The History of General Order No. 3 and Juneteenth

This year, as the nation celebrates Juneteenth as the newest federal holiday, many Black Americans will be taking part in a long-honored tradition—public readings of General Order No. 3.

Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the order on June 19, 1865 at Galveston (Texas) to inform enslaved Texans about their liberation. It is long forgotten in current history. However, its language was much more progressive that the Emancipation Proclamation before it and the 13th Amendment. It promised formerly enslaved people “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” and clarified the relationship between slaveholders and enslaved as one “between employer and hired labor.”

“Of the three, it is by far the most progressive. The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment don’t mention anything about absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property,” says Greg Carr, an associate professor of Afro-American Studies at Howard University who specializes in African-American nationalism.

The full text for General Order No. 3.

Granger, accompanied by more than 2000 troops, arrived at Galveston to enforce Texas’ end to slavery. It had been two years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it had been two months since Confederate General Robert E. Lee gave up. However, Texas’ war was still far from over.

“The main significance of Texas in this history is that it was relatively remote when considering the modes of transportation and communication in nineteenth-century America,” Damani Davis, an archivist at the National Archives, which has the original, handwritten text of the order signed by Maj. F.W. Emery speaks on behalf Granger to TIME via email. This left troops vastly unequipped to tackle the territory’s sprawling landscape. “[With] 2,000 or 200,000 troops, they couldn’t police the state of Texas,” says Carr. “Though the Union had declared victory, they didn’t have the muscle to make them let them go.”

Language of Order No. 3 also promised a lot that couldn’t be delivered, advising freedmen to “remain quietly at their present homes” and “work for wages” without any way to guarantee either. “The rhetoric was, ‘We’re going to defend you,’ ‘We’re going to protect your rights to make and enforce contracts.’” says Carr. “What property did they have? Who was going to enforce the contracts?”

In fact, General Order No. 3 was a series of compromises and broken promises. Carr says 3 foreshadowed inequality and the struggle for justice Texas (and the nation) are still grappling with.

“This has its roots in tolerating that type of hatred,” he says. “Texas has never been a white state in the way that the New England states were. Texas’ only option for governance was political and financial violence. That Juneteenth moment, in many ways, is the linchpin for putting together the pieces of the puzzle that becomes the United States of America that we live in today.”

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