“In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free:” Celebrating Juneteenth

To commemorate Juneteenth we are featuring Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3. Issued on June 19, 1865, General Order No. 3 proclaimed that enslaved people in Texas were free. As you read the document and analysis below, we invite you to reflect on the complicated historical legacy of slavery in the United States. The date represents both the tragic toll of slavery as well as a commitment to liberty and equality. It serves as a reminder of the past and a call to action in the present. 

This document can be found in Milestone Documents of U.S. Slavery, which includes 100 critical primary sources, from essays, speeches, and letters to government documents such as legislation and court opinions. 

Gordon Granger: General Order No. 3




Gordon Granger


Military Orders


Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of the slaves, derives from General Order No. 3, issued in Texas on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that slaves in Texas were now free


On June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, a proclamation stating that slaves in Texas were now free. The order was posted at several locations throughout the city of Galveston, where the proclamation was issued, and was published in newspapers throughout Texas. The order was issued in an effort on the part of Union forces occupying the state to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.


In the General Provisions of the constitution of the Republic of Texas, which was ratified in 1836, a number of provisions bore on the issue of slavery. The constitution made slavery in Texas legal. It stated that people of color who had been servants under Mexican law would become property; that Congress (that is, the Texas Congress) was to pass no law stopping immigrants from bringing slaves into Texas and that the Congress would have no power to emancipate slaves; that slave owners were not to free slaves without congressional approval unless the freed slaves leave the republic; that free persons of African descent had to petition the Texas Congress for permission to continue living in Texas; and that Africans and their descendants were not included in the class of persons having rights in the state. The legislature later went on to prohibit anyone with African heritage from voting, owning property, testifying against whites in court, or intermarrying with whites.

After Texas was admitted to the Union as a state in 1845, the state legislature took further steps to restrict the rights of free Blacks. The Black population of Texas continued to grow until, by 1860, more than 182,000 Texans were enslaved, some 30 percent of the population. Nearly half of these slaves lived and worked on plantations along the Gulf Coast and in the river valleys of East Texas. Most cultivated cotton, corn, and sugar. A few worked for cattlemen. Most lived in rural areas, but at least a thousand lived in Galveston and in Houston. Those who worked in urban areas or on the edges of towns tended to be cooks, waiters, teamsters, boatmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, and barbers. Most Texas churches, especially Baptist and Methodist churches, accepted slaves as members; Methodists, for example, boasted more than 7,500 slaves as members of the church. A few slaves even became ministers.

After Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy, slavery was not affected to any great extent. The number of slaves in the state increased, largely because the state was far from Union lines and slave owners moved their slaves from areas of Tennessee and Arkansas occupied by Union troops. By the 1870 census, the state was home to more than 253,000 freedmen. Meanwhile, most of the war was fought elsewhere, with Texas acting principally as a supply line for Confederate troops. Some two months after the end of the war in 1865, General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston to occupy the state and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation by means of General Order No. 3.

It is commonly believed that through the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves.” Such an assertion is only partially true. The proclamation stated:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free. . . . [S]uch persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States. . . . And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

The war, however, was still raging. Lincoln’s proclamation was applicable to slaves in the states in rebellion, which of course ignored the proclamation—and abhorred it, believing that it would provoke a race war. The proclamation had to be enforced, which Union troops, such as those in Texas, attempted to do after the war’s end. Slavery, however, did not entirely end until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865. The amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Emancipation Proclamation, and General Order No. 3, were steps in an arduous process of ending slavery in America.

About the Author

Some historians have asserted that Union general Gordon Granger was not the author of General Order No. 3. The order was issued over his signature, but it was actually written by his adjutant. Other historians dispute this assertion, commenting that the adjutant likely had a hand in its composition but that Granger was the principal author. Granger was born on November 6, 1821, in New York State. Prior to entering the military academy at West Point, he worked as a teacher. In 1845, he graduated from West Point, placing thirty-fifth in a class of forty-one cadets. He then fought in the American War with Mexico under General Winfield Scott, earning commendations for his part in the Siege of Veracruz, the Battle of Cerro Gordo, the Battle of Contreras, the Battle of Churubusco, and the Battle for Mexico City. Later, he served on the western frontier in Oregon and Texas until the Civil War erupted. Meanwhile, in 1852 he was promoted to lieutenant, in 1861 to captain. His first combat experience in the Civil War came at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in 1861. After the battle, he was promoted to colonel and placed in charge of the arsenal at St. Louis, and in November 1861, he took command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry Regiment at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. In March 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general. Later that year, after he commanded a cavalry brigade in the Union march on Mississippi, he was promoted to major general. Throughout 1863, he took part in Union operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama, as a commander of volunteer forces. He was reputed to have had an abrasive personality, and instances of borderline insubordination prevented General Ulysses S. Grant from giving him his own command. He is most famous for his role in the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, when, acting without orders, he reinforced beleaguered Union forces on Snodgrass Hill. His attack on the Confederate flank enabled Union forces to retreat in good order. The action earned Granger the soubriquet “rock of Chickamauga.”

Command of the Department of Texas fell to Granger on June 10, 1865. In this role he was under the command of General Philip H. Sheridan, the commander of the Military Division of the Southwest. Immediately on his arrival in Galveston, he issued General Order No. 3. He further proclaimed that any laws passed by the Confederate government were null and that Confederate soldiers were paroled. He counseled Blacks to remain on the plantations they worked and to sign labor agreements with their former owners until help could arrived from the Freedmen’s Bureau. He was relieved of his command in Texas on August 6, 1865. Afterward, held a number of posts, including command of the District of New Mexico from 1871 to 1876. He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on January 10, 1876.

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

The document is short and simple. In the first paragraph the people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the “Executive” of the United States—presumably the president—all slaves have their freedom. Freed slaves are to enjoy “absolute equality of personal rights.” They are also to enjoy “rights of property between former masters and slaves.” Henceforth, the connection between masters and slaves is to be one of employers and employees.

The second paragraph of the order issues a caution. Freedmen are advised to remain in their homes and continue to work for their former owners for wages. Freedmen are further informed that they are not to gather at military posts and that they will not be “supported in idleness.”


General Order No. 3 was a proclamation, giving it the force of law. The audience for the order would have been slaves and slave owners in Texas in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, as well as Texas citizens generally. A further audience was the newly created class of freedmen, who were cautioned to stay in their homes and to continue to work for their former owners for wages.


Before the issuance of General Order No. 3, a large number of slaveholders in the Confederacy chose not to tell their slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and refused to honor it. They were able to do so because as the war continued, Union troops had not arrived in Texas to enforce it. Many slaves, however, had learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and looked forward to their deliverance.

When Granger arrived in Galveston, about 250,000 enslaved people lived in Texas. Despite General Order No. 3, not all of them were immediately freed. In some instances, slaveholders, unwilling to relinquish free labor, did not release their slaves until they were forced to. In other instances, slave owners waited until a final harvest was complete. Others simply refused to honor the order. Some slaves fled or tried to flee but were attacked and in some instances killed. In response to the order, former slaves migrated to Austin, Dallas, Galveston, and other Texas cities. The largest migration was to Houston.

On June 28, 1865, a circular was issued by the Office of the Provost Marshal General of Galveston, Rankin G. Laughlin. The circular states:

All persons formerly slaves are earnestly enjoined to remain with their former masters, under such contracts as may be made for the present time. Their own interest as well as that of their former masters, or other parties requiring their services, renders such a course necessary and of vital important, until permanent arrangements are made under the aupices of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It must be borne in mind, in this connection, that cruel treatment or improper use of the authority given to employers will not be permitted.

The circular continues: “No persons formerly slaves will be permitted to travel on the public thoroughfares without passes or permits from their employers.” The circular goes on to reiterate that idleness and congregating around military posts would not be tolerated. Thus, while General Order No. 3 was an important step in emancipation and served to reinforce the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves as of the summer of 1865 were not fully free just yet, for their movements were restricted and in point of fact some were held in jail for “safe-keeping.”

The activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau alleviated some of the challenges faced by former slaves in Texas. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was created by Congress in March 1865 as a branch of the U.S. Army with the goal of providing assistance to the many refugees, Black and white, who had been left homeless by the Civil War. Its mandate also included the supervision of affairs related to newly freed slaves in the southern states and administration of lands abandoned by Confederates or confiscated from them during the war. The bureau operated in Texas from late September 1865 until July 1870. The chief administrator of the bureau, General Oliver Howard, wrote in his autobiography that the job of commissioner in Texas “seemed at the time . . . to be the post of greatest peril.” The Texas commissioners firmly believed that the court system should extend to Blacks the same rights as those accorded to whites. As an example, when local authorities disarmed Blacks in a town, the agent was ordered to return their weapons—unless whites were similarly disarmed. The effort to create a genuinely effective organization in Texas was largely defeated for several reasons: The state was too big, lines of transportation and communication were poor, white Texans were hostile to the efforts of the bureau, and the bureau was short on funds.

—Commentary by Michael J. O’Neal

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Bill in 2021. (Official White House Photo by Chandler West)

Document Text

Head Quarters District of Texas

Galveston Texas June 10th 1865.

General Orders

No. 3.

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

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.