Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Virginia: Secession in the Defense of the Defense of Slavery

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 25, 2013

Virginia

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In April 2010, the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan penned an essay called, “The New Intolerance.” The piece was subsequently re-blogged by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who posted it under the headline, “Buchanan Exposes Yankee Terrorists.” Buchanan’s essay was part of the kerfuffle over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of Confederate History Month, the text of which was drafted for his office by the SCV, and omitted any mention of slavery at all. McDonnell subsequently reissued a revised proclamation, and in 2011 established a broader statewide commemoration, “Civil War History in Virginia Month.

Buchanan’s essay revolves around the oft-made claim that “Virginia did not secede in defense of slavery.” He continues:

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When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, March 4, 1861, Virginia was still in the Union. Only South Carolina, Georgia and the five Gulf states had seceded and created the Confederate States of America. . . . But, on April 15, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers from the state militias to march south and crush the new Confederacy. Two days later, April 17, Virginia seceded rather than provide soldiers or militia to participate in a war on their brethren. North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas followed Virginia out over the same issue. They would not be a party to a war on their kinfolk.​

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Buchanan doesn’t bother to explain why Mississippi or Texas should be considered to be Virginians’ “kinfolk,” in a way that much closer states — say, Pennsylvania or Ohio, with which Virginia shared a common border in 1861 — were not. Fortunately, those who wrote Virginia’s ordinance of secession said explicitly what they had in common, citing “oppression of the Southern slaveholding States” as part of the justification for its actions:

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The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention, on the 25th day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eight-eight, having declared that the powers granted them under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.
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Virginia was not a fire-eating state that led the way on secession. But when the chips were down, the Commonwealth recognized slaveholding as the common bond that (1) defined the seceded states, (2) held Virginia to South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and those other states that seceded earlier, and (3) was deemed stronger and more vital to Virginia’s interest than its bond to the Union.

Does that count as ” seceding in defense of slavery?” Maybe. But it certainly counts as seceding in the defense of the defense of slavery.

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Image: Virginia regimental flag, via Encyclopedia Virginia.
 

GeneralStarsGray

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Non-Slaveholders’ Stake in Defending the “Peculiar Institution”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on May 4, 2011

Last week we looked at the prevalence of slaveholding in the South in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. While many in the Southron Heritage™ movement will argue that a tiny, tiny fraction of Confederate soldiers owned slaves — two percent, three percent, five percent — the actual proportion of Confederate households that included slaveholders was several times higher, upwards of a third of all free households across the eleven states that formed the Confederacy. Most folks associated with Confederate heritage groups will, it seems, very quickly volunteer that their own ancestors didn’t own any slaves, and thus the protection and expansion of that institution, so explicitly central to the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi and other states, must not have factored into said ancestors’ decision to fight for the South. It’s an appealing argument, but the reality is not nearly so simple as that.

While the beliefs and motivations of specific individuals are always varied — and, after the passage of 150 years, are very often unknown — on the eve of the war there were many who argued that protection of slavery was explicitly in the interest of all Southern whites, not only those who owned slaves. Newspaper editorials, pamphlets, speeches, all called on the white population of the South, slaveholder and non-slaveholder alike, to stand together in defense of their shared interest in protecting slavery, for themselves, for their families, and for their children.

As Civil War blogger Allen Gathman pointed out recently at Seven Score and Ten, the most influential advocate of this idea was James D. B. DeBow (right). DeBow was a former superintendent of the U.S. Census who, in the years prior to the war, published extensive tracts justifying the institution of slavery as an economic and moral good. There was, perhaps, no stronger or widely-read advocate in the defense of slavery, nor one whose writings — thanks to his service with the Census Bureau — carried the sheen of academic authority that DeBow held. In December 1860, on the eve of secession, the same month South Carolina seceded, DeBow published a booklet titled The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder, in which he argued that non-slaveholding whites were every bit as interested in protecting and preserving the institution as the large plantation owners:

The fact being conceded that there is a very large class of persons in the slaveholding States, who have no direct ownership in slaves; it may be well asked, upon what principle a greater antagonism can be presumed between them and their fellow citizens, than exists among the larger class of non-landholders in the free States and the landed interest there? If a conflict of interest exists in one instance, it does in the other, and if patriotism and public spirit are to be measured upon so low a standard, the social fabric at the North is in far greater danger of dissolution titan it is here.

Though I protest against the false and degrading standard, to which Northern orators and statesmen have reduced the measure of patriotism, which is to be expected from a free and enlightened people, and in the name of the non-slaveholders of the South, fling back the insolent charge that they are only bound to their country by its “loaves and fishes,” and would be found derelict in honor and principle and public virtue in proportion as they are needy in circumstances; I think it but easy to show that the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us, is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches in defence of, the slave property of his more favored neighbor.

The non-slaveholders of the South may be classed as either such as desire and are incapable of purchasing slaves, or such as have the means to purchase and do not because of the absence of the motive, preferring to hire or employ cheaper white labor. A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property, does not exist at the South, for all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments to which Yankee controversy has driven our statesmen, popular orators and clergy. Upon the sure testimony of God’s Holy Book, and upon the principles of universal polity, they have defended and justified the institution. The exceptions which embrace recent importations into Virginia, and into some of the Southern cities from the free States of the North, and some of the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas, are too unimportant to affect the truth of the proposition.

Gotta love that last line about “the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas.”

DeBow provides a whole range of arguments and carefully-picked data to buttress his position, and goes on to detail ten separate arguments illustrating why the protection of slavery is as much or more in the interest of the non-slaveholder as it is in the man with large numbers of bondsmen. Debow lays out, point by point, explanation of how the continued existence of African slavery protects each white man’s status as an individual, the welfare of his family, the future wealth of his children, and the prosperity of his state and region:

4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with bis own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him, that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.” No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.

5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use lor savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.

6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders. It is the nature of property to change hands. Luxury, liberality, extravagance, depreciated land, low prices, debt, distribution among children, and continually breaking up estates. All over the new States of the Southwest enormous estates are in the hands of men who began life as overseers, or city clerks, traders and merchants. Often the overseer marries the widow. Cheap lands, abundant harvests, high prices give the poor man soon a negro. His ten bales of cotton bring him another, a second crop increases his purchases, and so he goes on opening land and adding labor until in a few years his draft for $20,000 upon his merchant becomes a marketable commodity.

7. But should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children. More than one generation of poverty in a family is scarcely to be expected at the South, and is against the general experience. – It is more unusual here for poverty or wealth to be preserved through several generations in the same family.

8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South; in industry as well as in politics. Every man’s experience in his own neighborhood will evince this. He has but to task his memory. In this class are the McDuffies, Langdon Cheeves, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clays [sic.], and Rusks, of the past; the Hammonds, Yanceys, Ors, Memmingers, Benjamins, Stephens, Soules, Browns, of Mississippi, Simms, Porters, Magraths, Aikens, Maunsel Whites, and an innumerable host of the present, and what is to be noted, these men have not been made demagogues for that reason, as in other quarters, but are among the most conservative among us. Nowhere else in the world have intelligence and virtue disconnected from ancestral estate, the same opportunities for advancement and nowhere else is their triumph more speedy and signal.

9. Without the institution of slavery the great staple products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results which are distributed among every class of the community and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease. The world furnishes no instances of these products being grown upon a large scale by free labor. The English now acknowledged [sic.] their failure in the East Indies. Brazil, whose slave population nearly equals our own, is the only South American State which has prospered. Cuba, by her slave labor, showers wealth upon old Spain, whilst the British West India Colonies have now ceased to be a source of revenue, and from opulence have been, by emancipation, reduced to beggary. St. Domingo shared the same fate, and the poor whites have been massacred equally with the rich.

One suspects that these arguments convinced a great many white Southerners that, while they might not own slaves now, its was essential to preserve the very fabric of their family and society to protect and defend the “peculiar institution.”

Are you convinced?

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Slavery in Mexico: “nature’s God intended that it should be.”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on March 14, 2011

The Civil War day-by-day blog Seven Score and Ten has another great catch today — they seem to do a lot of that — from the Oxford Mercury [Mississippi] on the significance of Texas’ secession to the prospects for the expansion of the “peculiar institution” into Mexico:

Standing immediately between us and Mexico, her refusal to join us would have retarded the ultimate and inevitable conquest of that country.  But now five years will not have elapsed before at least all the north-western States of Mexico will be States of the Confederacy.  And the conquest of the whole of that country is only a question of time.  The introduction of African slave labor into Mexico is the one thing necessary to make it what nature and nature’s God intended that it should be.

That’s Manifest Destiny, the Slaveholder’s Edition.

But secession was all about tariffs, right?

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The Irresistible Appeal of Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 28, 2010


Photo by
JimmyWayne, via Creative Commons License.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin highlights photos by Robert Pomerenk of an exhibit on “Blacks Who Wore Gray” at the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. The display features an original document, the 1914 pension application for former slave Ephram Roberson — the document explicitly asks for “the number of the regiment. . . in which your owner served” — but is otherwise composed of nothing but printouts of various quotes and well-known photographs of African American men in the field with Confederate troops, or (decades later) participating in reunion activities. At least one of the latter photos is credited to the neoconfederate publication Southern Partisan. The “Chandler Boys” are included, of course, though no one else whose image is displayed in the exhibit is fully identified by name and unit. One old African American man is listed only as “Uncle Lewis,” and others are not identified at all.

In terms of presenting or explaining history, the exhibit is a hopeless mess. Its organization — there actually is no organization or structure to it — is exactly the same as many Black Confederate websites, which amount to nothing more than a hodgepodge of quotes and images, unconnected either to each other or to any larger context, that make reference to African Americans in connection with Confederate troops. Like the typical Black Confederate website, there’s no distinction at all made between men who went to war as slaves and those who might have been free; one wonders if those who compile and present this material before the public have any real sense of the most basic elements of the “peculiar institution.” Several of the men shown in the Old Court House exhibit are explicitly identified as servants; there is no recognition — or at least public acknowledgment — that these men were almost certainly slaves, and had no say in whether they went off to war with their masters or not. There’s virtually no information offered about these men that would allow the visitor to get any sort of understanding of these men’s lives, either in the 1860s or in the early 20th century, as old men. There’s no attempt to flesh out their stories, to understand the details of their experiences either during the war, or after; instead, one is left with random quotes from Nathan Bedford Forrest and paeans “to the faithful slaves, who loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.” These men were soldiers, we’re asked to believe, volunteering and fighting for their homes and way of life, but they are never allowed to speak for themselves — the only ones allowed to speak on their behalf are white, and even then only to praise their loyalty and fidelity to the Confederacy.

This effort does nothing to honor these men as men. It is simply an extension of the time-honored “faithful slave” narrative, updated to make it more palatable to a modern audience. The Old Court House Museum differs from other efforts to push the case for Black Confederates only in that they actually go so far as to describe them explicitly as “faithful slaves.”

This exhibit would do far more to further the case for Black Confederates as a group if it proved the case of even a single man — Ephram Roberson, perhaps — and really provided in-depth coverage and explication of his life and role during the war and after, and proved his case as a soldier. Show us his service records, if such exist. Show us his listing in the census. Show us his property records, if there are any, or his obituary. If he was a slave, did he talk to the WPA in the 1930s? Are there contemporaneous letters or diaries from his fellow soldiers that describe his service? Track down his descendants living today and interview them. That is how history is done, through dogged research and building a case from the ground up.

But none of that is present at the Old Court House. There is no discussion of these mens’ supposed military service in the larger context of the war, no discussion of the actions they each fought in, and — most significantly — no firsthand accounts by white soldiers within those same units of their African American comrades’ service. What the Old Court House exhibit (and a hundred others on the web and in print) does is just the opposite; it takes a dozen or fifty or a hundred different, unconnected and disparate snapshots and claims that they form a larger, coherent picture. They don’t. They’re like items pulled from a dozen different families’ albums, scattered and mixed into a single pile on the floor; they do not, can not, tell anything approaching a single, cohesive story, no matter how many times they’re rearranged, e-mailed or Xeroxed.

I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, which contributes nothing at all to the making the case for Black Confederates. I began my professional career in small, local history museums not unlike this one. I spent six years, starting as an undergrad and continuing after graduation, part- and full-time, researching, writing, designing and setting up exhibits on local history. After that, I spent two years in grad school getting a masters in the field. I’m trained as a museum professional, though I haven’t worked in one for years. So I don’t walk into any museum as a purely blank slate. I even visited the Old Court House Museum once, years ago, although at the time I paid more attention to the steamboat material on display. And while I don’t know much about the specific resources available to the Old Court House — their administration and staff page is blank — I’ve got a good idea of what their situation is like, and it ain’t pretty. Small history museums like the Old Court House often get little or no direct support from local government, apart from in-kind provision of space and utilities; they have minimal paid staff, and cannot afford to hire people with significant experience or training in the field; they get by hand-to-mouth, year after year, trying to squeak by on a few thousand visitors paying a couple of bucks for admission. They are eager to give space to almost any group or person with a new or provocative idea for an exhibit, particularly if it fits well with the museum’s own preferred image of itself and the community it documents. And, as an organization dependent on the good will of the local business community — think of the chamber of commerce crowd — they’re heavily and inevitably influenced by the wishes of a small number of local patrons who may not know the first thing about history, but have very strong ideas about what they do and do not want showcased in their local museum. You’re welcome to make your own speculation who those folks are in Vicksburg.

Vicksburg looms large in the memory of the Civil War; it has been argued that the Vicksburg campaign, which cemented effective Union control of the Mississippi, was the true turning point of the war. But among the moonlight-and-magnolias image the community likes to present to tourists, it’s easy to forget that Vicksburg remains a small, poor town in a small, poor state. Fewer than 25,000 people live there; they are, on the whole, older and less-educated than the rest of the country. The median household income in Vicksburg is a little over half that of the rest of the United States; one in four families live below the poverty level, compared to one in ten nationally. Three-fifths of Vicksburg’s population is African American, a proportion that is exactly the reverse of Mississippi as a whole. Like many cities in the South, it has an ugly postwar history of racial violence and intimidation.

One might assume that the presence of the Vicksburg National Military Park would reinforce the efforts of local museums like the Old Court House; in fact, I think presence of a major Civil War site in town actually (and inadvertently) undermines the efforts of the local museum in developing a strong historical interpretive program of its own, in two ways. First, the national military park is the heavy hitter in terms of history; those in the area who have the educational background or experience are naturally drawn to the park, whether to work as administrators, guides or volunteers. Second, with the National Park Service providing a solid, but conventional, interpretation of the city’s role in the Civil War, the Old Court House Museum would naturally be drawn into serving as an “alternative” museum, presenting material and ideas that, for whatever reason, the NPS won’t touch. That’s where Black Confederates come in.

The idea of Black Confederates has a ready-made appeal. The contribution of African Americans to military service in this country has often been overlooked by both historians and popular culture. On its face, demanding recognition for African American soldiers who fought for the Confederacy sounds not unlike recognizing the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II or the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — both groups of African American soldiers who had to fight bigotry and doubt even to win the chance to prove themselves against the enemy. The notion of the existence of Black Confederates, while seeming contradict everything most people remember from school about the South, the war and the institution of slavery, also carries with it a certain conspiratorial appeal as well — this is the secret that Northern history books don’t want you to know. Who wouldn’t want to get let in on something like that? Recognizing African Americans serving in butternut uniforms seems like the right and just thing to do; conversely, those who express skepticism (or reject the notion outright) are easily portrayed as being motivated by elitism, prejudice or other ulterior motives to keep these mens’ service quiet, as has supposedly been done these last hundred and fifty years. They want to deny African Americans in the South their heritage. The Black Confederate narrative has a strong element of conspiracy about it, attributed to those who reject it, and like all good conspiracy theories this one is self-affirming: of course they deny these men’s existence, just like they always have. But we know better, don’t we?

I don’t know how many subscribers to the narrative of African Americans in the Confederate ranks are genuinely sincere but ill-informed and unable to recognize an historiographical con game when it’s foisted on them, and how many are willfully, cynically, spinning a line of “evidence” that they know to be composed of smoke and mirrors. As I said before, I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, because I know (or think I do) how vulnerable they are to the whims of a few well-heeled patrons, and how poorly-positioned they are to push back. But it’s hard to give them that pass. They may not know better, but they damn surely ought to.

Juneteenth, Historicity and Tradition

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 19, 2010


“Emancipation” by Thomas Nast. Ohio State University.

Juneteenth has come again, and (quite rightly) the Galveston County Daily News, the paper that first published General Granger’s order that forms the basis for the holiday, has again called for the day to be recognized as a national holiday:

Those who are lobbying for a national holiday are not asking for a paid day off. They are asking for a commemorative day, like Flag Day on June 14 or Patriot Day on Sept. 11. All that would take is a presidential proclamation. Both the U.S. House and Senate have endorsed the idea.

Why is a national celebration for an event that occurred in Galveston and originally affected only those in a single state such a good idea?

Because Juneteenth has become a symbol of the end of slavery. No matter how much we may regret the tragedy of slavery and wish it weren’t a part of this nation’s story, it is. Denying the truth about the past is always unwise.

For those who don’t know, Juneteenth started in Galveston. On Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. But the order was meaningless until it could be enforced. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 — after the Confederacy had been defeated and Union troops landed in Galveston — that the slaves in Texas were told they were free.

People all across the country get this story. That’s why Juneteenth celebrations have been growing all across the country. The celebration started in Galveston. But its significance has come to be understood far, far beyond the island, and far beyond Texas.

This is exactly right. Juneteenth is not just of relevance to African Americans or Texans, but for all who ascribe to the values of liberty and civic participation in this country. A victory for civil rights for any group is a victory for us all, and there is none bigger in this nation’s history than that transformation represented by Juneteenth.

But as widespread as Juneteenth celebrations have become — I was pleased and surprised, some years ago, to see Juneteenth celebration flyers pasted up in Minnesota — there’s an awful lot of confusion and misinformation about the specific events here, in Galveston, in June 1865 that gave birth to the holiday. The best published account of the period appears in Edward T. Cotham’s Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston, from which much of what follows is abstracted.


The United States Customs House, Galveston.

On June 5, Captain B. F. Sands entered Galveston harbor with the Union naval vessels Cornubia and Preston. Sands went ashore with a detachment and raised the United States flag over the federal customs house for about half an hour. Sands made a few comments to the largely silent crowd, saying that he saw this event as the closing chapter of the rebellion, and assuring the local citizens that he had only worn a sidearm that day as a gesture of respect for the mayor of the city.


Site of General Granger’s headquarters, southwest corner of 22nd Street and Strand.

A large number of Federal troops came ashore over the next two weeks, including detachments of the 76th Illinois Infantry. Union General Gordon Granger, newly-appointed as military governor for Texas, arrived on June 18, and established his headquarters in Osterman Building (now gone) on the southwest corner of 22nd and Strand. The provost marshal, which acted largely as a military police force, set up in the Customs House. The next day, June 19, a Monday, Granger issued five general orders, establishing his authority over the rest of Texas and laying out the initial priorities of his administration. General Orders Nos. 1 and 2 asserted Granger’s authority over all Federal forces in Texas, and named the key department heads in his administration of the state for various responsibilities. General Order No. 4 voided all actions of the Texas government during the rebellion, and asserted Federal control over all public assets within the state. General Order No. 5 established the Army’s Quartermaster Department as sole authorized buyer for cotton, until such time as Treasury agents could arrive and take over those responsibilities.

It is General Order No. 3, however, that is remembered today. It was short and direct:

Headquarters, District of Texas
Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

General Orders, No. 3

The people 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 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 ro elsewhere.

By order of
Major-General Granger
F. W. Emery, Maj. & A. . G.

What’s less clear is how this order was disseminated. It’s likely that printed copies were put up in public places. It was published on June 21 in the Galveston Daily News, but otherwise it is not known if it was ever given a formal, public and ceremonial reading. Although the symbolic significance of General Order No. 3 cannot be overstated, its main legal purpose was to reaffirm what was well-established and widely known throughout the South, that with the occupation of Federal forces came the emancipation of all slaves within the region now coming under Union control.


The James Moreau Brown residence, now known as Ashton Villa, at 24th & Broadway in Galveston. This site is well-established in local tradition as the site of the original Juneteenth proclamation, although direct evidence is lacking.

Local tradition has long held that General Granger took over James Moreau Brown’s home on Broadway, Ashton Villa, as a residence for himself and his staff. To my knowledge, there is no direct evidence for this. Along with this comes the tradition that the Ashton Villa was also the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was formally read out to the citizenry of Galveston. This belief has prevailed for many years, and is annually reinforced with events commemorating Juneteenth both at the site, and also citing the site. In years past, community groups have even staged “reenactments” of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation from the second-floor balcony, something which must surely strain the limits of reasonable historical conjecture. As far as I know, the property’s operators, the Galveston Historical Foundation, have never taken an official stand on the interpretation that Juneteenth had its actual origins on the site. Although I myself have serious doubts about Ashton Villa having having any direct role in the original Juneteenth, I also appreciate that, as with the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as Titanic sank beneath the waves, arguing against this particular cherished belief is undoubtedly a losing battle.

Assuming that either the Emancipation Proclamation (or alternately, Granger’s brief General Order No. 3) was formally, ceremonially read out to the populace, where did it happen? Charles Waldo Hayes, writing several years after the war, says General Order No. 3 was “issued from [Granger’s] headquarters,” but that sounds like a figurative description rather than a literal one. My bet would not be Ashton Villa, but one of two other sites downtown already mentioned: the Osterman Building, where Granger’s headquarters was located and where the official business of the Federal occupation was done initially, or at the United States Customs House, which was the symbol of Federal property both in Galveston and the state as a whole, and (more important still) was the headquarters of Granger’s provost marshal, Lieutenant Colonel Rankin G. Laughlin of the 94th Illinois Infantry. It’s easy to imagine Lt. Col. Laughlin dragging a crate out onto the sidewalk in front of the Customs House and barking out a brief, and somewhat perfunctory, read-through of all five of the general’s orders in quick succession. No flags, no bands, and probably not much of a crowd to witness the event. My personal suspicion is that, were we to travel back to June 1865 and witness the origin of this most remarkable and uniquely-American holiday, we’d find ourselves very disappointed in how the actual events played out at the time.

Maybe the Ashton Villa tradition is preferable, after all.

General Order No. 3

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on June 19, 2010

Happy Juneteenth, everybody.