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Juneteenth celebrated at Antietam battlefield

June 23, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

SHARPSBURG - Antietam National Battlefield joined in the national recognition of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, with a series of talks on the Emancipation Proclamation, held Sunday in the battlefield's visitor center.

The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued more than two years before, but with little effect in the Confederate-controlled state.

Battlefield historians coordinated with the National Juneteenth Museum Without Walls to offer the battlefield's first Juneteenth program this year, Chief Historian Ted Alexander said.

The focus of the program was the Emancipation Proclamation because the Battle of Antietam was the impetus for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary proclamation, Alexander said.

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"Critics and cynics back then and today will be quick to tell you that it hardly freed any slaves, if you read the fine print," Alexander said. "But it's an important first step by the federal government toward ending slavery."

The program's first speaker, Civil War historian Edna Greene Medford, discussed Lincoln's struggles with the issue of how and when to emancipate the enslaved blacks in the South.

Lincoln believed that everyone has the right to better himself, but at the same time, he believed in the Constitution, which protects property rights, Medford said.

"I'm fascinated by him because he's such a complex man," Medford said.

The program's second speaker, noted legal scholar Burrus M. Carnahan, elaborated on Lincoln's complex decision-making process.

Some say Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator who waited to free slaves until he was forced to, but Carnahan said he doesn't believe that was true. Lincoln's only reluctance was to adopt the legal basis for emancipation. Freeing the enemy's slaves was an accepted tactic in war times, but to use it, Lincoln would have to acknowledge the Confederacy as an international entity, which he was reluctant to do, Carnahan said.

While June 19, 1865, marked the freedom of hundreds of thousands of remaining slaves, Medford said it shouldn't be given too much significance. There were still pockets of slavery in parts of South Carolina and Texas, as well as in many border states, she said.

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