Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden, with the stroke of a pen, cemented Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the United States. The momentous occasion was long overdue. Modern advocates, including Ralph Abernathy Lula Briggs Galloway, publicly reignited attention to the importance of Juneteenth to honor the lives of Blacks in the United States—enslaved and freed—by nationally commemorating the day. Still, it is a welcome acknowledgment of the atrocities committed by white supremacists in Galveston, Texas, who successfully maintained slavery months after the Civil War officially ended. Black Galvestonians who remained enslaved finally learned of their freedom from the U.S. Army after U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order, Number 3, on June 15, 1865. He stated, “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.”[1] Upon hearing the news, there was genuine shock amongst African Americans in the area who learned that their freedom, civil rights, and the denial of their humanity came over three months after the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. Since the inaugural commemorative event on June 19, 1866, Juneteenth evolved from a localized tradition to a national day of remembrance and celebration that allows people to honor the perseverance of Black people, even in the face of hardships.[2]

Group of African American in outdoor setting
Officers and Directors of Emancipation Park Association, 1909, photograph, 1909. Courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu.

For numerous United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, post-Juneteenth military service in Texas provided a different understanding of freedom. Northern USCT veterans, even those who protected freed Texans, were more likely in the Reconstruction Era to celebrate Emancipation Day or Independence Day whereas Juneteenth received more attention from Texans. To be clear, this piece is in no way attempting to devalue or detract from the horrors that Black Galvestonians’ experienced. Instead, this piece seeks to complicate current discourse about how racial discrimination kept USCT soldiers stationed in Texas from reclaiming their lives as civilians, possibly returning to kin desperate for their return. Thus, it is vital that conversations about the calculated efforts of white Texans to deny the freedom to enslaved people directly coincided with the U.S. Army’s decision to keep USCT regiments in service, to enforce federal policies, which kept them returning to civilian life to numerous soldiers and their kin hoped would occur.

In the months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, returning home was a predominantly white male privilege in both armies. The U.S. War Department rapidly demobilized and mustered out numerous white U.S. Army regiments based on the notion that they earned the right to return home because they served lengthy terms. While this point is true, it also ignores the fact that Black men repeatedly, and sometimes forcefully, had their attempts to enlist denied at the local, state, and national level. Even Confederates Army prisoners of war earned their releases before USCT regiments could muster out of service.[3] Yes, the Civil War was officially over; however, the U.S War Department reasoned that USCT regiments should remain in service. That decision illustrates that the U.S. willingly imposed racially discriminatory policies that prioritized the nation over the men who saved nation. At the same time, federal policy simultaneously allowed many traitors to rejoin, with varying caveats, the nation. While never explicitly stated, Federal officials and War Department needed USCT regiments to accomplish national objectives throughout the immediate postwar.

Throughout Texas, USCT regiments, including the Eighth United States Colored Infantry (USCI), the Twenty-Sixth USCI, and the Forty-Third USCI, had multiple responsibilities to achieve. Their duties included enforcing various U.S. policies that punished ex-Confederates, protect freedpeople as they navigated life outside of bondage, and stayed near the Mexican-U.S. border to deter any potential French invasion led by Napoleon III’s military forces.[4] All of those tasks were extremely important, for differing reasons, to the U.S. For freedpeople in Texas, having many of their liberators and protectors be USCT soldiers was without question a surreal and inspirational site. Military officials felt that various USCT regiments needed to continue serving. Additionally, by the autumn of 1866, Texas saw the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the hopes to provide resources and support for freedpeople.[5] Though, freedpeople still needed the protections of USCT veterans to assert many of the rights awarded by the Freedman’s Bureau.

For numerous USCT soldiers, however, their prolonged time in the military caused many problems for the men on the frontlines and their kin on the home front. Due to inadequate supply lines, some USCT officers hoarded resources, including uncontaminated food and water. The enlisted men continued performing physically demanding work. As a result, many soldiers became severely ill or developed physical disabilities that were life-altering and could sometimes be fatal. Soldiers’ ailments and deaths had horrific consequences for their relatives who were desperate for the men to return home. Conversely, the ailments of kin at home had the potential to cause great concern amongst USCT soldiers. For instance, Etta Watson (the wife of an unnamed New York USCT soldier) expressed her sadness with her husband’s absence, especially once their child became ill. She wrote, “I have sad news for you…little Fay is [sick]….Oh how I wish you could be hear….”[6]

Throughout their military service, many USCT soldiers experienced unexpected financial issues that caused immensely, and in some cases dramatic, problems for the men and their families. Sadly, many USCT soldiers did not receive their monthly payments, usually due to the inefficiency of military paymasters. Some USCT soldiers did not receive their payments for nearly nine months, dating back to their enlistment. Nation-wide Black families suffered as they desperately beseeched the soldiers for their back pay and any federal enlistment bounties. Anne Elizabeth Valentine, for instance, wrote to her spouse, Tillman Valentine, that she eagerly awaited money that he earned while serving in the Third USCI.[7]  Meanwhile, Forty-Third USCI soldier, Henry Carpenter Hoyle, wrote to the Christian Recorder noting that he and his fellow enlisted men struggled on two fronts as they worried about their families on the home front. “There are many down here worrying themselves about home and money. I am well aware what it is to be without money and away from home,” he wrote.[8] Thus, the persistent inability to transfer money home had the potential to exacerbate dire economic living situations for the kin of USCT soldiers.

Some Black soldiers felt that they accomplished the mission of vanquishing the Confederate States of America, which many USCT advocates repeatedly noted during their various enlistment campaigns. Now USCT soldiers pondered why they did not end their service. Northern USCT soldiers had had enough of the soldier’s life and openly requested to have their service ended. At least one soldier, Elijah Reeves, in the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry inquired with Zachariah Chandler, a Republican Michigan senator, why his regiment did not have the chance to return to their kin. “…Peace has again brightened our sky, the pecuniary circumstances of an aged grand mother and several orphan sisters whose sole dependence is on my earning, prompts me to solicit with your influence, my honorable discharge.”[9] Enlisted men, such as Reeves, stationed in various former Confederate states wanted to be home. In short, it was time to return to their civilian life with their kin.

Ultimately, Juneteenth is a complex historical moment that is finally getting the national recognition that it rightly deserves. Though, we must understand that Black people—soldiers and civilians, free and enslaved—experienced the moment(s) very differently. Contextualizing them together not only complicates, but deepens the magnitude of the immediate post-Civil War era for thousands of Black people in the U.S. Both cases reveal that June 1865 took on differing meanings for Black people in and outside of Texas. Thus, by commemorating Juneteenth we not only honor Black Galvestonians, but also the hardships that USCT soldiers and their kin across the United States experienced.

[1] Henry Louis-Gates, “What Is Juneteenth,” Public Broadcast System, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/, accessed on 7/7/2021.

[2] Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth (New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2021), 11-13.

[3] Jeffrey W. McClurken, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of VirginiaPress, 2009), 41.

[4] William Seraile, New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2001), 83-84.

[5] Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Freedwomen and The Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, & Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 18, 40, 47, 50-51.

[6] Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861—1867, Series 2, The Black Military Experience, eds. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 668.

[7] Jonathan W. White, Katie Fisher, and Elizabeth Wall, “The Civil War Letters of Tillman Valentine, Third US Colored Troops,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 139, no. 2 (April 2015): 183-184.

[8] Henry Carpenter Hoyle, “Letter from Brownsville, Texas. Benefit of Colored Soldiers,” Christian Recorder, September 23, 1865.

[9] Elijah Reeves was from Michigan. Freedom, 774-775.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History, Anthropology, & Philosophy at Augusta University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is under contract with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

3 Replies to “Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth”

  1. Very interesting article! It gives much needed perspective to the conversation(s) about Juneteenth. Contributions like yours will hopefully help people appreciate the meaning of the Civil War and the complexity of the concepts of “emancipation” and “freedom.” Anyway, good job.

  2. Dr. Pineiro, you definitely provided a layer of complexity to the discussion of how each and every victory for African Americans in America brings the bitter reality of the depth and breadth of white supremacy, and need to continue to fight for the soul of our nation. Thank you.

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