[This post originally appeared on June 20, 2011.]
Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, drops the hammer on the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and the organization behind it, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJoF). He argues that the narrative used to justify the propose holiday does little to credit African Americans with taking up their own struggle, and instead presents them as passive players in emancipation, waiting on the beneficence of the Union army to do it for them. Further, he presses, the standard Juneteenth narrative carries forward a long-standing, intentional effort to suppress the story of how African Americans, in ways large and small, worked to emancipate themselves, particularly by taking up arms for the Union. He wraps up a stem-winder:
Certainly, informed and knowledgeable people should not celebrate the suppression of their own history. Juneteenth day is a de facto celebration of such suppression. Americans, especially Americans of African descent, should not celebrate when the enslaved were freed by someone else, because that’s not the accurate story. They should celebrate when the enslaved freed themselves, by saving the Union. Such freedmen were heroes, not spectators, and their story is currently being suppressed by the advocates of the Juneteenth national holiday. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves; it made it legal for this disenfranchised, enslaved population to free themselves, while maintaining the supremacy of the Constitution, and preserving the Union. They became the heroes of the Republic. It is as Lincoln said: without the military help of the black freedman, the war against the South could not have been won. That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth telling. The story of how Americans of African descent helped save the Union, and freed themselves. Let’s celebrate the truth, a glorious history, a story of a glorious march to Liberty.
Jones makes a powerful argument, with solid points. But I think he misses something crucial, which is that in Texas, where Juneteenth originated, it’s been a regular celebration since 1866. It is not a modern holiday, established retroactively to commemorate an event in the long past; the celebration of Juneteenth is as old as emancipation itself. It was created and carried on by the freedmen and -women themselves:
Some of the early emancipation festivities were relegated by city authorities to a town’s outskirts; in time, however, black groups collected funds to purchase tracts of land for their celebrations, including Juneteenth. A common name for these sites was Emancipation Park. In Houston, for instance, a deed for a ten-acre site was signed in 1872, and in Austin the Travis County Emancipation Celebration Association acquired land for its Emancipation Park in the early 1900s; the Juneteenth event was later moved to Rosewood Park. In Limestone County the Nineteenth of June Association acquired thirty acres, which has since been reduced to twenty acres by the rising of Lake Mexia. Particular celebrations of Juneteenth have had unique beginnings or aspects. In the state capital Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau and became part of the calendar of public events by 1872. Juneteenth in Limestone County has gathered “thousands” to be with families and friends. At one time 30,000 blacks gathered at Booker T. Washington Park, known more popularly as Comanche Crossing, for the event. One of the most important parts of the Limestone celebration is the recollection of family history, both under slavery and since. Another of the state’s memorable celebrations of Juneteenth occurred in Brenham, where large, racially mixed crowds witness the annual promenade through town. In Beeville, black, white, and brown residents have also joined together to commemorate the day with barbecue, picnics, and other festivities.
It’s one thing to argue with another historian or community leader about the the historical narrative represented by a public celebration (think Columbus Day), but it’s entirely another to — in effect — dismiss the understanding of the day as originally celebrated by the people who actually lived those events, and experienced them at first hand.
What do you think?
h/t Kevin. Image: Juneteenth celebration in Austin, June 19, 1900. PICA 05476, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
The new issue of the Civil War Monitor is now online, and will be appearing in mailboxes and on newsstands shortly. In this issue:
Angels of War. Like the men they saw off to the front, women too felt the pull of patriotism at the outbreak of the Civil War. For many wives, daughters, and sisters—northern and southern, young and old—the most useful way to support country and cause was to volunteer as a nurse.
Closing Act. In the last months of the Civil War, Texas and the Trans-Mississippi of the Confederacy struggled to hang on. By Andrew W. Hall
Death and Life on Belle Isle. An idyllic setting on the James River—where modern Richmonders bike, swim, run, and relax—belies a dark Civil War history. By John M. Coski
Editorial: Angels of War
Salvo: Facts, Figures & Items of Interest
Travels: A Visit to Jackson
Voices: Dog Days
Dossier: Robert E. Lee
Preservation: Saving the Heart of Antietam
Figures: The Rifle Musket
Disunion: Lee Surrendered, But His Lieutenants Kept Fighting
Cost of War: George C. Clapp Letters
In Focus: Richmond in Ruins
Books & Authors:
Voices from the Army of the Potomac, Part 5. By Gary W. Gallagher
The Books That Built Me. By Brian Matthew Jordan
Parting Shot: An Invisible Wound
It’s a real treat to have a feature story appear alongside works by folks like John Coski, Gary Gallagher, and Brian Matthew Jordan. Now would be a good time to subscribe to the Monitor.
One hundred fifty years ago today, June 5, 1865, Federal forces formally took possession of Texas. Captain Benjamin F. Sands, commanding the division of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron stationed off Galveston, boarded a small Union steamer, U.S.S. Cornubia, and entered Galveston harbor, followed by another gunboat, U.S.S. Preston. Sands disembarked with a handful of other officers — but took no armed escort — and was met on the wharf by a Confederate officer. The officer escorted the Union men a few blocks to City Hall (above), where both Sands and the mayor of Galveston addressed a crowd that had gathered there. Both men made assurances of their goodwill and urged the population to go about their business peaceably. Sands told the crowd that he carried a sidearm that day not out of any fear for his own safety but as a sign of respect for the mayor and local officials. Then, along with the mayor, Sands continued on to the old U.S. Customs House, where he “hoisted our flag, which now, at last, was flying over every foot of our territory, this being the closing act of the great rebellion.”
Galveston Historical Foundation welcomes the public to a free Juneteenth lecture and document viewing at Menard Hall, 1605 33rd Street, Saturday, June 13th. The lecture, given by Dr. Deborah L. Mack (right), will begin at 10 am and will describe the mission, vision and goals that have shaped the development of the Washington D.C.’s National African American Museum of History and Culture, a Smithsonian museum. Dr. Mack will also highlight places and stories that will be featured in the inaugural exhibits and programs at the NAAMHC and will share some of the open access strategies for shared information that are presently in development. Reservations are free with RSVP.
“GHF is pleased to bring to Galveston one of the significant individuals involved in the development of this new museum,” states GHF Executive Director, Dwayne Jones. “We feel her introduction to our island’s rich African American history will be help all of us continue to promote and educate visitors and residents about this under-represented story.”
Immediately following the lecture until noon, guests will have the opportunity to view an original print of General Order No. 3. Provided by the Dallas Historical Society. General Order No. 3 was issued by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, the order was an official enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln. It was posted in county courthouses and read aloud by plantation owners across Texas to circulate the news to the state’s 250,000 slaves. The date of the order became an impromptu holiday in the years after 1865. June 19, soon shortened to Juneteenth, was marked by picnics, music festivals, family reunions and political activities. It is the only known copy of the document and the first time it has been exhibited in Galveston.
“We are excited to bring an authentic copy of General Order Number 3 to Galveston where it was once a key piece of the beginnings of Juneteenth,” explains Jones. “We hope everyone gets to see the document and continue to learn about the importance of this event and its legacy in the nation.”
The American Civil War ended one hundred fifty years ago today, at about 5 p.m. local time, when Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith (right) surrendered the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department to U.S. Brigadier General E. J. Davis, aboard U.S.S. Fort Jackson, anchored off the bar at Galveston. The Trans-Mississippi Department, with a nominal strength of 40,000 men or more, had almost entirely dissolved over the previous six weeks. Kirby Smith’s was the last major Confederate command to surrender, although some smaller, isolated units held on for weeks (or months) longer.
On Decoration Day, 1871, Frederick Douglass gave the following address at the monument to the Unknown Dead of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a short speech, but one of the best of its type I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted it before, but it think it’s something worth re-reading and contemplating every Memorial Day.
The Unknown Loyal Dead
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.
Image: Graves of nine unknown Federal soldiers in Pontotoc County, Mississippi. Photo by Flickr user NatalieMaynor, used under Creative Commons license. Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings.
Today, Nathan Bedford Forrest is more popular than ever among the fans of the Confederacy. No doubt that’s because he’s come to represent unyielding defiance, whether in victory or defeat, in the face of the Yankee enemy. More than any other Confederate officer — certainly more than someone like Lee — Forrest is the modern face of the unreconstructed rebel, the pit bull of the Lost Cause.
Unfortunately, that image doesn’t entirely square with reality — at least near the end of the general’s life. From the Galveston Daily News, June 3, 1875:
In Memphis, last week, a number of Federal officers and soldiers participated at the decoration of Confederate graves. As a result, Generals [Gideon Johnston] Pillow and Forrest addressed a letter through the Memphis papers to surviving Confederate soldiers and veterans of 1812, Florida and Mexico, requesting them to participate in the Federal ceremonies on Sunday last [i.e., on Memorial Day]. From this letter the subjoined is extracted:
“However much we differed with them while public enemies, and were at war, we must admit that they fought gallantly for the preservation of the government which we fought to destroy, which is now ours, was that of our fathers, and must be that of our children. Though our love for that government was for a while supplanted by the exasperation springing out of a sense of violated rights and the conflict of battle, yet our love for free government, justly administered, has not perished, and must grow strong in the hearts of brave men who have learned to appreciate the noble qualities of the true soldier.
“Let us all, then, join their comrades who live, in spreading flowers over the graves of these dead Federal soldiers, before the whole American people, as a peace offering to the nation, as a testimonial of our respect for their devotion to duty, and as a tribute from patriots, as we have ever been, to the great Republic, and in honor of the flag against which we fought, and under which they fell, nobly maintaining the honor of that flag. It is our duty to honor the government for which they died, and if called upon, to fight for the flag we could not conquer.”
Forrest offers a lesson that some of his most ardent, present-day fans seem determined to ignore
This post originally appeared at on the Civil War Monitor‘s Front Line blog, May 27, 2012.
One hundred fifty years ago this evening, May 23, 1865, the blockade runner Denbigh ran aground on Bird Key, a few hundred yards off the Bolivar Peninsula, near the entrance to Galveston Bay. The following morning, the stranded runner would be spotted and shelled by the blockaders U.S.S. Cornubia and Princess Royal. Denbigh‘s crew took to their boats and headed for shore; a boarding party from U.S.S. Seminole went aboard the little steamer, gathered up the ship’s papers, and set her ablaze. One of Seminole‘s crew members, Luke Robbins, was killed instantly by the discharge of his own weapon while clambering back into the boarding party’s boat; he was the only casualty of the operation. Robbins may have been under the influence, as two other members of the boarding party were found to be drunk and put in irons upon their return to the Union warship.
In all, Denbigh had made seven round voyages between Havana and Mobile and six between Havana and Galveston, the second-best confirmed record of any runner in the conflict. Years later, William Watson wrote of her:
One of the most successful, and certainly one of the most profitable, steamers that sailed out of Havana to the Confederate States was a somewhat old, and by no means a fast, steamer named the Denbigh. . . . She was small in size, and not high above water, and painted in such a way as not to be readily seen at a distance. She was light on coal, made but little smoke, and depended more upon strategy than speed. She carried large cargoes of cotton, and it was generally allowed that the little Denbigh was a more profitable boat than any of the larger and swifter cracks.
Denbigh had made it successfully in and out of Galveston a half-dozen times before this last attempt, and it’s likely that her fatal grounding happened because the Confederate troops on shore who were responsible for setting out range lights and markers for the runners’ safe navigation had abandoned their posts in the general collapse of the Texas and the Trans-Mississippi Department. The runner Lark did make it into Galveston that same night, but her master noted that the forts he passed guarding the harbor entrance appeared to be abandoned. Lark would endure another disaster the following morning, when hundreds of Confederate soldiers and civilians swarmed the ship at Central Wharf and looted virtually everything that wasn’t nailed down. Lark‘s master made no attempt to load a return cargo; that evening he got under way again, stopped briefly at a nearby wharf to pick up Denbigh‘s crew, and dashed out of the harbor again for Havana, the last blockade runner to clear a Confederate port.
It was almost the end.
 William Watson, The Adventures of a Blockade Runner; or, Trade in Time of War (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893), 287–88.
There’s been a good bit attention recently to the revelation that Ben Affleck, participating in the historical/genealogy show Finding Your Roots, asked the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates, to conceal the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. That segment was subsequently edited out, although Gates has said that decision was made on factors other than Affleck’s request. The credibility of Gates took another hit with his assertion that Ben Affleck’s mother, Chris, had been a Freedom Rider. Chris Affleck has explicitly denied that, saying she had done civil rights work in Mississippi in 1965, but not during the freedom Summer of 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered (as Gates also claimed), nor during the Freedom Rides of 1961. It’s all extremely shoddy, and does not reflect well at all on Gates, who ‘s made a very successful career as a public historian by telling uncomfortable truths about how issues of race are inextricably interleaved in American history. Kevin Levin has a more apt description for what Gates, who is billed as the show’s Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, is up to : “we are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”
Many of you will recall Anderson Cooper’s response on another episode of the same show, when confronted with the news that one of his slaveholding ancestors, Burel Boykin, had been killed by one of his bondsmen: “I don’t feel sorry for him.” Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, Cooper at least gets props for dealing with that revelation directly, rather than trying to keep it from becoming public knowledge.
Cooper’s response got some attention at the time, but there was something else about that segment that was mostly overlooked, something that (to me) further undermines Gates’ scholarship. In the video segment of Cooper’s interview (above, in a video clip uploaded by PBS itself), Gates shows Cooper the 1860 U.S. Census form that records his ancestor’s death. Beginning at about the 20-second mark, the video shows a closeup of the document, starting with the ancestor’s name, and panning to the right to the dramatic notation, “Killed By Negro.” It makes for great teevee, but it’s faked. Here is the original document, and you can see that “Killed By Negro” appears not adjacent to Boykin’s name, but over on the opposite edge of the page. The producers of Finding Your Roots apparently used Photoshop or something similar to move the notation of Boykin’s death across the page, next to his name, as can be seen in these screen caps:
This makes for great viewing, but it’s a dishonest depiction of the actual (and critical) document, and that’s a problem. Although in this case Gates is not misrepresenting the information, he’s absolutely misrepresenting the original document. Doing that calls into question anything he and his producers do with primary source materials, and reflects very poorly on his commitment to accuracy.
Makes you wonder what else he’s shown on that series that’s not entirely real.
Today, Sunday, is the 154th anniversary of Lincoln’s Proclamation 81: Declaring a Blockade of Ports in Rebellious States. As I discuss in the blockade book, this event was one of a series of actions and reactions that expanded the conflict between the national government in Washington and that of the seceded southern states. The blockade order was, most directly, a response to Jefferson Davis’ call on April 17 for privateers to obtain Confederate letters of marque to attack U.S. shipping. Privateering was well understood among Western nations as a war act, and in fact it had been outlawed by the major European powers by the 1856 Paris Declaration, declared the practice to be illegal and amounting to piracy. The United States had not signed that treaty, but nonetheless observed its provisions on privateering and did not issue letters of marque.
One thing I found odd, though, was that Proclamation 81, while given by order of the president, was actually signed by William Seward, the Secretary of State, who had been the administration’s point man on discussing the possibility of a blockade with the European powers. Where is Lincoln’s directive in this?
Then last week Josh Marshall, publisher of Talking Points Memo, did a blog post on the exponential rise in the price of historic documents, along with a discussion of the value of the documents themselves, versus the information contained in them. Among the examples he found online was, sure enough, Lincoln’s written order to Seward to promulgate the blockade decree (above).
It’s interesting to see the real document, which Josh says “is basically the document you could argue began the Civil War.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a notable piece nonetheless, and apparently for sale somewhere with an asking price of $900,000. Not in my budget this month, I’m afraid, but interesting nonetheless.