Bud Kennedy

154 years ago: ‘All slaves are free’ in Texas, but there’s more to the Juneteenth story

Juneteenth parade in Forest Hill

Every June 19 in Texas communities celebrate Juneteenth, celebrating the end of slavery, with parades, family gatherings at parks and other public places. (Video by Max Faulkner/Star-Telegram)
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Every June 19 in Texas communities celebrate Juneteenth, celebrating the end of slavery, with parades, family gatherings at parks and other public places. (Video by Max Faulkner/Star-Telegram)

Freedom came to Texas 150 years ago today, yet Juneteenth is partly a mystery.

We know a Union Army major general sent here to take command issued five written orders, all through a staff officer in headquarters on Galveston Island.

We celebrate Order No. 3, particularly these words: “All slaves are free.”

Beyond that, Texans know almost nothing about the New York commander sent to declare liberty, or the one-paragraph order considered almost as important as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Turns out Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger didn’t just restate President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation. Granger added more.

“He wrote a very radical statement for the time, striking in his language,” said retired New York journalist Robert Conner, author of the 2013 biography General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind “Juneteenth.”

Faced with defeated but defiant Texans, Granger issued an order that went beyond instructions from division commander Gen. Philip Sheridan.

Six days earlier, Sheridan had written to Granger “all slaves are free” but “must remain at home.”

Granger’s order added “absolute equality” and defined the legal roles of “employer and hired labor.” Former slaves were only “advised” to stay.

“I think he realized he had to say something strong to wake Texans up,” Conner said by phone from Saratoga County, N.Y.

Some white Texans doubted Granger would try to end slavery quickly.

“Texans could not imagine how to function” if freedmen were not “controlled,” Conner said.

Granger’s orders, issued from a now-gone office building owned by Jewish Texan pioneer Rosanna Osterman, were republished and read across Texas, but historians disagree over whether they were ever read aloud there as a proclamation.

Granger, credited with saving the Union and maybe the Civil War at the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, commanded Texas for less than two months, mostly establishing posts and securing cotton.

Reassigned to command New Mexico and a career dealing with Comanches and Cochise’s Apaches, Granger died at age 53 in 1876 in Santa Fe, N.M.

A giant monument towers over his grave in Lexington, Ky., near his wife’s birthplace.

On four sides, the marker lists Granger’s war achievements and feats of heroism.

It does not mention Texas or Juneteenth.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @BudKennedy

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