As with much of American history, there are no cut-and-dried answers to certain segments of our national chronicle — very little rests in black and white.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation, an entirely executive order that effectively freed more than 3 million African-American slaves in the Confederate States of America.
While I’d say the vast majority of Americans have the misconception that Lincoln freed all slaves in the United States with the stroke of his pen and without the stamp of Congress nearly 150 years ago, such was not the case.
What Lincoln did in actuality was ease this nation into the notion that the American Civil War no longer was a struggle just to preserve the Union. His executive order effectively recast a bloody war into a fight to end slavery across the width and breadth of this land.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all persons held as slaves within rebel states “are, and henceforth shall be free.”
With Lincoln’s order, it also began recruitment of former slaves into military units as Union soldiers and sailors, of which more than 180,000 became infantrymen and another 18,000 sailors in the United States Army and Navy.
Lincoln had been under enormous pressure by Radical Republicans and Abolitionists, almost from the first day of his presidency in March 1861, to issue an order freeing all slaves.
However, the 16th president cautiously held off on that idea, allowing public perception to slowly change, whereby he could gain wider support for such a bold move.
In fact, Lincoln informed the Cabinet he would issue such a proclamation in July 1862, but that it would exempt border states which still had significant numbers of slaves, but which had remained loyal to the Union — including states like Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and later West Virginia.
However, Lincoln’s Cabinet urged the president not to free slaves in the Confederacy until a battlefield victory could be achieved — which was no small task in the first two years of the Civil War.
Finally, on the fields of Antietam in September 1862, the Union Army was able to proclaim victory from a tactical draw with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Lincoln penned his famous preliminary proclamation.
I call it preliminary because it announced that slaves in areas still in rebellion would be free within 100 days.
The final Emancipation Proclamation was issued on New Year’s Day 1863, freeing slaves in the Confederacy.
Thus, with the stroke of a pen and with only tepid backing from the public in the North — save for Abolitionists — Lincoln had recast the impetus behind the Civil War, forcing anyone who backed the Confederacy to be a person who also advocated slavery.
In fact, it was not until passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress and ratification by the states in December 1865, that slavery was abolished throughout America.
Thus it was, on June 19, 1865, General Order No. 3 was issued when Union soldiers, under Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news the war had ended and all slaves were free: “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
The Emancipation Proclamation was news to slaves in Texas at the time. In attempts to explain why there had been a two-and-one-half year delay in finding out about Lincoln’s famous missive, at least three versions have surfaced from history.
One story was a messenger with the news of the freeing of slaves was murdered on his way to Texas.
Another was the news deliberately was withheld by slave owners to maintain forced labor on plantations.
Still a third was that Union troops actually waited for slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton crop.
Whatever the real reason, the reaction to the news was both shock and immediate jubilation among African-American slaves in Texas.
Many slaves immediately left the area and the state, heading for neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, settling in these areas.
The unofficial holiday — it’s official in Texas — was and still is bittersweet among African-Americans.
Over the years, Juneteenth — the combining of the words June 19th — became a time of remembrance for blacks of the end of slavery and chains.
And, as with many American celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas, the day has ebbed and flowed in its importance over the years.
But today, at Government Springs Park, the spirit of Juneteenth and the end of a dark chapter in American history, flows and flowers once again.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at http://enid news.com/histori callyspeaking