August 1 note: NPR has now added an editor's note to the story linking to this blog post.
"Four enduring myths about Juneteenth are not based on facts", asserts the headline of a June 20 National Public Radio piece which was brought to my attention today by Champe Granger, great-great granddaughter of Gordon Granger, whose biography by me was published by Casemate in 2013 and reissued in paperback this year.
The NPR journalist, John Burnett, claims the Juneteenth order was written not by Granger but Frederick Emery, "who hailed from an abolitionist family in Free Kansas." Burnett's sole source is Ed Cotham, who apparently thinks Emery's background is sufficient evidence for this claim.
In reality, Granger was a major general commanding all federal troops in Texas. As a major on his staff, Emery was a much junior officer essentially acting as Granger's secretary. He may have written out the order and advised on its wording, but Granger would have paid very close attention to the language, including the reference to freedom meaning "an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves." Those words were used not because of anyone’s naïve idealism, but because the Confederate ruling class of Texas remained unconvinced that the federal army and government intended to enforce abolition and equal rights, and Granger decided it was necessary to clarify the matter.
The language is stronger than Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was the legal authority under which Granger acted, and also stronger than the June 13 order from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, his military commander (who was in New Orleans). Neither Lincoln nor Sheridan said anything about the former slaves having "absolute equality" of human rights with their former masters.
NPR says Granger’s order “also contained patronizing language intended to appease planters who didn’t want to lose their workforce.” This refers to the last part of the order, which says: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Maybe I shouldn’t pick on NPR, because the National Archives has called this “racist language,” in apparent ignorance of the context, and other outlets have taken up the same line.
While most of those two sentences come directly from Sheridan’s order, Granger also made a crucial change to soften the impact. Sheridan had ordered Granger to tell “freedmen that they must remain at home,” whereas Granger only advised them to do so. He recognized the contradiction, that you couldn't both tell the slaves they were free and tell them they "must" stay where they were. But it wasn't bad advice for the time being. Most of the Union troops being sent to Texas were going south to the border with Mexico, which had its own civil war under way in which Generals Ulysses S.Grant and Sheridan (but not the political leaders in Washington) were inclined to intervene. There were precious few soldiers to maintain law and order and enforce emancipation in the huge, unconquered state of Texas. Granger was struggling just to supply his own troops and horses, and his advice to the former slaves to stay put and work as “hired labor” was a recognition of reality, an attempt to prevent hunger and uphold public safety, as there were many former Confederate soldiers travelling in the state.
Granger and his comrades had just engaged in a long and bloody war at first for the purpose of defending the Union while stopping the spread of the slave power -- and then by 1864 they were fighting outright for the abolition of slavery in America. To now judge them along with leaders such as Lincoln as insufficiently anti-racist by 2022 standards of political purity, is to do a serious disservice to historical understanding.