The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’

We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. It’s a staple of black history lessons, and it’s the name of Spike Lee’s film company. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time, proto-socialist in its implications. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves. What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.

It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.

What Exactly Was Promised?

General William Tecumseh Sherman in May 1865. Portrait by Mathew Brady.

General William Tecumseh Sherman in May 1865. Portrait by Mathew Brady.

We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.

Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty 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 [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”

Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves: ” … 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 … By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.”

Finally, section three specifies the allocation of land: ” … each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) 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.”

With this Order, 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reports – would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually.

Who Came Up With the Idea?

Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.

Stanton, aware of the great historical significance of the meeting, presented Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous brother) a verbatim transcript of the discussion, which Beecher read to his congregation at New York’s Plymouth Church and which the New York Daily Tribune printed in full in its Feb. 13, 1865, edition. Stanton told Beecher that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: “What do you want for your own people” following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.

Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.

Their chosen leader and spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, aged 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, “when he purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver,” as the New York Daily Tribune reported. Rev. Frazier had been “in the ministry for thirty-five years,” and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.

And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” Rev. Frazier began his answer to the crucial third question, “is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” And when asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves,” without missing a beat, Brother Frazier (as the transcript calls him) replied that “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over … ” When polled individually around the table, all but one — James Lynch, 26, the man who had moved south from Baltimore — said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.

What Became of the Land That Was Promised?

The response to the Order was immediate. When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that “From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be,” reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, “the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.” Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the “black governor.” And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ ” By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”

And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, “returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.

Fifty of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross website. Read all 100 Facts on The Root.

  • NN

    We all need to read these facts and history and force America, first, to apologize publicly for the injustice and indecency endured not only of black slaves, but their descendants for the mental pain, suffering, and disadvantages still experienced today. There will never be any “getting over it” until America rights it’s wrongs. This is about acknowledgement as opposed to the constant “sweeping under the rug” syndrome currently expressed. This is not about other races and cultures and immigrants and refugees or any other “peoples” story as a comparison. This is simply and plainly about evening the playing fields for which we have been unjustly positioned since the “abolition of slavery”. Next, the government should take the average cost of land in addition to the cost of a mule or horse in America and distribute that amount amongst the descendants of slaves or actually give up the land and the mule. Finally, programs to teach necessary skills should be established and offered free of charge to Blacks in America in order to help them to manage newly acquired resources properly! Just saying.

    • jakeViz

      So its not enough that 597,000 American died trying to free Slaves in America?

      I realize that there are issues with the implementation, lack of equality and various other aspects of this entire article and our past as a nation, especially in regards to slavery. I find almost all of it despicable and un-American.

      I, however, wholeheartedly disagree as the husband to a non-white immigrant in America regarding your ‘level the playing field’ mentality.

      My wife came to America in 1999 with less than most descendants of Slaves.
      I assure you she has progressed, and it is due to the mentality that SHE CAN.

      Not that she is OWED.

      • BlaqJaqChiraq

        Your assertion begins with the faulty premise that the experience of a 21st century immigrant can be compared to that of a slave. An assertion that simultaneously insults your wife’s success in her new home [which she may be rightly proud of and I suspect your participation to have been of little consequence] and those you target for derision.
        I submit that you cling to two fallacies, the first that the American Civil War was a conflict brought about to free slaves. The second that Affirmative Action was intended to be ‘reparation’ for slavery. We can agree that Affirmative Action is/was flawed….however, no slaves benefited from a set of 20th century programs, no matter how onerous you may believe them to have been.

        • Doug Bruce

          Aside from
          your smarmy response you are correct on one point, and oh so wrong on the other.

          No slave
          benefitted from 20th century programs. Saying that you have to admit
          that no 20th century “never been a slave person” suffered from

          On the overall point you are oh so wrong. To understand why;

          look at southern Florida, blacks have been in Florida for hundreds of years. Cubans, for several decades. Compared to
          black born in the USA Cubans own the economy. Why since most Cubans arrived as refugees
          with nothing but a different attitude. Rather than thinking the government owed
          them the saw an opportunity. An opportunity to better life for their children
          and grand children. They did not look for government freebies they WORKED..
          that led to success. Attitude counts and you need to embrace that lest you
          condemn another generation of African Americans to a life of government dependence

          • BlaqJaqChiraq

            I’m not certain if my response will cut through either my chuckle or your fog, Doug. First…I do not believe that anywhere in my post did I suggest that ‘freebies’ or government handouts, are the way forward, for black people. If you saw that, please highlight in your post. Quite the contrary, I advocate for Black people returning to the interdependence and self-reliance that allowed our people to survive in a society that systematically and through institutions, marginalized black people and turned a blind eye to horrors that are not ancient history, Doug…in our lifetimes. In other words, despite the ‘indifference’ you embrace, we have survived and I put it to you, that in the observation that black people can and should do for themselves, you and I are in agreement.

            Now, to the example you chose to site, the Cuban American experience in Florida. I can offer you better examples, that yo7u could have used to make your point…however, the ‘immigrant song of a noble minority’, is incongruous with your world view. [Re-fresh my memory, is your vaunted Mrs. 'Cuban']. No other group of immigrants has arrived to these shores with more of a ‘Federal boost’, than Cuban Americans. From a ‘touch the soil’ path to citizenship, to 1990′s Republican vote pandering fervor, bestowing ‘honorary white’ status on their brown cousins, Cubans have not only stood on the shoulders of advances in our civil rights victories that preceded them, they were given a ladder to reach the ceiling, with loan guarantees. Let’s begin with the The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. All Cubans receive a package of social service benefits that the U.S. government affords to refugees, yet only a small fraction were actually asylum seekers…the rest are little different than the ‘migration’ at our Southern border, wouldn’t you agree? These benefits include Medicaid, food stamps, English language and vocational classes, job training, child care. Doug, do you know what percentage of Cuban immigrants declined these benefits between 1975 and 2014? It’s public information and whatever you guess, for this segment that you consider to be the ‘example minority’, it is much smaller. Finally, we are talking about immigrants, that were welcomed and are still welcomed here…as I mentioned in our previous exchange, I give kudos to people whom are ‘making it’…I just simply do not labor under the same illusions as you, Doug. Please take a moment and do your research before you, re-butt…I’ll be here ;-)

          • Doug Bruce

            . Firstly,
            if you want to enter into a serious discussion you need to cut the smarmy

            It matters
            not what percentage of Cubans turned down whatever assistance was offered, but
            my guess would be somewhere around 0%, or about the same turn down rate as
            blacks have for welfare, free phones, EBT cards, and affirmative action.

            You missed
            entirely the point I was making. Since Lyndon Johnson’s great society we’ve
            seen the destruction of the African American family unit, fatherless families,
            70% of children born outside of marriage, high school, dropout rates, welfare
            dependant, all the while accepting no responsibility and blaming slavery. This string is from
            comments by a black elected woman claiming to be a freed slave. The point is in
            50 years since the civil rights act people like Sheila Jackson Lee have
            continually looked outward and blames whites for the condition of their
            community. 50 years and things have deteriorated. I’d suggest she try a
            different approach and look inward. I
            fear that wont happen, and you provided evidence of that by your response. You want
            to blame slavery just like Ms. Lee. Hasn’t worked for you, won’t work for you, and will never improve your lot in life.

          • BlaqJaqChiraq

            I remain somewhat challenged by your assertions as to my point…further still, I am led to posit that you are either reading a different article than the rest of us or in your rush to rebuttal [something I suggested you give some thought to first] you neglected to read my posts, as I am fairly certain that nowhere do I write a single sentence blaming whites for anything. Infact, I have with each of my posts, found something to agree with you on. [For instance, "The War on Poverty" has taken its toll on Black people and Black families...agreed! However, I am not convinced that this was not the intention from the very beginning.] as for the article that I read and my posts, simply presenting facts and their results, only smacks of ‘blame’, if somehow you are offended by the truth. I accept the truth that Black people must accept complete responsibility for our future, just as Doug, I am certain you accept the truth that white people had a ‘significant’ role in our past….Now, over to you, Doug. ;-)

          • Doug Bruce

            I have a question for the freed slave Sheila Jackson Lee and the rest of the “I’m a freed slave set” … Do you really believe that your life, yes your personal life would be better today had your ancestor not been taken to America as a slave. Would you personally be healthier, wealthier, and wiser had you had the privilege of being born a free person in Africa???

            Before you answer I’d like you to consider this.. An African man came to the USA, not as a slave, but as a fre…e man seeking an education. He fathered a child in America, which he abandoned and returned to Africa where he fathered several more children. Those children remained in Africa. Now ask yourself, should the child abandoned in America be grateful he was not taken back to Africa? What do you think that child would say, or what his half brothers would say?? Sheila ask Barak Obama and see.

          • BlaqJaqChiraq

            Doug…I have to congratulate you on a new twist, to an old opine…”the black man in America is better off than the black man in Africa, thanks to the slave trade!” You are due credit for this fanciful retelling, right? I didn’t google it, but please allow me to stress that it is very much akin to saying that, the Inuit have lived in the polar regions for a millennia, yet none of them became Santa Claus or taught reindeer to fly…it took a white man to do that! [I do take credit for that one]

            Number 1: The first hole in your argument, is very similar to the choice you made of Cubans as ‘your model minority’…Obama’s father did not come to these shores and impregnate some waitress at the corner Waffle House. Again, in your race to rebut, may I suggest that you had taken a moment to research Obama’s maternal grandfather. True, he did not grow up the way GW Bush did, but he didn’t springforth from a doublewide in Lansing, either.
            Number 2: Your argument relies upon the notion of ” had he been taken back to Africa”…do you mean, the way Elián González was taken back to Cuba? You can’t take a child ‘back’ to a place they had never visited or were not born in. Tell me Doug, you do at least agree with me there, right? Unless of course, you believe another fanciful tale…that he was born in Africa?…Over to you, Doug…take your time. I’ll be here… ;-)

      • Alex Fury

        As you said your wife made an active decision to come to America. And while 597,000 Americans died fighting to free slaves; 2 million Africans died when they were forced and sold out of there homes and taken on a ship to come to America. They didn’t have a choice. Then they were beaten, raped there children stolen out of their arms and sold to someone else. 60 million Africans died in the slave trade. So you don’t think these people are owed something. They gave their lives for someone else’s American dream. These people came to America with nothing, worked for nothing, and we’re killed because of the color of there skin. That is something we can never forget. African Americans are the only race that didn’t travel or actively want to be here like your wife did. So please don’t try to compare us.

        • Doug Bruce

          Who took them out of their homes and sold them??? Maybe slave decedents should look to the African descendents of the sellers for reparations…

      • Complicated

        There is so much bullshit in the story I don’t even know where to begin. To even compare your wife situation to slavery it’s like comparing onions and apples not even apples and oranges your wife’s situation is not even in the same f***** ballpark, the saddest thing about your comment is that most white people in America thinks the same way you think.

    • Ceci Pipe

      What the government should really do is stop the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, as that’s what’s been stopping poorer people in general and “black” people in particular from social mobility. It’s hard to fight generations of money with basic labour.

      Although if you were doing that then you may as well go all the way and introduce wage caps and mandatory minimum wages for all, reviving the vestige of equality. That would simultaneously move a lot of people out of poverty, and even the playing field to once again allow people to rise or fall as dictated by their abilities and not their circumstance.

      The USA needs to get past the idea of benefiting off of someone else’s labour. Once that has happened, then slavery will truly be behind it.

  • rc

    Either the Massacre at Ebenezer Creek was an oversight or it was deliberately left out. The meeting with the pastors and Sherman’s Field Order didn’t come until after thousands of Blacks were left to die or be enslaved by Confederate troops as Gen. Davis abandoned them at the 165-ft wide creek. It was a brutal massacre and it should not be edited out of America’s history.

  • cristo52

    “Whenever a Negro has enlisted in the military service of the United
    States, he may locate his family in any one of the settlements at
    pleasure, and acquire a homestead, and all other rights and privileges
    of a settler, as though present in person. In like manner, Negroes may
    settle their families and engage on board the gunboats, or in fishing,
    or in the navigation of the inland waters, without losing any claim to
    land or other advantages derived from this system. But no one, unless
    an actual settler as above defined, or unless absent on Government
    service, will be entitled to claim any right to land or property in any
    settlement by virtue of these orders.”

    • Cleo Patra

      I would really like you to share your reading list. I’m studying ancient African and need to connect more history into the modern day. Thanks.

      • cristo52

        Cleo – Glad to help. Read General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15.

  • Cleo Patra

    Reading these comments has reminded me that we too have a history that should never be forgotten. I praise you for passing our history to those who want us to forget. Thank you and keep teaching!

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