The complete Juneteenth story.
The Juneteenth story has become somewhat romanticized, a heroic tale starring Granger, the white Union general, as the lead protagonist. But organizations such as the Juneteenth National Observance Foundation have uncovered a little-known element of that narrative: the presence of several Union regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) that, by coincidence, marched into Galveston at the same time as Granger. These actions provided a powerful image to the island’s enslaved people, who were oblivious to the fact that they had been granted freedom by Lincoln two years prior.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and other states at war with the Union on January 1, 1863. However, Lincoln’s proclamation had little impact on Texans at that time due to the small number of Union troops available to enforce the law. Enforcement of the declaration generally relied on the advance of Union troops due to continued rebel resistance.
It’s also important to note that many historians dispute that Granger read the orders to the public during a ceremony at Ashton Villa. Many argue that, although Granger issued the orders, there was no public ceremony in Galveston. As commanding officer, his position was to simply come ashore and order his soldiers to disperse throughout the town and countryside, advising slaveholders that their slaves had to be freed immediately, and to enforce the order.
In 1864, the U.S. Department of the Army ordered all U.S. Colored Troops, composed of freedmen and recently liberated enslaved people, to be organized into the “XXV Army Corps,” with an estimated 30,000-35,000 soldiers. One of USCT’s noteworthy action was being the first command to occupy Richmond on April 3, 1865.
In May 1865, the entire XXV Corps, led by General Godfrey Weitzel, was transferred to Brownsville, Texas. They were to become the Army of Occupation along the Texas-Mexico border, guarding against Napoleon III’s French troops as well as watching for any resurgent Confederate activity.
According to historical accounts, USCT regiments set sail from Virginia to Mobile, Alabama, and then were to continue on to South Padre Island, Texas. Storms and rough seas on the voyage sapped the infantry of coal and water, forcing the ship to divert to Galveston for supplies. Official records show that several USCT regiments were in Galveston June 18-20, 1865, fortuitous timing that overlapped with Granger’s famous issuing of General Order No. 3.
Thus Granger was joined by his more than 2,000 Union troop regiment and an additional 5,000-10,000 soldiers from the 28th Indiana, 29th Illinois, and combined New York 26th and 31st Regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops that dropped anchor on June 18 in Galveston Bay.
The African American Civil War Memorial commemorates the military service of hundreds of thousands of Civil War era Black soldiers and sailors. Etched into stainless steel panels of the memorial are names identifying 209,145 United States Colored Troops who responded to the Union's call to arms. In 1865, President Lincoln said, "Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the south could not have been won."