It’s not often that a Kendall County resident is present during a momentous historical event, but that was the case when the first Juneteenth took place at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. When he issued his General Order Number 3, Union Major General Gordon Granger formally—and forcefully—notified the State of Texas that slavery was irrevocably eliminated.
And last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the United States’ newest national holiday as a symbolic celebration of the end of slavery throughout the nation.
From the time of its settlement as a part of Mexico that welcomed U.S. colonists, Texas had enthusiastically embraced slavery. Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829 was, in fact, one cause of Texas’ 1836 war of independence. The Mexican government had encouraged Stephen A. Austin to recruit settlers for Texas. He mostly recruited in the southern U.S., encouraging slave owners to emigrate by allowing them to purchase an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought with them. Both before and after it was admitted to the Union in 1845, East Texas and the state’s Gulf Coast became major cotton growing regions relying extensively on slavery.
So when the Southern states seceded, Texas went right along with them, citing Northern efforts to end slavery as the main reason they were leaving the Union. In their Declaration of Causes approved by the Texas legislature on Feb. 2, 1861, the state’s leaders contended:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
Legally, slavery had been abolished by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 immediately after the bloody Union victory at Antietam. Lincoln’s executive order did not free all the nation’s slaves. Instead, it was aimed at the South as an economic weapon and therefore freed the slaves only in areas of the Confederate states not under the control of the Union Army. And that meant Texas. But the state’s slave owners, like those in the rest of the Confederacy, paid no attention to Lincoln’s proclamation.
But by the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was imploding. Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, and the rest of the South’s organized forces quickly followed suit.
On May 9, Gen. Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then move to the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.
By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Units that reportedly came ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.
The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Illinois and was mustered in in April 1864. It had served well, including at the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.
Serving in Company B of the 29th was Nathan Hughes, who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war, fled north into Illinois and briefly lived in Kendall County before he enlisted to fight for his own freedom. By the time the 29th came ashore at Galveston, Hughes had been wounded twice—once at the Battle of the Crater—and was a seasoned veteran.
It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their town. Especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.
On April 19th, Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. According to Granger’s order:
“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. 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 or elsewhere.”
And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.
In addition, Texans tended to believe that while perhaps slaves had been freed elsewhere, certainly their enslaved people wouldn’t be freed. As William Lee Richter wrote in The Army In Texas during Reconstruction, 1865-1870. “Planters vainly hoped that they would be compensated for the loss of their slaves or that the Supreme Court or the election of 1866 would overturn the Republicans’ majority in Congress. In addition, there was a cotton crop to bring in that fall. For these reasons, the planters forced their ex-bondsmen to stay on the plantation as slaves in fact, if not in name. To achieve this end, the farmers liberally employed whipping and murder.”
Southerners began resisting extending basic rights, including the right to vote and to peacefully assemble, as soon as the war ended. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands worked hard to combat the racist violence with which the South responded to its defeat at the end of the Civil War, but those efforts proved ineffective. The violence grew to such an extent that during the Presidential election campaign of 1868, John R. Marshall, publisher of the Kendall County Record in Yorkville—himself a veteran of the Civil War who served in the Sturges Rifles—was far from alone when he wondered whether the war had ended two years too soon:
“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.”
That, however, was in the future, a bleak future at that, in which it would take nearly a century from the time Gen. Granger issued General Order Number 3 until acts enshrining civil and voting rights in U.S. law. From the time Granger impressed upon Texans that slavery was over once and for all, Black Americans began quietly observing June 19 as their own private day of independence from being enslaved and finally gaining their freedom.
After showing the U.S. Flag in Galveston, the 29th marched to the Rio Grande River where it was part of the Army of Observation tasked with reminding Maximilian and his French supporters that the United States was not pleased with their intervention in Mexico. The 29th was mustered out of U.S. service on Nov. 6, and its troops left for their homes.
Nathan Hughes came back to Kendall County and settled on a small farm on Minkler Road, went down to Kentucky and found his children, and brought them back to Illinois. His wife, however, decided to stay in familiar Kentucky and not move north. He eventually remarried. His grandchildren became the first black high school graduates in Kendall County, and THEIR grandchildren and great-grandchildren became teachers and professors, and lawyers and other professionals.
The family, now scattered across the nation, continues to pay forward the momentous results of that first Juneteenth Nathan Hughes had been part of in 1865.