described the scene.

Newspaper illustration of the Union infantry attacks on the fortifications of Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1863, captioned "A fierce Assault on Port Hudson". Digital image from the National Archives.[xvii]

The deeds of heroism performed by these colored men were such as the proudest white men might emulate.  Their colors are torn to pieces by shot, and literally bespattered by blood and brains.  The color-sergeant of the First Louisiana, on being mortally wounded, hugged the colors to his breast, when a struggle ensued between the two color-corporals on each side of him as to who should have the honor of bearing the sacred standard, and during this generous contention one was seriously wounded.  One black lieutenant actually mounted the enemy’s works three or four times, and in one charge the assaulting party came within fifty paces of them. 

George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1888, page 219 (quoting from The New York Times).

It took more than a month for Union forces finally take the fortifications, shortly after the fall of Baton Rouge, twenty miles to the south. 

Soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guards in “Parade Rest” formation at Port Hudson. Digital Image from the National Archives.[xviii]

Years later, General Weitzel would take command of the Twenty-fifth Army Corps, with 30,000 soldiers, nearly all of them African-American.  They were the first Union soldiers to occupy Richmond, and General Weitzel accompanied President Lincoln during his tour of the former Confederate capital in the waning days of the war, less than a week before Appomattox and less than two weeks before his assassination.

Before the spring campaign of 1865, Major-general Weitzel addressed his troops.

Headquarters Twenty-fifth Army Corps, Army of the James, In the Field, Virginia, February 20, 1865.

In view of the circumstances under which this corps was raised and filled, the peculiar claims of its individual members upon the justice and fair dealing of the prejudiced, and the regularity of the conduct of the troops, which deserve those equal rights that have been hitherto denied the majority, the commanding general has been induced to adopt the Square as the distinctive badge of the Twenty-fifth Corps. . . .

 Soldiers, to you is a chance in this spring campaign of making this badge immortal.  Let history record that on the banks of the James River thirty thousand freemen not only gained their own liberty, but shattered the prejudice of the world, and gave to the land of their birth peach, union, and glory.

– Godfrey Weitzel, Major-general Commanding.

George Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1888, page 341.

Four months later, nearly to the day, Weitzel and the Twenty-fifth were in Texas to enforce their hard-earned victory, beginning on June 19, 1865 – “Juneteenth.”


Emancipation Day

Today, despite its local roots in southern Texas, Juneteenth is celebrated across the country and worldwide as the “African American Emancipation Day.”[xix]  Long before Juneteenth became the most commonly celebrated “Emancipation Day” in the United States, however, several other dates vied for the honor.

August 1st

Great Britain abolished the importation of slaves into its colonies with the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and finally abolished the institution of slavery throughout the British West Indies with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which went into effect on August 1, 1834.  Emancipation under the act took place in stages, with many people converted from slave to “apprentice” in 1834, and most people released from the apprenticeships in 1838, with some having to wait until 1840.

The great emancipation day for slaves, August 1st, passed off quietly at Kingston [Jamaica].  The churches were crowded, and the negroes, with but few exceptions, behaved themselves in an orderly manner, though advised to excesses, it is alleged, by the incendiary whites.  Among the fetes, are enumerated spectacles, bonfires, bull processions, &c.

The Baltimore Sun (Maryland), September 3, 1838, page 2.

Although the act had no effect in the United States, people throughout the United States celebrated August 1st as “Emancipation Day,” in sympathy with the West Indies, and in the hope that the United States would someday have its own “Emancipation Day.”  Reports of such celebrations appear as early as the first full-emancipation day in 1838, when Baltimoreans, in the slave-holding state of Maryland, were said to have planned a parade – which the authorities hoped to shut down.

The Baltimore American judging from various paragraphs in the Jamaica papers says, there is evidently an apprehension that the 1st day of August, the Emancipation-day, will not be suffered to pass over without some commotion.  This fear is increased by the proceedings of an association styling themselves the “Friends of Freedom,” who are desirous of celebrating the 1st of August by a public parade.  The Governor, however, through his secretary, gives them to understand that the proposed proceedings would be a violation of the law, and a hope is expressed that the views of the meeting would not be carried out.

The Standard (London, England), August 21, 1838, page 3.

Without an Emancipation Day of their own, people throughout the United States celebrated August 1st “Emancipation Day” for many decades, a tradition that continued for many decades after emancipation and the end of the Civil War.  Emancipation brought with it several additional dates with competing claims to the title of “Emancipation Day.”


Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation spawned two widely observed “Emancipation Day” holidays; September 22nd, the anniversary of the date of issuing the Proclamation in 1862, and January 1st, the anniversary of its provisions going into effect on New Year’s Day of 1863.


Regional Celebrations

August 4th is the traditional “Emancipation Day” throughout much of Missouri.[xx]  The significance of the date is unknown Some speculate that the date might be the anniversary of the Creek Indians freeing their slaves, or simply an imitation of the 4th of July, one month later, perhaps because it was near the traditional British West Indies Emancipation Day of August 1st.  Records of that date, as Emancipation Day, date to at least as early as 1879.[xxi]  By 1885, cities and towns throughout Missouri (and in some nearby states) observed August 4 as Emancipation Day.  Observance of the day has mostly fallen by the wayside, but it survives in Boonville, Missouri, where it has been celebrated for at least 135 years.[xxii]

In Tennessee, “Emancipation Day” was traditionally celebrated on August 8.  The significance of the date is uncertain, although the best guess seems to be that it is the date on which the Tennessee Military Governor, Andrew Johnson (who would succeed Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1865) freed his own slaves in 1863.  Although the celebration has “waned in significance,” it is still observed in several places along the Tennessee-Kentucky border [xxiii]

In Washington DC, “Emancipation Day” is still celebrated on April 16, the anniversary of the day in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Act for the District of Columbia.

“Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people, in Washington, April 19, 1866” (the celebration was postponed three days due to bad weather), Harper’s Weekly, Volume 10, Number 489, May 12, 1866, page 300 (also available for viewing at the Library of Congress online, Library of Congress Control Number 00651116).


Juneteenth


The first June 19th celebrations in Galveston were held one year after Generals Granger and Weitzel entered Galveston.  But there were reportedly differences of opinion about how best to mark the occasion.  On the one hand, “Yankee negroes” (perhaps referring to “carpet baggers” or United States Army soldiers of occupation, who still in the city) were said to want to make political speeches denouncing the former rebels, while “home negroes,” on the other hand, were said to take a more conciliatory tone, even inviting their “former masters” to the party.

[T]he freedmen are to have a grand turn out and barbecue, on the 19th inst., in remembrance of their emancipation.  One of the most influential among the freedmen tells me that they have had much trouble and dispute with the Yankee negroes who are here; those latter desire to have the control of matters and to make political speeches on the occasion, to denounce the rebels while in their processions, and offer insult to the Southerners.  He says, however, that our home negroes will not allow anything of the sort; that all white persons are to be invited to the celebration; and especially their former masters; that they all known the Southern man is their friend.

The Galveston Daily News, June 8, 1866, page 2.

The celebration apparently went off peaceably enough, with at least one exception – perhaps one of those “Yankee negroes” they had been warned about a few weeks earlier.

A U. S. colored soldier was arrested by the City Police yesterday, and turned over to Col. Mason, Commanding Post.  He was charged with being riotous and carrying fire arms.

The Galveston Daily News, June 20, 1866, page 3.

United States Army forces were still in Texas two years later when they celebrated June 19th in Houston.  The continued military occupation appears to have been with good reason, when troubles from a dispute earlier in the week threatened to spill over into the June 19th celebration.

In the letter of “Justin,” dated June 18, to the News, I observed the following:

“To-morrow is the anniversary of their (the freedmen’s) emancipation, and if they march unarmed in their processions through the streets all will be well.  But if, as is feared, they should arm themselves and march through the city, trouble is apprehended.” . . .

In the letter of “Occasional” to the Bulletin, dated the 18th, I find the following;
“Nothing but the fear of United States troops prevents the slaughter of many colored men, and active white Unionists in this city.”

The Galveston Daily News, June 21, 1868, page 2.

The trouble started, as troubles often do, at a Saturday night dance.  A black man named George Nobel shot another black man.  George had previously been acquitted of shooting another black man, and most of his peers were “generally . . . hostile to him ever since he voted the conservative ticket” (referring to the Democratic ticket which was opposed “radical reconstruction”).  Marshal Lord placed him under arrest, but instead of putting him in jail, placed him in the custody of other officers in the Recorder’s office. 

The following morning, a crowd of about twelve black men “accosted Marshal Lord,” demanding to know why Nobel wasn’t in jail, and threatening to take matters into their own hands unless he was put in jail.  The crowd surrounded the Marshal, who defended himself with a stick.  In the melee, the Marshall was shot in the head, and in return, two black men were shot, one of whom died.  That’s when things escalated, with whites and blacks assembling large armed posses. 

The negroes dispersed, rang the bell of their church and sent couriers all over the outskirts of the city and in the country to bring in recruits.  The city bell also sounded the alarm, and the [white] citizens flocked in large numbers to the market square.  In the meantime five or six hundred negroes had collected at their church, armed with muskets, shot-guns and pistols, and avowed that they would march down town and either put George in jail or hang him.

The fire department were then armed and sworn in by the Mayor as a special police force, and in less than an hour, there were upwards of a thousand men upon the streets armed with guns and pistols.

The Galveston Daily News, June 16, 1868, page 2.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. 

About ten o’clock, George was taken to the jail, and the negroes being informed of that, expressed themselves satisfied, and soon dispersed.  Hundreds of rumors, however, prevailed, and a strong and well organized force was kept under arms all day and all night.

The Galveston Daily News, June 16, 1868, page 2.

June 19th passed without incident, and at least one city booster suggested that the trouble earlier in the week had been exaggerated.

Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that in the midst of all this terrible excitement our city was never quieter and less excited than it has been since last Monday. . . .  The truth is, the so-called Houston riot has been exaggerated by far too much, and it is time it was stopped.

The Galveston Daily News, June 21, 1868, page 2   

The tension did not stop the celebration, and “Emancipation Day,” or “Juneteenth,” has been celebrated on June 19th in Texas ever since.  In recent decades, “Juneteenth” has expanded beyond its traditional southwestern regional roots to become the best known, most widely observed “Emancipation Day” in the United States. 

If we had to pick a single day on which to celebrate "Emancipation Day," Juneteenth is a good candidate.  But why impose artificial limitations?  In Springfield, Missouri in 1879, for example, you could celebrate traditional British West Indies Emancipation Day on August 1st, ride out to Walnut Grove for a traditional Missouri Emancipation Day on August 4th, and celebrate Emancipation Proclamation Day back in Springfield on September 22.[xxiv] 

But not everyone was a fan of multiple Emancipation Days.  Black teachers in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1916, for example, “condemned” Juneteenth, advocating instead for celebrating on January 1st

The Shreveport Journal, June 16, 1916, page 3.

The educators of Shreveport seem to have lost that battle, but General Weitzel, his proverbial “elephant at the raffle,” and his troops, black and white, carried the day in Louisiana and Texas; all feats worth remembering on June 19th – “Juneteenth.”  





“The Celebration of Emancipation Day as Witnessed at Tazewell, August 8, by Ben Haynes, Editor of the Progress,” Morristown Republican (Morristown, Tennessee), August 18, 1894, page 3.




[i] The Liberator (Boston), Augsut 8, 1851, page 2.
[ii] In addition to August 1st, “Emancipation Day” was at one time widely observed in the United States on September 22 (the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation) or January 1st (the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect).  Other more local observances included April 16 (the anniversary of the day in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the District of Columbia) and August 8 (a date of obscure significance celebrated in parts of Tennessee and Kentucky).
[iii] The Weekly Banner (Brenham, Texas), June 25, 1891, page 7.
[v]  For more background on the history of the idiom, see my earlier post, “Two-and-a-half Idioms – the History and Etymology of ‘White Elephant’.
[vi] The Delaware Gazette (Delaware, Ohio), February 1, 1861, page 2.
[vii] The Raleigh Register (Raleigh, North Carolina), May 3, 1862, page 2.
[viii] New York Times, December 29, 1862, page 2.
[ix] The Charleston Daily Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), June 24, 1865, page 1.
[x] James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862, New York, Mason Bros., 1864, page 580.
[xi] The Sunday Delta (New Orleans), November 2, 1862, page 1 (“Yesterday Col. Stafford, with the 1st Regiment Native Guards, (colored,) which has been doing guard duty on the Opelousas Railroad for some days, was sent forward to join the forces of Gen. Weitzel, and the 2d Regiment of the same organization was ordered across the river to take the place of the 1st in guarding the railroad and vicinity.”);The New York Times, November 19, 1862, page 1 (Weitzel Letter dated November 1, 1862, “I understood that the Native Guards were to picket the road.  They want to hold Bouile Station, Bayou Des Allemands Bridge, Tigerville, Bayou Lafourche Bridge, Terrebonne Bridge, etc.”).
[xii] James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862, New York, Mason Bros., 1864, page 517.
[xiii] Weekly National Intelligencer (Washington DC), February 26, 1863, page 4; George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1888, page 216.
[xiv] James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans: History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in the Year 1862, New York, Mason Bros., 1864, page 518.
[xv] Weekly National Intelligencer (Washington DC), February 26, 1863, page 4.
[xx] “Emancipation Day Lives on in Boonville,” ColumbiaTribune.com, July 29, 2015. https://www.columbiatribune.com/article/20150729/Lifestyle/307299951
[xxi] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 2, 1879, page 2.
[xxii] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 5, 1885, page 5 (details on Emancipation Day celebrations in Sedalia, Farmington, and Boonville, Missouri, Mount Carmel, Illinois, and Wichita, Kansas).
[xxiii] “The Eighth of August: Emancipation Day in Tennessee,” Skyler Gordon, The Tennessee Historical Society, August 3, 2018. https://tennesseehistory.org/eighth-august-emancipation-day-tennessee/
[xxiv] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 2, 1879, page 2.