Juneteenth and Emancipation Day in Florida

June 19th is celebrated in many parts of the United States as “Juneteenth,” to commemorate the end of slavery after the Civil War. Many Floridians, however, celebrate a separate Emancipation Day on May 20th. So… which date is correct, May 20th or June 19th? In taking a look at the history of these celebrations, we see that the answer is… both.

African-American women stand in front of a car decorated for an Emancipation Day parade in Lincolnville (circa 1925).

African-American women stand in front of a car decorated for an Emancipation Day parade in Lincolnville (circa 1925).

In today’s world, news of a single event can be transmitted across the planet in seconds. Social media, satellite telecommunications, and the Internet in general have all but erased the meaning of distance when it comes to getting an important message from point A to point B.

This was not the case in 1865, when the Civil War was coming to an end. Many telegraph lines had been destroyed during the conflict, and news about the war was often either incorrect or contradictory. Neither the end of the war nor the end of slavery was absolutely confirmed until Union troops arrived in each locality to receive the surrender of their Confederate counterparts. This process happened in stages, with areas farther west learning the news weeks after the folks closer to the east coast.

In Florida, the process began in May 1865. Union General Edward M. McCook arrived in Tallahassee to receive the surrender of Florida’s Confederate troops on May 10th. On May 20th, McCook formally announced President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Knott House, effectively ending slavery in the state. As a result, many Floridians celebrate May 20th as Emancipation Day.

Reeactors recreate Edward M. McCook's announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the Knott House in Tallahassee. This was the 150th anniversary of the original announcement (2015).

Reeactors recreate Edward M. McCook’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the Knott House in Tallahassee. This was the 150th anniversary of the original announcement (2015).

News of emancipation and the war’s official end did not reach Texas until the next month. On June 18th, Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston with 2,000 soldiers to occupy Texas. The following day, June 19th, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation from the balcony of the Ashton Villa. Consequently, emancipation is generally celebrated in Texas on June 19th.

Juneteenth celebrations are not limited to Texas, however. The tradition of celebrating the end of slavery on June 19th has spread to many communities in other states, including some in Florida. There has even been a movement to make June 19th a national holiday for commemorating emancipation.

Union soldier reenactor with children during the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration at the Knott House Museum in Tallahassee.

Union soldier reenactor with children during the May 20, 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration at the Knott House Museum in Tallahassee.

Search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of emancipation celebrations across the Sunshine State!

 

 

Unheralded Emancipation (May, 1862)

On May 9, 1862, Union Major General David Hunter declared freedom for all slaves living in the states of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Although his declaration was not the first emancipation measure during the war (Major General John C. Frémont had previously ordered the freeing of Rebel-owned slaves in Missouri), Hunter’s action shocked both the Confederate and Union governments.

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

The seceded states had long portrayed the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln as a government of radical abolitionists. Lincoln, however, pursued a conservative approach to emancipation, which he did not officially endorse until September 1862 with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

While he personally abhorred slavery and hoped for its eventual extinction, Lincoln argued that secession, not the existence of slavery in the South, was the reason for the war. He believed that a crusade for emancipation would lose the slave-owning Border States (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) to the Confederacy. This concern led him to revoke Frémont’s order and remove the general from command.

Unlike Frémont’s order, which only applied to slaves owned by persons actively supporting secession, Hunter’s order called for the liberation of all slaves, whether owned by Confederates or Unionists, within the area of his command (South Carolina, Georgia and Florida).

It did not differentiate between slaves actively employed in Confederate war work and those engaged in civilian labor such as agriculture, which was the previous requirement for releasing slaves under the Union’s Confiscation Act of 1861. Hunter then used his order to enlist freed slaves into the Union Army.

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Lincoln insisted that only the President as commander-in-chief could issue an emancipation order. He announced that his government had no prior knowledge of Hunter’s intent to issue such a proclamation and declared the order void.

The War Department ignored Hunter’s effort to create a black regiment. While Hunter’s policies made him popular with abolitionists, most Northerners in the spring of 1862 were not ready for emancipation or the arming of freed blacks.

The South’s view of Hunter’s policies was obviously even less enthusiastic. Emancipation and arms for blacks fed the long-held Southern fear of confronting an insurrectionary slave population.

The Confederate government viewed Hunter’s actions as a call for slave rebellion and a racial outrage. It proclaimed General Hunter an outlaw. If captured, he would not be entitled to the rights of a prisoner of war but liable for execution at the discretion of the President of the Confederate States.

Ironically, Jefferson Davis, the president who would have signed Hunter’s death warrant, had known Hunter for over 30 years; they had been friends since first meeting as young army officers in 1829.

For a complete picture of Hunter’s fascinating and controversial career—he also served as president of the military commission that tried the suspects in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy—see Edward A. Miller, Jr., The Biography of David Hunter: Lincoln’s Abolitionist General (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Of course the biggest potential impact of Hunter’s emancipation order and recruitment of blacks was on slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Only a month before Hunter’s proclamation, several escaped slaves who had flocked to Union gunboats off of Jacksonville, which the Federals had captured in March, were forcibly returned to their Confederate masters after the Union evacuated the city in April 1862.

A year later, however, when the Union occupied Jacksonville for a third time, it was black soldiers of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiments who greeted the escaped slaves. No longer unheralded, the black soldiers’ expedition filled the columns of newspapers across North and South.