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Forty Acres and a Mule

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Submitted By zdesai211
Words 1865
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Merely 35 years after the last shot was fired in the American Civil War on June 22, 1865, in 1901, anticipating his imminent displacement, George White—the last African American remaining in Congress—retired. He was a victim of North Carolina’s disfranchisement schemes. On the eve of his departure from the House, Mr. White lamented, “The mule died long ago and the land grabbers have obtained the 40 acres.” Audible in his tone was the frustration that underlay more than 30 years of broken promises made to African Americans.
The phrase “forty acres and a mule” that Mr. White refers to in his address has its roots in the Special Field Order # 15 (SFO # 15). The order was signed into effect on January 16, 1865 by General William Tecumseh Sherman; just two months after Abraham Lincoln had been reelected to office. SFO #15 entitled each freed family forty acres of tillable land on islands and the coast of Georgia. However, there is no mention of mules (or any animals) in the field order.
A popular fable is that Sherman's commissary man came to him complaining that he had a large number of “broken down” mules for which he had no means of disposal. Sherman sent the useless animals for distribution along with the land. The first two sections of the SFO # 15 describes the area where the land was to be reserved and section three clearly indicates the size of the land to be allocated.
“Special Field Orders, No. 15
I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty (30) miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.
II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations -- but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress. By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the Negro is free and must be dealt with as such.
III. Whenever three respectable Negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, … the three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
The red highlighted area of the cropped section of an 1854 map from Wells’ McNally’s System of Geography (on the following page) displays the area which is mentioned in SFO # 15. The area came to be popularly known as the “Sherman Reservation.” Sherman had defined a general area, but his wording was somewhat ambiguous. He clearly set aside all the Sea Islands, but within the coastal portion of land he appears to have been aiming to confiscate—and make available for settlement—only the plantations along the rivers and other “abandoned” lands. Nevertheless, Congress had earlier decided that all land and property of men who were fighting for the Confederacy (or even the property of others who had supported or conducted business with Confederate forces or authorities) had been technically “abandoned,” even if their families were still on the land, making it eligible for confiscation by the Federal government. This would have vastly expanded the land believed to be available for settling freed | | blacks, even if Sherman’s order was originally interpreted to apply only to the islands and the land along the rivers (rather than the entire 30-mile-wide portion of land). 1865 was a very eventful year. In March, the Freedman’s Bureau was established; in April, President Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson succeeded to the Presidency. In May 1865, Johnson began presidential reconstruction. From June - August, the Southern State governments reorganized; from September - November, the Black Codes were enacted, and in December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution was ratified. A couple of months later, General Sherman wrote a letter to President Andrew Johnson on February 2, 1866, explaining the origin of his field order # 15. The letter was published in the New York Times the following day.
“The Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, came to Savannah soon after its occupation by the forces under my command, and conferred freely with me as to the best methods to provide for the vast number of Negroes who had followed the army from the interior of Georgia, as also for those who had already congregated on the islands near Hilton Head, and were still coming into our lines. We agreed perfectly that the young and able-bodied men should be enlisted as soldiers, or employed by the Quartermaster in the necessary work of unloading ships, and for other army purposes. But this left on our hands the old and feeble, the women and children, who had necessarily to be fed by the United States. Mr. Stanton summoned a large number of the old Negroes mostly preachers with whom he had long conference, of which he took down notes. After the conference he was satisfied the Negroes could, with some little aid from the United States, by means of the abandoned plantations on the Sea Islands and along the navigable waters take care of themselves. He requested me to draw up a plan that would be uniform and practicable. I made the rough draft and we went over it very carefully. Mr. Stanton making many changes, and the present Orders No. 15 resulted and were made public.
I know of course we could not convey title to land and merely provided “possessory” titles to be good so long as war and military power lasted. I merely aimed to make provision for the Negroes who were absolutely dependent on us, leaving the value of their possessions to be determined by after events or legislation.
At that time, January, 1865, it will be remembered that the tone of the people of the South was very defiant, and no one could foretell when the period of war would cease. Therefore I did not contemplate that event as being so near at hand.”
Whether General Sherman knew that he “could not convey title to land and merely provided ‘possessory’ titles to be good so long as war and military power lasted” or whether he was simply adjusting his tone to the (changing) sentiments of the time and to the new Presidents’ viewpoints could be debated. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, had traveled to Savannah to meet with Sherman at the time the General had issued his order and appears to have approved it orally, but not formally, in the sense that he did nothing to countermand it. Stanton’s biographer, Frank Abial Flower, wrote of the order:
Stanton, on reading it, said to Sherman: “It seems to me, General, that this is contrary to law.” Sherman’s response was: “There is no law here except mine, Mr. Secretary.” Stanton smiled and the order was issued a day or two after he left for the North. General Saxton says Stanton was opposed to the order, but acquiesced in its promulgation in deference to the positive wishes of General Sherman.
Sherman’s letter to Johnson provided justification for Johnson’s order to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had been liberally setting up black settlements in the area, with each family receiving “forty acres.” Much to the dismay of the Freedmen’s Bureau, of the military officer General Rufus Saxton who Sherman had put in place to implement his order—and of course to the African Americans who had been resettled into the area—President Johnson ordered the restoration of the land to the original owners.
Historian Jacqueline Jones, in Saving Savannah, summed up Sherman’s original goal: Ultimately, then, Special Field Order No. 15 grew out of the refugee problem, which, in the words of one Union officer, “left on our hands the old and feeble, the women and children,” too many hungry mouths to feed in the city of Savannah. … The order made explicit the connection between military service for men and homesteads for their families, and it provided not for fee-simple titles, outright ownership of the land, but rather possessory titles that remained contingent on future political developments. The order itself remained “subject to the approval of the President.” What came to be called the Sherman Reservation, then, was a means of draining Savannah of women, children, and the elderly while providing for enforced service among young men. This initial goal foreshadowed the order’s troubled future.
The confused and conflicted intentions and authorities that informed the issuance of Field Order No. 15 and its later implementation and revocation, have been the focus of the claim of precedent for government reparations to ex-slaves and then to their descendants.
The mid-to-late 1860’s was one of the few high points in African-American history as during this period slavery was abolished, black Southerners were able to organize schools and able to acquire legal and political rights. Yet black people did not sit on the brink of utopia. Most Freedmen still lacked land and had no realistic hope of obtaining much, if any, of it. White violence and cruelty continued unabated across much of the South.
As time went on, the injustices, the broken promises, the segregation and the oppression of the Freedman only intensified. In 1986 when Spike Lee named his film production company “Forty Acres and a Mule Production” I wonder whether he was aware of the origin of the phrase and its connection to SFO # 15. I also wonder why he decided to name his company on a phrase that signified broken promises.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. http://baic.house.gov/historical-essays
[ 2 ]. http://www.southernheritage411.com/truehistory.php?th=110
[ 3 ]. General W. T. Sherman. Special Field Orders, No. 15, Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, 16 Jan. 1865. Orders & Circulars, ser. 44, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives
[ 4 ]. Dr. John Buescher, University of Virginia, Forty Acres and a Mule, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24170
[ 5 ]. William T. Sherman, “Sherman’s Famous Field Order,” New York Times, February 3, 1866.
[ 6 ]. Frank Abial Flower, Edwin Stanton: The Autocrat of Rebellion, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, p. 298.
[ 7 ]. Dr. John Buescher, University of Virginia, Forty Acres and a Mule, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24170
[ 8 ]. Jacqueline Jones, Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, p. 222.
[ 9 ]. Hine et al, The African-American Odyssey, p. 317…...

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