Juneteenth: The First Commemoration of Abolition

June 19th, or “Juneteenth,” is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Today’s post, looking at the history of the federal holiday, comes from Saba Samy, an intern at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

On September 17, 1862, the United States Civil War reached a gruesome peak with the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This battle is the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history. However, the day symbolized a Union victory as it momentarily stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the north. 

This victory provided President Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to issue a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. President Lincoln’s proclamation said that on the first day of January, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

One hundred days later, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the Proclamation’s expansive and revolutionary wording, in reality the effect was limited. The freedom that it promised was dependent on a Union victory, and it only applied in the Confederate states. This left more than half a million men, women, and children enslaved in parts of the South already under Northern control and in border states loyal to the Union.

Nevertheless, the wartime measure promised freedom that fundamentally transformed the character of the war. It strengthened the Union both militarily and politically and is a milestone along the road to slavery’s abolition.

Even though the Union won the war when the South surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, in reality the end of the conflict was disorganized. Across the South and West, Confederate forces still remained active as it took time for word about General Lee’s surrender to reach them. One of the last locations to finally receive the news was in Galveston, Texas, where General Edmund Kirby surrendered on June 2, 1865. 

While the Civil War was coming to an end, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was in the process of ratification. On January 31, 1865, two-thirds of Congress had approved the joint resolution, with President Lincoln symbolically approving on February 1. However, it took until the end of the year for three-fourths of the states to finally ratified it.

During this interim, on June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order 3, which informed the people of Texas that all enslaved persons in the state were now free. This day has come to be known as ‘Juneteenth,’ a combination of ‘June’ and ‘19th,’ and is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. 

It was from General Order 3, the Juneteenth holiday was born. Since then, commemoration for the historical date has spread from Texas to states across the nation. Juneteenth became an officially observed federal holiday after President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on June 17, 2021.

Although the full privileges of freedom were not immediately available to everyone, the Emancipation Proclamation and General Order No. 3 serve as key moments in the history of abolition in the U.S. These documents demonstrate the progress in the continuous path toward a more perfect union and the efforts to fulfill the promises of our founding documents. 

The National Archives in Washington, DC, will display the Emancipation Proclamation and ‘Juneteenth’ General Order No. 3 from Tuesday, June 18, through Thursday, June 20, 2024.

Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our resources and events related to Juneteenth and African American history. 

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