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Granger’s Juneteenth Orders and the Limiting of Freedom

To what extent did the Union general's famous orders actually liberate the enslaved in Texas?

Juneteenth is recognized as the symbolic end of slavery in the United States. Galveston, Texas, held out as a Confederate stronghold after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Once occupied by Union forces, Major General Gordon Granger established his headquarters for the District of Texas on the island on June 18, 1865, and set to work establishing control over the state’s interior. The next day he issued orders asserting that emancipation applied to the area. A closer look at those orders and the ones he issued immediately thereafter, however, reveal that Granger complicity approved of a limited definition of freedom.

The by-now commonly known first section of Granger’s General Orders Number 3 read:

“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.”

From the outset, and with the benefit of hindsight, we see a glimpse of the expectation that slaves would remain on their former plantations. Knowing what we do now about the establishment of sharecropping to take the place of slavery, we can already see the foundation being established that little would change for some of Texas’s Black population, except their compensation. Granger continued:

“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.”

Almost from the moment Union soldiers entered the southern states in 1861, the enslaved population sought them out as a means to freedom. Union military authorities and the Lincoln administration grappled with the issue of “what shall be done with the slave?” Morality aside, the solution popularly evolved from confiscation as a military necessity to outright emancipation. Despite their various attitudes on slavery itself, many Union commanders nonetheless did not want to also have to now manage the large contraband camps that sprung up in their districts. Granger appeared to go a step further, or perhaps it is better said that he regressed a step back.

On June 18, hours before Granger’s arrival, Galveston’s mayor C.H. Leonard called on Rankin G. Laughlin, Union provost marshal general for the state of Texas. Laughlin appeased many of the mayor’s concerns, and as Leonard was leaving, he met a cotton merchant who had under his charge three men who had escaped from plantations nearby. A local newspaper correspondent reported the discussion on what was to be done:

“The Mayor said that it had been his rule to send all such negroes home, but as the United States authorities were now here he would consult them and accordingly he went back again to the Provost Marshal General; and having stated to him the case, asked him how he would dispose of the negroes, informing him, that the same time, what had been his own rule in all such cases. The Provost Marshal General said, it might be very well to send them to their homes, but as he had work for them to do, he would send them, for the present, to the Quartermaster for employment. This was accordingly done, but the Quartermaster having no immediate work for them, sent them to jail for safe-keeping till he should want them. We mention this as an indication of the policy our Government is now pursuing in relation to runaway negroes.”

Granger arrived later in the day and his proclamation on June 19 reinforced the priority of keeping the formerly enslaved population at work on their respective plantations. In addition to stated worries about lawlessness and private discussions about a loss of political power, the primary concern for Galveston’s authorities appeared to revolve around the impact that emancipation would have on cotton production. Granger satisfied their concerns and complicity assisted in preserving Galveston’s status quo antebellum.