Image: An early celebration of Emancipation Day (Juneteenth) in 1900.
Juneteenth is celebrated every June 19, memorializing that date in 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, stating that all previously enslaved people in that defeated Confederate state were free, completing the freeing of slaves in America. Unfortunately, that’s only partially true.
Going back to 1860, it’s estimated that four million souls lived in bondage in America. Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, eleven states formally seceded from the Union, primarily to perpetuate the horrific institution of slavery. But four other slave-holding states, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri technically remained in the Union. Usually referred to as “Border States,” these states, from the time of Lincoln’s election, initially elected pro-slavery, pro-secession governments. Those governments were gradually run out, either by pro-Union legislators or Union armed forces. Thus, Border States remained in the Union, but as slave states.
Early in the war, at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia, slaves escaping forced labor for the rebel army escaped to the Union lines. The Union Army had no idea how to handle them. As masses of escaping slaves flowed into Union lines, a logistical and jurisdictional problem existed. Some officers were returning slaves to their masters, while others were using them as laborers, and still other “Jayhawker” officers, militant abolitionists, sent the fugitives north to freedom. At that time, the term “contraband” meant illegally smuggled goods or confiscated property. The Army decided that technically, the escaped slaves were “property,” contraband confiscated from the rebels.
That August, Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which declared that any property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated as contraband by Union forces. At Fort Monroe, Union General Butler initially did not pay the refugee slaves for work they did. Then, on September 25, 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issued a directive to give “persons of color, commonly known as contrabands” naval installations pay at the rate of $10 per month and a full day’s rations. Three weeks later the Union Army followed, paying male “contrabands” at Fort Monroe $8 a month and females $4. In March 1862, the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves forbade returning any escaped slaves to their Confederate masters or to their military. This meant that all Black refugees in Union encampments were essentially free. Formal emancipation had finally begun.
Also in March 1862, Lincoln proposed a plan of gradual emancipation for the Border States, offering to compensate slaveholders who freed their slaves. At that time early in the war, he did not want the Border States to again try to join the Confederacy. When the Congressional delegations for the Border States turned down his compensation offer, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. He then signed the famous Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation never uses the word “contraband,” fully freeing all enslaved people in states and parts of states that were still in open rebellion. The Proclamation actually allowed slavery to continue in the four Border States and in places occupied by the Union such as Tennessee, West Virginia, and parts of Virginia and Louisiana. Lincoln specifically stated that the Proclamation was issued “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” but it did not free slaves everywhere.
As we approach another Juneteenth, what happened to the remaining slaves in the South and in the Border States? After the Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and the occupation of the South in the summer of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery became part of the Constitution in December 1865. Earlier, in October 1864, the pro-Union Maryland legislature officially abolished slavery. In Missouri, in January 1865, a pro-Union state convention and Governor approved an ordinance abolishing slavery. But Delaware’s General Assembly refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, calling it an illegal extension of federal powers over the states. Only in December 1865, when the 13th Amendment went into effect nationally did slavery finally end in Delaware.
In Union-occupied Kentucky, the Legislature considered a conditional ratification of the 13th Amendment, denying freed and enslaved Blacks any constitutional rights, requiring them to leave the state within ten years. At the fall of the Confederacy, slaveholders in Kentucky continued to enslave people through 1865. Long after abolition became part of the Constitution, the 13th Amendment was finally ratified in Kentucky in 1976.
Although June 19, Juneteenth, was when General Granger announced the end of slavery in Texas in 1865, Texas did not formally ratify the 13th Amendment until February 1870. The state of Mississippi only ratified the 13th Amendment in March 1991, finally certifying that act in February 2013. As Lincoln wrote in the Emancipation Proclamation, “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Happy Juneteenth to all…