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Before Juneteenth: The Emancipation Proclamation in Texas

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on September 25, 2012
This is an inexact transcript of a lecture I recently gave at The Emancipation Proclamation: A Turning Point, a commemoration event in Houston marking the sesquicentennial of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation last week.

In 1926, the Dallas Morning News began publishing a serial comic strip on Texas history. It ran for only two years, but it shaped the way that generations of Texas schoolchildren learned about their state’s past. And it highlights the uncertain place of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texans’ memory of the Civil War.

The comic, illustrated by Jack Patton with captions by “amusements editor” John Rosenfeld Jr., was simple and even easy to miss—its four panels were run weekly at the bottom of the News, separated from the national strips. But its vivid depictions of historical figures like Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis proved extremely popular—so popular that after its conclusion, the strip was published in a 217-page hardback edition called Texas History Movies. That book went through multiple printings, and between 1928 and 1960, an abridged booklet version was distributed, for free, to millions of Texas schoolchildren under the sponsorship of Magnolia Petroleum Company, later Mobil oil.1

As the cover suggests, the Texas History Movies dealt at length with Texas’s early history and events. They were much thinner, however, on the subject of the Civil War, and they said nothing about the event we are commemorating today. The original abridged version of Texas History Movies stopped at the Battle of San Jacinto, though the booklet given to students was later expanded. But even those who read the full version of the comics would have learned little about the Civil War—and even less about the Emancipation Proclamation. The full hardback edition included only one page–four panels on the third-to-last page—about the War, and the main message of the caption was that the Civil War barely affected Texas at all. It contained no mention of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, no mention of the over 200,000 slaves living in Texas at the beginning of the war, and no mention even of emancipation after the war.

Texas History Movies, 1928 edition

Texas History Movies, 1928 edition

A 1970 edition of Texas History Movies, with new text by O. O. Mitchell, Jr., did mention slavery on the single page about the Civil War. But it, too, failed to say anything about the end of slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation.

Texas History Movies, 1970 edition

Texas History Movies, 1970 edition

Only in 2007, when Austin artist Jack Johnson published a completely revised New Texas History Movies for the Texas State Historical Association, did slavery and emancipation make it into this publication in a significant way. For the first time, Johnson devoted several pages to the Civil War and to Reconstruction, calling special attention to the successes of freedpeople after the war in winning political office and organizing new communities. But the Emancipation Proclamation remains absent in this latest edition. In the panel dealing with emancipation, Jackson writes that it was Union general Gordon Granger who “freed the slaves” in 1865, not President Lincoln in 1862 or 1863.

Texas History Movies, 2007 edition

Texas History Movies, 2007 edition

If the Texas History Movies are any guide to the way that Texans have thought about the Civil War during the past century, they show that the Emancipation Proclamation has not historically figured in Texans’ mind as a “turning point” here. Remember that these comic strips were likely seen by millions of schoolchildren in Texas between 1928 and 1960. And if those students read these comics, it’s easy to see how they could have ended up with the idea that Lincoln’s Proclamation had scarcely any effect in their state at all.

A lot has changed, of course, since 1960. But even today, I would not be surprised to learn that many Texas schoolchildren have only the faintest idea of what the Emancipation Proclamation meant for Texas in particular. Consider the guidelines that history teachers are currently offered from the state for teaching the Civil War. In eighth grade, when students study U.S. History, they are required “to explain … significant events of the Civil War, including the firing on Fort Sumter; the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg; the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation; Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House; and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”

In seventh grade, however, when students focus on Texas History, the Emancipation Proclamation is not mentioned as a significant event in the state. Instead, when learning about the Civil War here, seventh-graders are expected to “identify significant individuals and events concerning Texas and the Civil War such as John Bell Hood, John Reagan, Francis Lubbock, Thomas Green, John Magruder and the Battle of Galveston, the Battle of Sabine Pass, and the Battle of Palmito Ranch.” In short, students in Texas are still taught that that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point in the nation, but not that it was a turning point in the state.

It would be a mistake, of course, to place too much weight on these guidelines; I’m sure that individual teachers do cover the Emancipation Proclamation in their Texas history classes, particularly when talking about Juneteenth. And students in all three grades of middle school observe Celebrate Freedom Week, which includes mention of the Proclamation.

More importantly, schools are not the only place where history is taught and remembered. Outside of the classroom, African Americans in Texas have long commemorated emancipation as the most important legacy of the Civil War in the state. And unlike the early editions of the Texas History Movies, which contained numerous racist caricatures and erased slavery almost entirely from their depictions of Texas history, black Texans have always kept the memory of slavery and emancipation alive, whether inside or outside of school. In 1965, for example, African Americans in Houston organized a “Century of Emancipation March and Parade” to commemorate the coming of emancipation, “lest we forget.”2

Yet even celebrations like this one agree, in one respect, with the picture of the Civil War represented by the Texas History Movies. You probably noticed, for instance, that the “Century of Emancipation March and Parade” was held in 1965—one hundred years after Juneteenth—not in 1963, one hundred years after Lincoln’s Proclamation. Juneteenth—or June 19, 1865—has long been remembered among African Americans in Texas as an even more significant date than September 22, 1862, or January 1, 1863. Juneteenth was the date, as we’ve already seen, when Union General Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, and soon after that event, freedpeople in Texas began marking the occasion at sites like Emancipation Park. But Juneteenth occurred after the Civil War was over, and almost three years after the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation we are marking today.

All of this raises the questions I’d like to focus on this afternoon: Did the Emancipation Proclamation have any effects on Texas before Juneteenth? Was it a turning point here? Or were the Texas History Movies and generations of African Americans who remembered Juneteenth right that not much happened here during the War itself?


To address these questions, I’m going to briefly make three points this afternoon. First, I’m going to show why the Emancipation Proclamation was not the turning point in the history of emancipation in Texas. Then I’m going to explain why the Emancipation Proclamation was still a turning point, even in Texas and even before Juneteenth. Finally, I’ll conclude by considering what may be a more difficult question: how far did the Emancipation Proclamation turn the fates of enslaved people in Texas, and which direction did it turn them in? That is, even if the Emancipation Proclamation had been the major turning point in Texas history, did the vision of freedom it represented match the visions of freedpeople themselves?

I’ll turn to that difficult question at the end. First, however, point number one: the Emancipation Proclamation was not the major turning point in the history of emancipation. Why? Well, whether intentionally or not, the Texas History Movies we looked at earlier actually contained a clue: Texas was generally “removed from the theater of the war,” and for enslaved Texans, the absence of Union troops dramatically limited the impact of federal orders like the Emancipation Proclamation.

Elsewhere in the Confederacy, historians now know that the presence of Union troops directly undermined the peculiar institution by encouraging hundreds of thousands of slaves to flee to Union military lines. Wherever the Union army was on the move, slaves were on the move, too. Indeed, as early as the summer of 1861, African Americans in Virginia were already braving incredible dangers and long odds to present themselves to Union commanders in the war’s eastern theater. And the flight of slaves to Union fortifications and “contraband” camps continued throughout the war, forcing Congress to respond with policies that only encouraged more flight, long before Lincoln had decided to act. Yet the rush of slaves away from plantations to Union lines certainly accelerated after the Emancipation Proclamation and the movement of Union forces into the heart of the Confederacy. As Ulysses S. Grant’s army moved into Tennessee after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, for example, one Union soldier noted that the rush of slaves was “like the oncoming of cities,” and by the end of the war, historians estimate that as many as half a million slaves had made it behind Union lines.3

Enslaved people in the Confederate South seem to have understood instinctively from the beginning that Union armies presented them with unique, unprecedented opportunities for flight and freedom. In Texas, however, Union forces never made it to the state’s interior, where there were approximately 200,000 enslaved people when the war began. Galveston was occupied briefly in the fall of 1862, but on New Year’s Day, 1863, the very day when the Emancipation Proclamation was scheduled to take effect, Confederate forces led by General John Bankhead Magruder recaptured the port. Later Union attempts to occupy either Texas were either limited to the state’s southern coastline, far away from the counties with the densest slave populations, or they were turned back before they even reached Texas, as in the disastrous Red River campaign of spring 1864. As the historian Randolph P. Campbell notes, “federal troops thus had no opportunity to create more than minor disruptions of slavery in Texas.”4

Even when federal troops finally did arrive in Texas at the conclusion of the war, historians have emphasized that emancipation proceeded more slowly than in other states, partly because slavery had survived relatively undisturbed for so long. Texas newspapers still contained advertisements of slaves for sale in the early months of 1865, indicating optimism among white Texans that slavery would survive the war. As historian Dale Baum notes, “expectations that Texas would elude the ramifications of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation died hard.”5 One slave auction even took place on Congress Street in Austin in April 1865.6

Even when Juneteenth came only two months later, life remained largely the same for many enslaved people in Texas, particularly in isolated rural areas. As one historian has noted, the spread of emancipation was “ragged” in Texas, and violent too. Even after Juneteenth, many people of color were murdered, lynched, and harrassed by white Texans who operated with relative impunity in the early days of military occupation. “The war may not have brought a great deal of bloodshed to Texas,” notes historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “but the peace certainly did.”7

As all of this suggests, it would be a mistake to consider the preliminary proclamation of 1862 or the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863—or even Juneteenth, for that matter—as the single turning points in the history of Texas slavery. But the second point I’d like to make is that the Emancipation Proclamation was still a turning point. In at least two indirect but significant ways, Lincoln’s proclamation in Washington did impact even faraway Texas, and even before Juneteenth.

First, the Emancipation Proclamation encouraged tens of thousands of white Confederate slaveholders in other states to flee to Texas with their enslaved people, a process known as “refugeeing.” Although Texas slaveholders clearly remained confident about the survival of slavery right up to the end of the war, slaveholders in neighboring states were not so sure, especially after the fall of New Orleans, Union occupation of the Mississippi River valley, and—most of all—Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. After January 1, 1863, as white planters from Arkansas, Missouri, and especially Louisiana watched the approach of Union armies, they understood that the closer the Yankees got to their homes and plantations, the more precarious their control over slaves became. Many began to move from southwestern Arkansas and Louisiana into Texas.

In deciding to take or send their slaves into Texas for safekeeping, planters admitted what their slaves already knew—that slaves would quickly take advantage of opportunities to emancipate themselves, especially as news of the Emancipation Proclamation spread. Priscilla Bond, a white slaveholding woman from Maryland who was living in southwestern Louisiana by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, reported in her journal of October 1863 that one of her slaves, Amanda or “Mandy,” “says she hopes the Yankees will come here; she will tell them to take our clothes & things from us, says she hates the Bonds. I hope,” wrote Mrs. Bond after this outburst, that “[Mandy] will be dispatched from here soon.” The very next month, when a small group of about 50 Union soldiers did ride into town, Bond observed that one rode up to her slave Mandy briefly and said “We’ll hurry,” before seeking out some information from other “negroes” in the town. Later that month, Bond’s family sold Mandy away rather than risk the total loss of their human property.8

Many planters in similar situations, however, chose not to sell their slaves but to “dispatch” them to Texas, away from areas where they might encounter Union troops or take advantage of wartime chaos to run away. One Baton Rouge planter named Eliza McHatton noted that as federal forces moved closer and closer to her plantation along the Mississippi River, planters in the neighborhood became extremely “fearful … of negro assemblages, so apprehensive lest they communicate from plantation to plantation, and a stray spark enkindle the fires of sedition and rebellion.” Eventually “a number of our negroes were sent to my brother’s plantation” in Texas, McHatton remembered, in order to “partially relieve us of an element of querulous discontent that was fast becoming dangerous.”9

McHatton’s slaves were not the only ones run into Texas. A British traveler in the Confederacy, Arthur J. Fremantle, noted in May 1863 that hundreds of slaves were being brought into the Lone Star State. Although estimates vary widely, many historians now believe that at least 50,000 refugeed slaves, and perhaps twice or three times that many, were brought to Texas from other states, most of them in the year after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Many were hired out to work in Texas or sometimes forced to build military fortifications along the Texas coast, and it is highly likely that these men and women, well before Juneteenth, brought news to Texas slaves of the dramatic changes afoot in the rest of the South, caused above all by what Lincoln and his government had said about slavery.10

There was, however, a second, more direct way in which the Emancipation Proclamation affected Texas, which has to do less with what Lincoln said about slavery and more with what he said about soldiers. Although it’s often too easily forgotten, the Emancipation Proclamation was also an Enlistment Proclamation. At the end of the document, Lincoln declared that people freed under the terms of the Proclamation would now “be received into the armed service of the United States.”

In reality, people of color and even freedpeople in the South had been received into the armed service even before January 1, 1863, both because of previous acts of Congress and because of the decisions of commanders in the field. Records show that African American sailors even participated on the Union side in the Battle of Galveston that took place on the very day the Proclamation was finalized, and some were among those captured by Confederate forces and marched to Houston. But by stamping the controversial measure of arming African Americans with the imprimatur of the Executive branch, Lincoln’s Proclamation encouraged even more concerted efforts to enlist men of color in the armed forces and led directly to the organization of United States Colored Troops regiments.

In fact, although Texas saw few large battles during the War, those that did occur showed directly the results of the government’s enlistment policies after the Emancipation Proclamation. African American sailors—some of whom were escaped slaves—participated even at the Battle of Sabine Pass of September 1863. And over two hundred members of the 62nd United States Colored Infantry fought in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, which has often been called the last battle of the Civil War. This regiment of black troops was not from Texas; it was raised in Missouri. But the regiment was first recruited in June 1863 as a byproduct of the changes wrought by the Emancipation Proclamation.

In sum, Texas was not entirely an island unto itself during the Civil War, and the shock effects of the Emancipation Proclamation reverberated even there. First, emancipation increased panic and uncertainty among waves of planters who rushed with their enslaved people to Texas, doubtless bringing news and information about the Union’s activities and intentions into the state well before General Gordon Granger arrived. Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation removed the final barriers to the rapid mobilization of United States Colored Troops, who also saw action in Texas before Juneteenth. After the war was over, African American troops were also among the many thousands who were marched to the Texas-Mexico border to assist Mexican liberals and combat the plans of the French empire to attack the weakened United States from the South. In a 1941 interview, former slave Harriet Smith of Hempstead, Texas, remembered watching, as a little girl, as “colored soldiers” marched by her home on their way to San Antonio—a vivid memory that must have seemed like quite a “turning point” indeed to a young enslaved or recently emancipated woman.

Given all this, it should be impossible to return to a depiction of Civil War Texas like that in the original Texas History Movies—a Texas in which the Emancipation Proclamation did not register at all. Still, we should keep the stress on that little big word “a”—the Proclamation was a turning point in Texas history, not the pivot on which everything turned.

One reason for this, as we’ve already seen, is that Union troops did not occupy the state in large numbers until after Juneteenth, limiting the number of slaves who could use Lincoln’s armies to alter their fates. That is one reason why planters from neighboring states believed their slave property would be safe in Texas, and why white Texans continued to buy and sell slaves right up to the end of the Civil War. “Final freedom” would have to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and a more extensive military presence by federal troops in the state.

Even once these later turning points came, however, we should be careful not to assume that emancipation brought the freedom that enslaved people envisioned for themselves and their families. [In the closing moments of the talk, I discussed Lincoln’s mention of compensation and colonization in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and his advise in the final Proclamation to freed slaves to work for wages, noting how these visions of freedom as wage labor did not always operate to the benefit of African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the war. In that sense, the Emancipation Proclamation is a turning point that is still turning; perhaps any proclamation of emancipation needs to be seen, I suggested, as “preliminary,” and as an invitation to further discussion about what constitutes freedom.]


  1. See Jack Johnson, “A Bit of History about Texas History Movies,” in New Texas History Movies (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2007), 44–48; [@crisp2009, 7--8.]

  2. For details about this parade, visit http://exhibits.library.rice.edu/items/show/542, which is part of the online exhibit, Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass in History and Memory.

  3. Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery To the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 72.

  4. Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 233.

  5. Dale Baum, “Slaves Taken to Texas for Safekeeping during the Civil War,” in The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State, ed. Charles D. Grear (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008), 84.

  6. Campbell, Empire for Slavery, 241.

  7. Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas, ed. Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 143–175, 147.

  8. Kimberly Harrison, ed., A Maryland Bride in the Deep South: The Civil War Diary of Priscilla Bond (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 247, 251, 254.

  9. Quotes from McHatton are taken from the electronic edition of her memoir, From Flag to Flag, published on DocSouth.

  10. For the best discussion of numbers, see Baum, “Slaves Taken to Texas.” Some contemporaries estimated that 150,000 slaves were refugeed into Texas, but this number is likely exaggerated.