Juneteenth Reveals Another Hidden Gem of Greater Western New York

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Gordon GrangerThe Civil War offers many heroes from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant to William Tecumseh Sherman. (In fairness, the War Between the States provide quite a few villains, too – on both sides – but no need to belabor the half-empty glass.)

We know quite a few of these heroes, like Rochester’s Colonel Patrick H. O’Rorke, who was killed at Gettysburg while leading his men into action on Little Round Top, gave their ultimate in the fight to free the slaves.

Some heroes, whose significance fades with the passage of time, are occasionally rediscovered as changing perspective once again shines light on their distinguished acts of bravery, perseverance, and devotion that sets them apart from their fellow soldiers.

Today’s news has elevated the stature of Gordon Granger, a man who might have single handedly changed the outcome of the Civil War.

If you travel just south of the Village of Sodus in Wayne County, you’ll find County Road 229 does a bit of a jog as it intersects with Main Street. Joy — A hamlet south of Sodus village at the junction of County Road 229 and Main Street. Turning right at the “T” and heading up Main Street leads you into the quaint hamlet of Joy.

Joy gets its name from Benjamin Joy of London, England, the original owner of township 13, the town we now call Sodus. Gaius Granger moved his family there and built the first house in this hamlet.1 Back then it was still Ontario County. Wayne County wasn’t formed until 1823.

Gaius was the son of Elihu Granger, originally from Turkey Hill, Connecticut. He was the neighbor of Oliver Phelps. He had learned that Phelps, together with Nathaniel Gorham, had purchased the land in Western New York beyond Preemption Line. It was the land “whose charms had first been spread and sung by the soldiers returning from the expedition of General Sullivan in 1779.”2

In the spring of 1789, Elihu Granger, then only 18, and his brother Pierce (age 20), together with several other neighbors, set out into the uncharted wilderness to settle the land which would eventually be called Phelps. They arrived five days after the areas first settler, John Decker Robinson. A year later, Elihu returned to Turkey Hill to retrieve his wife and young son, whereby the entire family emigrated permanently to Phelps.3

On September 20, 1797, Gaius Granger was born in Phelps. He married Catherine Taylor and the young couple moved to the hamlet of Joy, where he spent most of his life as a farmer.4 There, their first child, Gordon Granger, was born on November 6, 1821.5 Catherine died shortly after giving birth to their third child in 1825. Gauis subsequently married Sally Emery, and together they had 10 children.6

While many point to Gordon Granger as the inspiration for Juneteenth, his legacy is much more significant than that. On June 19, 1865, as newly installed commander of the District of Texas, Major General Granger issued five orders. It’s the third order that led to locals to eventually celebrate “Juneteenth.” Here’s what he said:

“The people are informed that, in accordance with the 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 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.”7

By 1865, however, Granger was already a celebrity. Unlike the merry-go-round of Union generals at the top, Granger was more of a workmanlike soldier, coming in to mop up or, as fate would have it, save the day.

Just two months after Gettysburg, another critical battle occurred. This was for Chattanooga and it represented one last chance for the South to take the momentum from the North.

And they nearly did.

Except Granger decided to defy orders and, in doing so, save the Union army.

At the Battle of Chickamauga, Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, commanding the Army of the Cumberland continued his fight with Confederate General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee. It was a typical seesaw battle that was getting nowhere fast when Rosencrans made the mistake of assuming the rebels had found a hole in his line. He gave the orders to reposition his troops. This, unfortunately, created a real hole and trapped Union troops with no avenue of escape.

With all hope lost, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, felt he was in the final battle of his life. He noticed a cloud of dust in the distance. This is an eyewitness report of the event:

“Gen. Thomas, near the center of the army, was engaged about one o’clock sitting on his horse in the hollow of a ridge in an open field behind Harker’s brigade, busy watching a heavy cloud of dust in his rear, in such a direction that it might be Gen. Granger with reinforcements, or it might be the enemy. It cast a cloud over his spirits, which was plainly visible to one who observed him, as I confess I did that day, with ever-increasing admiration. The truth is, that Gen. Thomas at one o’clock P.M., on the last day of this battle had no disposition to fight any more, and feared the result of the next rebel attack. And so he watched with natural anxiety the development of the cloud of dust, which was then no more than a mile distant. If it dissolved to reveal friends, then they would be welcome; for at this hour fresh friends were all that was needed. If it disclosed the enemy, then the day was lost, and it became the duty of those who formed the ‘last square’ on this battle-field to throw into the teeth of the victorious enemy a defiance as grandly contemptuous as that of Cambronne, and die. There was no escape if the troops moving were the cavalry of the enemy.”8

That cloud of dust did indeed turn out to be General Granger. Like a Hollywood, movie, the cavalry arrived at the last minute to save the day. Thomas and his troops lived to fight another day, and they soon did.

In the meantime, Granger was the toast of the North. His heroics rang through the newspapers. Soon he repeated his bravery by helping Burnside take Knoxville and Farragut take Mobile Bay.

He ended the war, as mentioned, in Texas, once again mopping up. He was a mere administrator, and got things organized for a more permanent replacement. His orders were a mere formality of the job. They weren’t even cited in his obituaries that ran a decade later.

But his pivotal role in the battle of Chickamauga continued to be praised well into the twentieth century. Such was his legacy that a poem was written of him called “Hurrah for Gordon Granger.”9

It wasn’t until a general with a similar disposition – George S. Patton – arrived in World War II that new tales of dogged determination supplanted those of Granger.

Still, there is a wonderful irony in associating Gordon Granger with the elimination of slavery. He’s the eighth generation descendent of Launcelot Granger of West London. At the age of 12 or 14, he was kidnapped from his widowed mother and brought to Plymouth, Massachusetts where he was sold as a slave, only to gain his freedom two years later.10

1George W. Cowles and H. P Smith, editors, Landmarks of Wayne County New York, D.Mason & Company, Publishers, Syracuse, 1895, p.214
2James Nathaniel Granger, Launcelot Granger of Newbury, Mass., and Suffield, Conn. A Genealogical History, Press of The Case, Lockwood & Nealnorb Company, 1893 p.153)
3Ibid, p. 153
4Ibid, p. 268
5https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/5894120/gordon-granger accessed June 20, 2021
6Granger, p. 269
7The Dallas Daily Herald, Saturday, July 1, 1865, p.2
8New York Herald, Sunday, September 17, 1863, p. 5
9Poetical Works of Charles Graham Halpine, Edited by Robert B. Roosevelt, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1869, p.81
10Launcelot Granger of Newbury, Mass., and Suffield, Conn. A Genealogical History, By James Nathaniel Granger, Press of The Case, Lockwood & Nealnorb Company, 1893 p.26

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