19 June 2021
Yesterday marked the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the US, following President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law earlier this week. Today, Saturday 19 June, is actually Juneteenth, and marks the 156th anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in all the rebel states, enforcement generally relied on the arrival of Union troops. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 at locations around the city, informing Texans that all slaves were now free.
Juneteenth was marked by African American residents of Galveston in 1866 and annual celebrations gradually spread across Texas, then the south and eventually to other parts of the country, often thanks to Texans migrating. Celebrations are typically locally organised. In the early years they combined religious, civil and community elements.
In 1895 the community of Parsons, Kansas, a railroad town which would have had many black residents with connections to Texas, held its first community Juneteenth celebration. The ‘Local and Personal News’ column of the Parsons Weekly Blade, an African-American newspaper, reported that:
Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fair grounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies […]. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day.1
There were songs, including ‘Hold the Fort’, a gospel hymn inspired by a Union victory in 1864, which melds martial and Christian imagery, and ‘John Brown’s Body’, a popular song commemorating the executed abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Both songs had been popular with the Union army during the Civil War. (They still held currency in 1895 and would continue to have a place in the gospel and folk traditions, as well as within protest and workers movements in the 20th century: you can find Pete Seeger, for example, performing both songs on YouTube if you’d like to hear them.)
Following the music and speeches by religious leaders, ‘an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves as highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.’
Well into the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations continued to have a regional flavour and were generally still associated with Texas. In 1941 The Negro Star, a black newspaper from Wichita, Kansas, ran an Associated Negro Press story, ‘Texas Preparing for “Juneteenth” Celebration’. Reporting from Houston, Texas, the item noted that, ‘This city, together with the rest of Tan Texas is busily preparing for the annual “Juneteenth” celebration, most colorful and all inclusive holiday celebrated by Negroes in the Lone Star state. Held on June 19th, civic, social and fraternal organizations join hands in celebrating their day of deliverance from slavery.’2 The article went on to explain that ‘most people use [the day] as a means of being excused from work. Few if any of them can be found on their jobs on that day. White employers have found it expedient to overlook their colored employees’ absence on Juneteenth.’ The main events were to be held in Emancipation Park, an area of the city originally solely used to mark Juneteenth but later donated to the city, and which, from 1922 to 1940 was the only park for African-Americans during segregation.3 There was to be ‘a traditional program of speaking and singing of spirituals […], and guests were to include ‘World war vets, Spanish-American war vets, and the few remaining ex-slaves.’ The inclusion of the formerly enslaved in an event taking place during the Second World War is a stark reminder, even now, of how near the experience of slavery is in human terms.
The popularity of Juneteenth celebrations dipped during the Civil Rights era, when campaigning energies were put towards integrationist efforts and making space for black Americans within existing social, political and cultural structures. However, with the rise of Black Power and renewed interest in African American history and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s, Juneteenth saw a resurgence across the US. This revival saw large celebrations take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 1970s.
In 1974 the Milwaukee Star, an African American newspaper, reviewed the inner city Juneteenth celebrations of the previous week, giving a sense of the vibrancy of the event with people ‘dancing, laughing and singing’ in a heavily-illustrated article.4 Black arts and culture had taken a larger role in the celebrations by this point: the article noted ‘on one side street a poet stands speaking to a small crowd on Black love, while next to him a local DJ tries hard to drown him out with a very loud James Brown record.’ The journalist, Michael Holt, also noted the political tensions encapsulated by the day, describing a pull between those who felt the anniversary should be a solemn occasion and those ‘who look at the festivities as a vehicle to relieve the inner frustrations, if only for a day.’ Holt quoted a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who had told his class the previous year that the ‘so-called Juneteenth Day celebration “was nothing but a modern day version of the practice in slavery days of masters giving slaves the day off to get drunk and release tensions upon themselves.” But despite the explanation by the professor, many of his students could be seen roaming the streets on the so-call Black Fourth of July celebration.’
The connection to the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations has often prompted reflection on the broader significance of Juneteenth. A thoughtful editorial by Paula Harris-White in the Afro-Hawaii News in July 1991 noted that the Fourth of July holiday ‘often serves as a reminder of the position that people of color have held in America. They have been slaves, coolie workers, “savages”, foreigners, in spite of the fact that this was their place of birth. For many Americans, actual independence came long after July 4, 1776. Sometimes people who thought they were free, could have that freedom arbitrarily revoked, even in the 20th century, because their name was Wantanabe or Yamada.’5 Harris-White went on to explain the origins of Juneteenth to her readers and observed, ‘I share this information with all of you because sometimes we need to put our history in perspective. While I do acknowledge those leaders who chose to liberate the thirteen colonies from England, as a woman of color, I can quite never forget that their act of declaring freedom did not include people like me.’
As Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, noted in the New York Times on 18 June 2021:
What Juneteenth and other Emancipation days commemorate is both the promise of freedom and its delay. For June 19, 1865, doesn’t mark the day enslaved African Americans were set free in the United States but the day the news of Emancipation reached them in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a holiday ringed, like a good brisket, though not in smoke but irony. Out of such ironies Black people have made the blues, made lemonade, made good. The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.6
For those interested in researching African American history at the British Library, the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource from Readex is an excellent starting point, and is available for registered readers to access remotely. You can find out about the range of remote access e-resources here, including the US Congressional Serial Set, American Broadsides and Ephemera, and Early American Newspapers.
-- Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre
1. ‘Local and Personal News,’ Parsons Weekly Blade (Parsons, Kansas), June 22, 1895 (p.4)
2. ‘Texas Preparing for "Juneteenth" Celebration,’ The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), June 6, 1941 (p.3)
3. ‘Emancipation Park, Written Historical and Descriptive Data’, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. TX-7, HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (available here)
4. ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), June 27, 1974 (p.5)
5. Editorial, Afro-Hawai'i News (published as Afro-Hawaii News) (Honolulu, Hawaii), July 31, 1991 (p.3)
6. Young, Kevin, ‘Opinion: Juneteenth Is a National Holiday Now. Can It Still Be Black?,’ New York Times, June 18, 2021 (accessed online)
16 November 2016
Have you visited the British Library in Boston Spa yet? Did you know that you can access millions of books, journals and newspapers from the Boston Spa Reading Room? If you live in the north of England, the British Library at Boston Spa may be the most convenient way to view our collections.
Last Friday the Americas Team and the Eccles Centre for American Studies joined forces for a special training session on resources for American Studies at the British Library at Boston Spa.
50 students from the universities of Leeds, Chester, Birmingham, York, Northumbria, Sunderland, Central Lancashire, Sheffield and Dundee, among others, joined us on a misty autumnal morning in North Yorkshire to explore the British Library’s North American holdings.
The British Library at Boston Spa from the sky (we went by train)
The day began with an introduction to the British Library holdings and the history of the American collections within the Library. We had a look at the different catalogues for printed items, manuscripts, and the sound archive, as well as our collection of e-resources. This was followed by a virtual show and tell of highlights in our American collections (take a look at our American Revolution and American Literature in Europe sites to see a few of the items we discussed).
Our day continued with a fascinating presentation about the Boston Spa site and the UK newspaper collections by our colleagues Joanne Cox and David Clayforth, where we heard about how the Library’s different sites and collections have been reconfigured over time. The Eccles Centre’s Fran Fuentes illustrated how the newspaper collections holds vast potential for researchers working in the Americas, and guided students through a case study focussing on holdings of regional US newspapers. This was followed by two parallel sessions: one on resources for the study of American literature, where we looked at the research potential of comparing UK and US editions as well as our wonderful collection of fine press books, and one on US official publications, where Jennie Grimshaw helped students navigate our immense and sometimes challenging collection.
We are hoping to organise a similar training day in 2017 and we will advertise it widely on the blog and our twitter accounts @_Americas and @BL_EcclesCentre. Do let us know if there are any areas in the collections about which you would like to learn more!
26 January 2016
'It is not in the nature of an Irishman to fight with four or five pounds of boiled pork and biscuit banging at his hip' – so beings the third and final part of the short, thirteen page account of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in the Three Parts (General Reference Collection 9604.aaa.10.), written by then-Captain Thomas Francis Meagher in 1861 during the early days of the American Civil War. It is one of a number of archive holdings the British Library has relating to the conflict and the involvement of Irish American men and women in the fight for the survival of a United States between 1861-1865, an area which forms the foundation of my doctoral research, with the generous fellowship support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
Thomas Francis Meagher, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in Three Parts (New York, 1861), title page. Image in the public domain.
Meagher, a former Young Irelander who had escaped exile in Van Diemen’s Land and migrated to America in the early 1850s, was one of the most prominent Irish-born soldiers during the war. He rose from a captain attached to the 69th New York State Infantry Regiment to founder and commanding general of the Irish Brigade, the bastion of Irish American military service, with its constituent regiments present at every major battle of the brutal conflict. The 69th New York formed the Brigade’s foundation. They were born from a state militia regiment whose pre-war fame originated after the refusal of their commander Colonel Michael Corcoran (also Irish-born and later himself a prominent Union general) to march the past Edward, Prince of Wales during the future king’s visit to New York City in 1860. The exploits of Meagher, Corcoran, the 69th New York and the Irish Brigade’s military service during the Civil War were widely known in contemporary Union and Confederate societies and were recounted in several of the memoirs, accounts, newspaper records and ballads. Some of the songs relating to the Irish experience of the conflict can be seen in the Library’s online gallery collection of digitized American Civil War archives.
Meagher’s Last Days of the 69th in Virginia details events the 69th New York Infantry participated in from 12-18 July 1861 – the days leading up to the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, the first major battle of the Civil War. It thus gives a fascinating and unique insight into the mobilisation and immediate experiences of thousands of soldiers rallying to the impending front-line, completely unaware of the battle and the subsequent four long tortuous years of war that would soon be upon them. Meagher chose to focus on the days preceding the battle fought on 21st July because its “incidents and events, the world, by this time, has heard enough… the battle, the [Union] retreat, the alarm and confusion of the Federal troops, columns and volumes have been filled”. Instead, Meagher’s writing reveals the journey of the 69th New York from their base at Fort Corcoran on Arlington Heights outside of Washington D.C., to the fields around Manassas, travelling through the Virginian town of Centreville, made famous in a wartime photograph taken by Timothy H. O’Sullivan showing its use as a Confederate supply depot and war’s scarring on the land. The image was published in Alexander Gardener’s collection of Civil War photography, of which the Library holds a copy (General Reference Collection 1784.a.13.). Meagher was not particularly complementary about Centreville, describing is as a 'dingy, aged little village' with a 'miserable little handful of houses. It is the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decrepitude…One is astounded on entering it, to find that a molehill has been magnified into a mountain.'
Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, later General Meagher, commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (1861).
Someone else turned into a mountain in Civil War histories is 'our Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, a rude and envenomed martinet' who, for 'whatever his reasons for it were…exhibited the sourest malignity towards the 69th'. Meagher spoke here of William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous as the general who led the Union advance through the southern states in the final years of the Civil War. A colonel at the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman’s continual ordering of the Irish soldiers to bivouac on “the dampest and rankest” of ground led Meagher to state that the then-colonel 'was hated by the regiment'. Despite no love being lost between Meagher and Sherman, the former unwittingly included a rather pointed note of historical irony about the latter. He described how advancing Union soldiers passing by farmsteads on the road to Manassas were 'forbade' to touch the 'cocks of hay and stacks of corn'. The people of Georgia would have surely wished that this version of Sherman had marched through their state in 1864.
Alongside derogatory descriptions of southern towns and fellow Union Army officers, Meagher detailed the exhausting march and Confederate skirmishes through the Virginian countryside in the July heat. Bivouacking subjected the men to night-time humidity, which caused the Stars and Stripes to become 'damp with the heavy night dews'. In the day the men of the 69th New York dealt with 'heat and dust and thirst'. His account paints a sensory portrait of the Union Army mustering to face the Confederacy; a visual 'splendid panorama, those four miles of armed men – the sun multiplying, it seemed to me, the lines of flashing steel, bringing out plume and epaulette and sword, and all the finery of war, into a keener radiance, and heightening the vision of that vast throng with all its glory'. He spoke similarly about aural imagery: 'the jingling of the bayonets, as the stacked muskets tumbled one after another… The sound was so like that of sabres slapping against the heels and spurs of charging troopers'. Amongst those on the march was the 79th New York Infantry Regiment looking 'stanch and splendid'. Led by Colonel James Cameron, the regiment were nicknamed 'The Highlanders' in honour of their connection to New York Scottish fraternity organisations.
The Library’s copy of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia was 'published at the office of the '"Irish-American"' in New York City by Lynch and Cole, publishers of the Irish-American newspaper, the foremost Irish organ for the largest community of Irish men and women in America. It was subsequently circulated in other Irish newspapers in the country, namely the Boston Pilot. The account is in three parts, leading to the suggestion the publishers serialised Meagher’s writings before producing a book form sometime in the last summer/early autumn of 1861. It is possible that it was used as part of Meagher’s promotion tour of Irish American communities in New York, Boston and Philadelphia while he was galvanising support for the formation of the Irish Brigade. Very few copies of the account in this book form exists today and although it appears in the bibliographies of Irish American, wartime and Meagher histories, it is rarely quoted from, with scholars choosing newspaper accounts of his numerous wartime speeches and Michael Cavanagh’s Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.g.1.) as their primary source focus. With limited personal wartime writings of Thomas Francis Meagher available, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia provides a revealing insight into one prominent Irish American’s contemporary account of the initial days of the American Civil War. It helps show how the Irishman’s gift of rhetorical skill transposed itself to his writing, despite his friend Captain W.F. Lyons stating in his book Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.aaa.29.) that 'journalism was, in fact, not Meagher’s best field of action…[which] he had abandoned…for the stormy life of the soldier'.
What The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia demonstrates is that Meagher’s writing of the actual field of action was extremely eloquent. He could switch from the humorous – describing how Corcoran’s horse 'was greedily eating newspapers' on the morning of the First Battle of Bull Run – to the patriotic fervour that became commonplace amongst lyrical expressions of Irish American dual identity in the nineteenth century. He also provides a perfect description of why such a source is important for American Civil War scholars. Meagher’s account created 'a picture far more striking and exciting than any I had ever seen. War, assuredly, has its fascinations as well as its horrors…and so emboldens and spurs the tamest into heroism.'
– Catherine Bateson
28 April 2015
150 years ago, the body President Lincoln was on its journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, carried by train in a special funeral cortege.
Of all the Library’s Civil War related items, this object is one of the most rare and interesting. These two silk cords, or ‘silver lace’ as the accompanying descriptive note states, were part of the material that draped on President Lincoln’s funeral cortege.
According to the note that is held alongside the cords, they had been presented ‘by a gentleman who was an important member of the committee of arrangements for the reception of President Lincoln’s body’ when it reached Indianapolis, Indiana on 30 April 1865. The cortege was placed in the Indiana State House where it lay in state overnight before continuing on its journey.
Lincoln’s funeral procession from the capital to his home city of Springfield took place between 21 April and 3 May 1865. The coffin passed through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, lying in state in major cities such as Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago along the way.
The President was finally laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery where an enormous tomb was complete in 1874 to house his coffin. Lincoln’s funeral train was accompanied by members of his family, Cabinet, federal and state politicians, and seen by hundreds of thousands of mourners along the route. Countless images and details of the procession were recorded, making President Lincoln’s funeral one of the largest in American history.
[HT to @catbateson]
13 January 2014
The latest set of maps on the BL Georeference project has been completed; these include a fascinating collection of maps from the US Civil War (many of which include some fine portraits of bewhiskered generals).
These have now been given their appropriate latitude and longitude and overlaid on Google Maps (below - scroll to the right and you will find a selection of First World War maps: perhaps we need a chronology project, too). I particularly like the map of Fort Monroe. Amazingly, even Prang's Bird's-eye view of the Seat of War has been rectified. Many thanks to all involved, particularly the volunteers who have worked on the project.
You can read more about the Georeference project on the Maps blog.
09 October 2013
Cover of Reconfiguring the Union: Civil War Transformations. Image: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet, painted by FB Carpenter, engraved by AH Ritchie, c. 1866. Cover designed by Will Speed.
Back in April 2011, the Eccles Centre for American Studies organised a day conference at the British Library on the Civil War. Speakers included Amanda Foreman and Richard Carwardine, and the topics ranged from the Irish and the Civil War to Hollywood's 'memory' of the war. Professor Carwardine spoke on Lincoln and Emancipation, and Dr Foreman considered the Emancipation Proclamation as a propaganda tool. There was also, I add immodestly, a paper on the nascent US oil industry.
Now, these initial papers have been reworked, rewritten and published in this volume, edited by Iwan Morgan and Philip Davies in Palgrave Macmillan's Studies of the Americas series. It has the title Reconfiguring the Union, and is available in all good book stores (and libraries).
This is the table of contents:
1. The Civil War, Democracy and the Union; Adam Smith
2. Lincoln and Emancipation: The Lessons of the Letter to Horace Greeley; Richard Carwardine
3. Freedpeople, Politics and the State in Civil War America; Erik Mathisen
4. The Military Significance of the 1864 Presidential Election; Brian Holden Reid
5. In Union There is Strength:' City-Building and Nation-Building in Civil-War Era Philadelphia, 1844-1865; Andrew Heath
6. 'There Will be Blood:' The Civil War and the Birth of the Oil Industry; Matthew Shaw
7. Faugh a Ballagh! (Clear the Way): The Irish and the American Civil War; David Gleason
8. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and British Views of the Civil War; Amanda Foreman
9. Ordeal of the Union: Alan Nevins, the Civil War Centennial, and the Civil Rights Struggles of the 1960s; Robert Cook
10. Glory, Glory: Hollywood's Consensus Memory of the Civil War; Jenny Barrett
And this is the blurb:
"From the perspective of the North, the Civil War began as a war to restore the Union and ended as a war to make a more perfect Union. The Civil War not only changed the moral meaning of the Union, it changed what the Union stood for in political, economic, and transnational terms. This volume examines the transformations the Civil War brought to the American Union as a politico-constitutional, social, and economic system. It explores how the war changed the meaning of the Union with regard to the supremacy of the federal government over the states, the right of secession, the rights of citizenship, and the political balance between the union's various sections. It further considers the effect of the war on international and transnational perceptions of the United States. Finally, it considers how historical memory has shaped the legacy of the Civil War in the last 150 years."
05 September 2013
A steel engraving from Bartlett Mackay's History of the United States of America (1861). From the text: 'The Battle of the Bull Run [aka the Battle of Manassas] may be said to be the first repulse of the army of the Potomac...'.
I guess we all have days that remind us of the chap guiding the horse on the bottom right.
19 June 2013
This work is free of known copyright restrictions.
Catherine Bateson, our King's College London MA intern updates us on some of her findings as part of the US Civil War Project:
150 years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards was on a long train journey from Shelbyville, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia. Fremantle was conducting an independent tour of the Confederate States at the height of the American Civil War. He witnessed life on the home-front, military and naval engagements and had met General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While on the train, which "was much crowded with wounded and sick soldiers", the British officer noticed "a goodish-looking woman". Fremantle reports that this lady had fought on the frontline and that "no notice had been taken of [her gender] so long as she conducted herself properly", though clearly something had happened because "she had been turned out a short time since for her bad and immoral conduct". He offers no further comment other than noting that "she wore a soldier’s hat and coat, but had resumed her petticoats". Information about female soldiers in the Civil War is often hard to come by, though the Library of Congress has recently drawn attention to this intriguing aspect of the war.
Fremantle’s observation is just one of many wartime snapshots Fremantle jotted down in a three-and-a-half month diary of his American adventures, imaginatively titled Three months in the Southern States, April-June, 1863 (General Reference Collection 10411.bb.24.). The diary is a fantastic Civil War primary source, made all the more interesting as it was written from a neutral British perspective. It also contains entries from July 1863, when Fremantle was at Gettysburg observing one of the Civil War’s most famous battles. His account of events of 1–3 July 1863, written as the fight raged around him, remains one of the best eyewitness reports of the battle. The Library holds several copies of Fremantle’s diary, including the 1863 first edition.
Followers of the blog will know that our Civil War project has been going on for a while, begun to commemorate the American Civil War Sesquicentennial – or the easier to say '150th anniversary' – in 2011. The project is finally nearing completion and the website will hopefully be going live in the next few weeks. I’ve been interning with Team Americas for the last month, adding finishing touches to the website, providing detail to the digitised items and highlighting numerous British connections to the American conflict. Fremantle himself gets a reference, alongside fabulous images of maps, photographs, diplomatic letters, wartime objects and my personal favourite, Union and Confederate songs, including several which praise the role of Irish soldiers in the conflict.
In the meantime, the image above is a taster of what will be on display. The photograph was taken 150 years ago this month by Scottish-born Alexander Gardner. Studying the Art of War features Union officers who would take part in the fighting at Gettysburg in 1863. It is tempting to think Fremantle saw similar scenes behind the Confederate line. As has been mentioned on the blog before, photos from Gardner’s two-volume book have already been digitised, and the website will contain more information on a selection of some of the best.
I like to think that if he were around today, Arthur Fremantle would have enjoyed our Civil War project, as like his diary jottings it covers numerous aspects of this tumultuous period of American history.
American Collections blog recent posts
- Celebrating Juneteenth
- American Studies Training Day in Boston Spa
- An Irish Account of the First Days of the American Civil War
- Lincoln's Funeral Cortege
- US Civil War Maps
- Civil War Transformations
- An Incident in the Retreat at the Battle of Manassas (21 July 1861)
- Civil War Project update – A journey through the Southern (and Northern) States
- Lincoln, Alexander Gardner and the Silent Indian
- Oil, Ambergris and the Grand Ball of the Whales