Tag Archives: Curtis Harris

Juneteenth: The Emancipation of Texas Slaves

By Curtis Harris

As a nation we can celebrate January 1, 1863, as the day Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect and declared freedom for 3.5 million of America’s slaves held in rebellious areas. December 6, 1865 is an occasion worthy of celebration, too. That is the day Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment thereby making this measure of abolition a part of our Constitution. These twin federal death knells for slavery are only part of the story, though. Emancipation had been an ongoing process in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Pennsylvania passed its Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 while the Revolutionary War was still raging. Under the Articles of Confederation, slavery was banned from the Northwest Territory. New York celebrated the final emancipation of slaves within its borders on July 4, 1827. During the Civil War, Missouri and Maryland abolished slavery via state action.

In Texas, the celebration of emancipation takes place on June 19th.

Far removed from most of the major action of the Civil War, Texas and its population were little affected by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the war. In a curious coincidence, one of the few pitched battles of the war in Texas took place on January 1, 1863.

While Abraham Lincoln was signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the prized port of Galveston was the scene of a desperate engagement in the war. The day ended with rebel victory thus ending federal occupation of the city that had been ongoing since October of 1862.

However, with the surrender of the major rebel armies in the eastern theaters of the war in the spring of 1865, federal forces once again landed in Galveston and finally re-established constitutional authority in the Lone Star State on June 18th, 1865.

The next day, Major-General Gordon Granger stepped out on the balcony of the Ashton Villa, a home that served as the headquarters for the rebel army in the region during the war, and read General Orders No. 3:

Gordon Granger

Major-General Gordon Granger, Library of Congress (1860s)

“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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Ever since this momentous declaration, June 19th has been celebrated as Emancipation Day in Texas with the unique and distinctive moniker of “Juneteenth”.

Along with readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth, like any good summer holiday, also serves as a time for barbecue and a day spent with friends and family. Dancing, singing, poetry recitations and even beauty pageants are held as the day has grown into a wider celebration of black culture in Texas. After over a century of observance by the state’s black population, the Texas legislature officially made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979 and remains one of the many reminders of emancipation and freedom in the United States.

Mr. Harris is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Decorating Our Fallen Soldiers: Memorial Day Past and Present

President Lincoln often walked among the graves of the first National Cemetery, just steps from the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.

By Curtis Harris

Today, Memorial Day often has a festive atmosphere. It serves as the unofficial kickoff for summer and vacation season as Americans enjoy barbecues and picnics. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Memorial Day held a solemn place in the public mind.

Around 625,000 Americans perished in the Civil War which almost equals the total number of dead from all of America’s other wars combined. Nearly every American lost a loved one in this conflict, and certainly knew someone who had, whether they were from the North or South, native-born or immigrant, white or black. To cope with this incredible loss, communities across the North began decorating the graves of their loved ones with flowers.

By 1868, this ritual was so widespread that General John Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union war veterans, proclaimed that May 30 should be the official observance across the Union for decorating the graves of soldiers. This Decoration Day, as it was then called, is the genesis of our Memorial Day.

In Southern states, the outpouring of grief was just as pervasive as both former slaves and Confederates carried out the practice of decorating graves from the war dead. In the former Confederacy, formalized decoration days normally occurred in late April or May.

By 1920, sectional reconciliation had occurred and the 30th of May was nationally recognized as Decoration Day, although, currently 9 states still observe some form of Confederate Memorial/Heroes Day. After World War II, “Memorial Day” became the preferred term for Decoration Day and in 1968 Congress officially moved the observance of the day from the fixed date of May 30th that was proclaimed by General Logan to simply the last Monday in May.

This measure symbolically linked Memorial Day not just with its Civil War beginnings but with all American wars. The day now honored all service members who had died in combat. It’s a reminder that Americans have sacrificed for each other before, during and after the Civil War and will continue to do so.

On this Memorial Day, the Armed Forces Retirement Home and President Lincoln’s Cottage will honor these persons with wreath laying ceremonies and tours of the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery.

The 1st wreath laying ceremony will occur at 11:15am at the Soldiers’ Home and a 2nd ceremony will take place at the cemetery at 12:15pm. Tours of the cemetery will take place at 11:30am and 1:30pm and are free of charge. Reservations are not required but are appreciated. Regularly scheduled Cottage Tours will also be available at the normal price of $15 for adults, $5 for children (ages 6-12), and $12.50 for active duty military. Advance purchase for Cottage Tour tickets is strongly recommended and the only way to guarantee a spot on a tour. Please visit our website to purchase tickets: www.lincolncottage.org.

Be sure to bring a picnic lunch to relax and enjoy the beautiful grounds on the south lawn of the Cottage!

Mr. Harris is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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