Two day ago, Juneteenth received much more attention than any of the previous 150-plus observances. Juneteenth commemorates the announcement on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, that President Abraham Lincoln had freed slaves in rebelling states.
It had been two and a half years since the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. St. Augustine had been occupied by Union troops on March 11, 1862. Thus by the time of the announcement in Galveston, blacks in St. Augustine had been free or acting as free for more than three years.
On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln hoped this move would end the war quickly and re-unite the nation. In this order Lincoln declared that the slaves would be freed in any states which were still in rebellion on Jan. 1, 1863. One hundred days later, as the new year began, the states were indeed still in rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation was declared by the President.
U.S. Army commanders had beat the President to declaring freedom for slaves — or commanders had attempted to do so. In Missouri, Union General John C. Fremont declared slavery ended in that state in August of 1861. But Lincoln reversed Fremont’s decree and removed Fremont from command. On May 9, 1862, Maj. Gen. David Hunter at Hilton Head, S.C., declared martial law and the permanent emancipation of all slaves within his department. Ten days later, President Lincoln revoked Hunter’s order.
Gen. Hunter remained in command and turned his energies elsewhere. Hunter soon organized a volunteer fighting unit of slaves. With St. Augustine also under Union control, Hunter and began recruiting blacks from St. Augustine for soldiers. Historian Thomas Graham writes that “the first man from St. Augustine enlisted in October, 1862, and by December there were ten St. Augustine men in the regiment.”
With St. Augustine under Union occupation on Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect immediately. It appears that black men here quickly exercised the “freedom” to join the regiment of volunteers in South Carolina.
Dr. Graham quotes regimental surgeon Seth Rogers in Hilton Head, writing on Jan. 14, two weeks after the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation. “This morning I stood on the shore and listened to the John Brown hymn, sung by a hundred of our recruits, as they came up the river on the steamer ‘Boston,’ from St. Augustine, Fla.’”
These volunteers would be re-organized as United States Colored Troops (USCT). The argument for incorporating African Americans in the Army gained momentum. The cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine for March 14 carried an illustration of “Teaching the negro recruit to the use of a minie rifle.” An article on the magazine’s inside pages reported to a skeptical readership in the North about how effective “the “negro recruits” were in battle.
Effective they were. The USCT grew to become a major fighting force in the Union Army.
When did people living in St. Augustine learn of the announcement on June 19, 1865, in Galveston that initiated Juneteenth? We need to keep in mind the speed of communications at the time of the U.S. Civil War. Most information of distant events still arrived physically — by boats, by overland messengers, or by mail. Telegraph could provide rapid long-distance communication, but telegraph had not reached many areas by the time of the Civil War.
Of course, people in St. Augustine were already celebrating Emancipation Day on Jan. 1 in St. Augustine by the time of Juneteenth.
Note: I have relied heavily on the research of Dr. Thomas Graham of St. Augustine and Christopher Allen of Beaufort, S.C., for this column.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.