Juneteenth and Ulysses S. Grant's change of heart over slavery

Juneteenth and Ulysses S. Grant's change of heart over slavery

1905 juneteenth observed

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday that takes place every year on June 19. This week, it's observed on Monday in many states. Today, we are taking a look at the history of Juneteenth, which marks an event that took place on June 19, 1865, in Texas. Quoting the U.S. National Archives:

"Two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, which informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were now free. Granger commanded the Headquarters District of Texas, and his troops had arrived in Galveston the previous day." 

general order 3 juneteenth

This passage reminded me of Ron Chernow's gripping biography of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the U.S. (1869-1877). Grant served as a skilled general in the Civil War, and was eventually tapped by Lincoln to command Union forces and bring the war to a close.

As an Ohioan who had married into a slave-owning family from Missouri in 1848 (the photo below shows Grant and his wife, Julia Dent), Grant knew well the slaveowner mindset ... and was able to live with it for more than a decade.

Grant and Julia Dent

The war forced Grant to change his thinking. He personally witnessed the self-liberation of thousands of desperate people following victorious battles in Mississippi in 1862, writes Chernow:

"Every northern commander was sucked into the vortex of the fugitive slave issue, none more so than Grant in the heart of the cotton kingdom. As plantation owners fled his advancing army, thousands of slaves raced to freedom in Grant's camps."

Not long before, they had been forced to work on plantations, farms, and shops, or as household servants. They had endured physical violence, depravation of liberty, and separation from family members. Many of the liberated slaves arriving in Union camps had nothing except for their freedom and the clothes on their backs. When presented with an opportunity for freedom, they grabbed it.

Grant was moved by what he experienced. As he was converted to abolitionism and full rights of citizenship for people who were formerly enslaved, Grant insisted that his wife free the four slaves her father had "gifted" her - Eliza, Dan, Jule, and John - before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

One of them, Jule, stayed with the family as a nurse for the Grant children, but fled in 1864, fearing that the family's planned return to Missouri would result in her re-enslavement. Her story is told below.

Chernow describes Grant's evolved thinking:

Grant explained that since slavery was the root cause of the war, its eradication formed the only sound basis for any settlement with the South. It had become "patent to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace reestablished I would not therefore be willing to see any settlement until this question is forever settled." In later years, Grant explained that many Union soldiers thought it "a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle."

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the final four border states that had not been subjected to President Abraham Lincoln’s order. African-Americans in Texas began to observe Juneteenth in 1866, and the custom spread to other parts of the country.

The image at the top of this page is an Emancipation Day parade in Richmond, Virginia (the former Confederate capital) in 1905. Juneteenth became a holiday in Texas in 1980, and last year was made a federal holiday.

Back to blog