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Forty Acres and a Mule

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Portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman

General William Tecumseh Sherman

Library of Congress

The phrase Forty Acres and a Mule described a promise many freed slaves believed the U.S. government had made at the end of the Civil War. A rumor spread throughout the South that land belonging to plantation owners would be given to former slaves so they could set up their own farms.

The rumor did have its roots in an order issued by General William Tecumseh Sherman of the U.S. Army in January 1865

Sherman, following the capture of Savannah, Georgia, ordered that abandoned plantations along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts be divided up and plots of land be given to freed blacks. However, Sherman's order did not become permanent government policy.

And when lands confiscated from former Confederates were returned to them by the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the freed slaves were evicted from their 40 acres of farmland.

General Sherman's Army Was Followed By Freed Slaves

When a Union Army led by General Sherman marched through Georgia in late 1864, thousands of newly freed blacks followed along. Until the arrival of federal troops, they had been slaves on plantations in the region.

Sherman's Army took the city of Savannah just before Christmas 1864. While in Savannah, Sherman attended a meeting organized in January 1865 by Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln's secretary of war. A number of local black ministers, most of whom had lived as slaves, expressed the desires for the local black population.

According to a letter Sherman wrote a year later, Secretary Stanton concluded that if given land, the freed slaves could "take care of themselves." And as land belonging to those who rose up in rebellion against the federal government had already been declared "abandoned" by an act of Congress, there was land to distribute.

General Sherman Drafted Special Field Order No. 15

Following the meeting, Sherman drafted an order, Special Field Order No. 15. In the document, dated January 16, 1865, Sherman ordered that the abandoned rice plantations from the sea to 30 miles inland would be "reserved and set apart for the settlement" of the freed slaves in the region.

According to Sherman's order, "each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground." At the time, it was generally accepted that 40 acres of land was the optimal size for a family farm.

General Rufus Saxton was put in charge of administering the land along the Georgia coast. While Sherman's order mentioned "40 acres," there was no specific mention of farm animals.

General Saxton, however, did apparently provide surplus U.S. Army mules to some of the families granted land under Sherman's order.

President Andrew Johnson Ended Sherman's Policy

Three months after Sherman issued his Field Order No. 15, the U.S. Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau, which was supposed to ensure the welfare of the millions of slaves who were being freed by the war.

One task of the Freedmen's Bureau was to be the management of lands confiscated from those who had rebelled against the United States. The intent of Congress, led by the Radical Republicans, was to break up the plantations and redistribute the land so former slaves could have their own small farms.

Andrew Johnson became president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. And Johnson, on May 28, 1865, issued a proclamation of pardon and amnesty to citizens in the South who would take an oath of allegiance.

As part of the pardon process, lands confiscated during the war would be returned to white landowners. So while the Radical Republicans had fully intended for there to be a massive redistribution of land from former slave owners to former slaves under Reconstruction, Johnson's policy effectively thwarted that.

And by late 1865 the policy of granting the coastal lands in Georgia to free slaves had run into serious roadblocks. An article in the New York Times on December 20, 1865 described the situation: the former owners of the land were demanding its return, and the policy of President Andrew Johnson was to give the land back to them.

It has been estimated that approximately 40,000 former slaves received grants of land under Sherman's order. But the land was taken away from them.

Sharecropping Became the Reality for Freed Slaves

Denied the opportunity to own their own small farms, most former slaves were forced to live under the system of sharecropping.

Life as a sharecropper generally meant living in poverty. And sharecropping would have been a bitter disappointment to people who once believed they could become independent farmers.

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