Original “Juneteenth” Celebration Witnessed by Illinois 29th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry By Carl M. Adams

Gulf of Mexico–June 1865. In the confusing days following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, the 923 men of the Twenty-ninth United States Colored Infantry of Illinois, like everyone else, were uncertain what the future held. The 29th USCT, formerly the First Regiment Illinois Colored Volunteers, had been active for about one year of a two year enlistment. There was unfinished Army business in Texas and Mexico. No Union army had invaded Texas during the war. So General U.S. Grant ordered 50,000 soldiers to secure Texas back into the Union and to threaten the French Army along the Mexican border with a military “show of force” under the Monroe Doctrine.

Louis Martin_v1
Private Louis Martin (1840 – 1892) Company E; 1st Regiment Illinois Volunteers (Colored); 19th Regt. US Colored Infantry born in Arkansas and died in Springfield IL in 1892; and buried Oak Ridge cemetery. Lewis Martin was recruited from the river town of Alton, IL in February, 1864. Pvt. Martin served from April thru July 30, 1864 when his right arm and lower left leg were shot off almost simultaneously during the Battle of the Crater just outside Petersburg, VA. As one might imagine, he suffered PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) and was granted a pension for his wounds, but died of exposure on a cold winter night in Springfield, age 52. Photo provided by the National Archives

The African-American 25th Corps was to invade from a sea-lift maneuver from City Point, Virginia. The 29th USCT, composed of about a 50-50 split of Midwesterners and recently liberated slaves, were assigned to the steamers Wilmington and William Kennedy and ordered to sail to Mobile Bay to resupply and await more specific operations orders. From Mobile they were sent to the Mexican border to disembark at Brazos Santiago, (South Padre Island near Brownsville). However, from this point on “the winds of war,” a tempest in the Gulf, and perhaps a little of the wrath of God were to change their plans in an unexpected and possibly a historic surprise.

For five days, from June 9 to 13, the ships sailed southwest through rough seas and came to anchor “outside the (sand) bar at Brazos Santiago.” However, it was flood season and the Rio Grande River had overflowed its banks. Brazos Santiago was a virtual swamp; the steamers stayed anchored for two days. On June 15 the orders were changed; the ships turned around and sailed north for a day. “Ordered to Aransas Pass, Texas, (near Corpus Christi).” The Official Record of the 29th Regiment, Third Brigade, Second Division reads, “June 16 – Arrived off Aransas Bar; strong gales from the southeast; seven feet of water on the bar, rendering it impossible to disembark the troops. The fleet being short of coal and water, was obliged to proceed to Galveston, Tex., the nearest point, for supplies.”

“June 18 – Arrived off Galveston Bar.” The Official Records were very dry containing only hard facts of who, where and when. The “OR Armies” makes no mention of a celebration. Turning to JUNETEENTH: Freedom Day by Muriel Miller Branch, “…the news of freedom came by boat to Galveston, Texas… according to this legend, Black stevedores who were loading and unloading ships at Pier 21 got wind of the news, and leaked it before the official announcement was made.” The Army Quartermaster Corps had always required the “work details” of privates and sailors. The resupply would have mingled uniformed work details with civilian longshoremen, resulting in the discovery that the uniformed USCT were not held in bondage and the coastal slaves had never heard of an Emancipation Proclamation. News of this would have traveled up the chain–of-command very quickly.

It is not known if the timing of the arrival of the 29th USCT had anything to do with the timing of Major General Gordon Granger’s public announcement of freedom. However, who better to appreciate the accidental opportunity of Black soldiers with guns to lend credibility to his order and, if necessary, enforcement of the orders. What is known is that on June 18, 1865, the General ordered the Galveston City officials to ensure that all the town’s people, including the servants, were to assemble the next morning in the town square near the Ashton Villa for the purpose of reestablishing the authority of the Federal Government.

From the OR Armies: “June 19 – Went into the wharf; took in supplies of coal and water.” Meanwhile in the Galveston Town Square – “Official: Headquarters District of Texas Galveston, Texas June 19, 1865 General Order #3 “The people are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free…” With the last four words of the first sentence, the entire populace was struck dumb. The crowd stood in silence until the final words: “…By Order of Major General Granger, Commanding.” Excited whispers and joyous expressions swelled into an explosive celebration that has become legendary for over 150 years, known by the contraction “June’teenth.” Juneteenth is now recognized as a state holiday in Texas and Oklahoma and the movement is spreading.

Juneteenth might be better understood by its historic descriptive name, Emancipation Day, which dates back 169 years to 1833. In that year England’s Parliament abolished slavery in the West Indies and Great Britain and the King approved the act effective August 28, 1833. The news was received with such delight, the people couldn’t wait until the 28th and joined in a universal celebration the first week of August, 1833. The news of English emancipation spread throughout the Caribbean Sea, including the southern ports of the United States and subsequently up the Mississippi River Valley into Kentucky and Illinois.

Illinois has never had a state-recognized Emancipation Day, which may seem historically inconsistent with the fact it is the legal state of the author of the Emancipation Proclama­tion. However, Emancipation Day has been periodically celebrated here and Abraham Lincoln was aware of it even before he became President.

The 29th Regiment USCT was in Galveston for only three days, 18, 19, and 20 June, 1865 since the Official Record shows: “June 21 – Put to Sea.” Galveston history does not show record of their participation. While critics could argue this was purely speculative coincidence, there’s more. According to former slave Felix Haywood, “Soldiers all of a sudden was everywhere. Coming in bunches – crossing and walking and riding. Everyone was singing. We was all walking on golden clouds, hallelujah!” However, he didn’t specify Illinois Black soldiers.

Then there was the sobering note in the Illinois “Adjutant General’s Report”, Company G: “Private Morse, Jordan D.…Died at Galveston, Texas June 20, 1865.” His grave, if found, would be physical evidence and a lasting tribute to the 29th USCT presence at “Juneteenth.”

The most convincing research was in E.A. Miller, Jr.’s work in the pension records at the National Archives and published in Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois. Captain William E. Daggett in command of Company F served with the 29th USCT for over 18 months and was a respected veteran. However, on the occasion of June 19th, Capt. Daggett was reprimanded by his commander Colonel Clark E. Royce for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” In Galveston on the 20th, Capt. Daggett faced court-martial charges “…that he fraternized with enlisted men; specifically, he swam with them off the Galveston Pier, was drunk at the time, and asked enlisted men to procure more alcohol for him…” These men were certainly celebrating something.

So Juneteenth is not just for Texans anymore; Illinois was well represented at the original Emancipation Day of Galveston, TX. While Illinois may not need an excuse for a picnic, barbeque, or a party, June 19th is as good a day as any to celebrate the greatest social change of the 19th century. However, unlike Captain Daggett, be responsible with alcohol.