FAAHPN and the Emancipation, Florida History Preserved

2023 FAAHPN Conference

Journey to Jubilee or The Official Unraveling of Slavery

June 19, 2023 by Clifton P. Lewis

A few days ago, I was asked by the Bartow Juneteenth Committee to talk about Juneteenth, which is our country’s newest holiday.  Two years ago, on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation making June 19th our nation’s newest holiday.

In spite of the shortness of the hour, I have endeavored to prepare this speech in such a way as to answer a number of nagging questions surrounding emancipation – especially the most persistent question, and the one that generates the most creative and the most nonsensical answers; and that question is “why did it take over two years before the slaves learned that they were free?  The short answer is that most of the slaves became aware of President Lincoln’s Freedom Decree shortly after he issued it in September 1862.  The problem was – that this place called “Freedom” was a mirage, because as Dr. W.E.B. DuBois said “Yes, they were free, but free to go where? Free to do what?

The fact is – without the protection of Union troops, the Freedmen who were seen by Confederate troops off the plantation were often shot on sight.

So, the system of slavery did not simply end on any particular day, slavery sort of unraveled over time. And it did so in a process that was highly nuanced, and one that was wrapped up in the bloody civil war.

Bear with me as I attempt to narrate a story about how slavery unraveled.  During the decade of the 1860s, two events occurred that changed the course of American history.   And yet, until recent times, notwithstanding their importance, the American Civil War and Emancipation from Slavery were seldom discussed – even in public schools.

This is shortsighted and it does a disservice to our children and to our grandchildren, because “Without knowledge of history, each new generation starts over.”

Because of the significance of this occasion, I want to share this story within its proper context.  One critical mistake that we make today is that we try to understand how emancipation unfolded without giving consideration to two critical realities: 1) The Union had been split into two separate countries, and 2) those countries were engaged in a highly destructive and bloody civil war.

We must not minimize what that split represented: each country had its own government, with its own President, and its own Congress.  Abraham Lincoln was leader of the Union (the North) while Jefferson Davis led the Confederate States (the South).  The Union never accepted the division or secession, but the Confederates most certainly did.  Hence, a bloody civil war erupted.

Because of the nature of this occasion and the time constraint, I will attempt to lay a foundation and paint this story with a very broad brush.  I would be delighted to answer questions later or you may contact me at the museum, if you have questions.

The war started in April 1861, and about two years into the battle, President Lincoln’s ambivalence about slavery began to shift, Lincoln became an abolitionist committed to ending slavery.  In 1863 – he delivered his most famous speech – the three minutes-long Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln opened that speech by saying:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent – a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether THAT nation, or ANY nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure…”

With those opening words the President reminded his audience that 87 years earlier – THAT nation had been born out of the Revolutionary War, and later in that speech he said that out of the current Civil War, THIS nation would have a new birth of freedom.  In other words, the Revolution War gave birth to the old Union, but that union had a birth defect, a defect of slavery, but through the Civil War, the Union would now undergo what Lincoln described as a “new birth of freedom.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the eradication of slavery would be the hallmark of that new nation.  When he delivered that historic address on November 19, 1863, the President had already signed the historic Emancipation Proclamation – he did so eleven months earlier.  That freedom decree freed approximately 3 ½ million of the 4 million slaves.

President Lincoln had firsthand experience with mass-emancipation, because on April 16, 1862, he signed legislation freeing the slaves within the District of Columbia.  Interesting to note that the slaveholders in D.C. were paid approximately one million dollars for those 3,000 slaves.  Today, the city of Washington, D.C. celebrates April 16th as a paid holiday.

That 1862 emancipation event in D.C. was the first mass emancipation, and it remains today as the only location where slaveholders received payments.  “Compensated and Gradual Emancipation” – by the way – was the procedure by which Lincoln wanted Congress to free all enslaved: Confederate and non-Confederate States alike.

Shortly after that D.C. freedom event – in June of 1862 – President Lincoln told his cabinet that he was convinced that the only way to save the Union was to end slavery – and he said that since Congress refused to pass legislation, he would do so by Executive Order.

During that summer of June of 1862, the progress of the war was up-and-down, tit-for-tat, with neither side holding the upper hand. As a result, Lincoln was encouraged by a cabinet member to wait – and issue his freedom decree immediately after a major Union military victory.

William Seward, Secretary of State, said Mr. President, if you free the slaves at this time and allow them to join our Military, “it would be seen by the rest of the world as an act of desperation; as if this country was reaching out to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia reaching out to this country.”

Lincoln decided to wait.  And, approximately six months after that June cabinet meeting – on September 17, 1862, the military victory – that Lincoln had waited for – occurred at a village called Sharpsburg, Md – near a Creek called Antietam.  The North won that battle, but at a huge cost.  The battle of Antietam ended up being the bloodiest one-day battle in the entire civil war – there were over 23,000 casualties, but it gave Lincoln the victory he needed.

Five days after the battle at Antietam, on September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued what he called the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  That was on September 22, 1862.

Stripped of all niceties and all nuances, the Preliminary Proclamation amounted to an ultimatum to the Confederates: 1) stop fighting, 2) rejoin the Union, and 3) do so within the next 100 days – that would have been by January 1, 1863.  And if you do not, I will make this Preliminary Emancipation Order a Final Document, and I will free all persons held in bondage within states or portions of states that remain in rebellion.

A Maryland slaveholder said that President Lincoln’s announcement of his intent to free the slaves “struck the nation like a thunder bolt from a cloudless sky.”

News about the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation spread like wild fire.  Contrary to what we hear today about the lack of efficient communications back then, there were active newspapers, including Frederick Douglass paper, and moreover the telegraph had been perfected.  So, news could be transmitted across the country in a matter of hours, if not minutes.

News about Lincoln’s threat to free their slaves, caused the Confederates to become irate and even more committed to fighting to the bitter end.  They refused to abide by Lincoln’s decree because Jefferson Davis was their President, not Abraham Lincoln.  We must not underestimate the effectiveness of the slaves-grapevine.  Many slaves heard the news about Lincoln’s intent, and began walking off the plantations in droves.  But most stayed in place, simply because they had nowhere to go, and most importantly, they had no protection.

The night before that January 1st deadline, Frederick Douglass joined others at a church in Boston.  Mr. Douglass later said that they met on that New Years Eve night to “WATCH” to ensure that Lincoln made good on his promise.  That December 31, 1862 gathering in Boston continues to be commemorated on New Year’s Eve, especially in Black churches, in a beloved church service known as Watch Night.

The next day, on January 1, 1863, shortly after noon, the news arrived that Lincoln had signed the Final Emancipation Proclamation.

Frederick Douglass called it “a momentous decree.”  A Black preacher sang “sound the loud trembles over Egypt’s Red Sea, Jehovah has triumphed, His people are free.”  Another Black preacher said “may God forget my people, if they forget this day.”

The fate of the Confederacy continued to deteriorate to the point when on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant – and for all practical purposes the war ended.

Amidst the high celebrations about the end of the civil war, tragedy struck; only five days following General Lee’s surrender, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was murdered.  Lincoln was killed on what the Christian world calls Good Friday.  In his grief over Lincoln’s death, Frederick Douglass called him “Father Abraham.”

The end of the war and Lincoln’s murder, energized Union troops.  They were dispatched throughout the Confederacy with orders to ensure that all bondsmen were set free – and they were to do so – by enforcing Lincoln’s two-year-old Emancipation Proclamation.

Union troops – which by the way – included United States Colored Troops – arrived in Tallahassee on May 10, 1865, and began to accept the surrender of Florida’s Confederate troops.  Nine days later, on May 20, 1865, Union General Edward M. McCook read Lincoln’s two-year-old Proclamation from the steps of what is now the Knott House Museum.  The reading of the Proclamation was by way of enforcing freedom in Florida.   Thus, Florida’s May Day.

One month following Florida’s freedom event, on June 19, 1865, another Union General, by the name of Gordon Granger, likewise read the Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, ordering the release of the enslaved in the state of Texas.  Thus, Juneteenth.

Brothers and sisters, May 20th is to Florida what June 19th is to Texas; those were the dates when freedom began to be enforced in the last two Confederate states of Florida and Texas.

By June 19, 1865 most, if not all, enslaved persons in the Confederacy had been freed by Lincoln’s Proclamation.

Seven months after Florida’s May 20th, and six months after Texas’ Juneteenth, the 13th amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified on December 6, 1865 – thus, outlawing slavery everywhere.

Please remember, that because it was a military document, the Emancipation Proclamation could only be applied to Confederate states that were at war.  The four non-Confederate slaveholding states of Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky, known as the Border States, ended slavery either by state legislation or by the 13th amendment.

Kentucky and Delaware were the last two states to end slavery – they were compelled to do so by the 13th amendment.

In summary, it is correct to say that American slavery slowly unraveled. Rather than ended on a particular date.  It was a complex process tightly woven into the civil war.

As I close, I encourage all of us to reflect on the last word delivered by President Lincoln before he was brutally murdered.  The President said…

“With malice toward none, with charity for all; With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in.  To bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow and his orphan; to do all that will achieve and cherish, a just and lasting peace; among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Happy May 20th, Happy June 19th, and Happy Emancipation

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