Forty Acres and a Mule

The order by General Sherman was a promise never kept

Engraved portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman

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The phrase "Forty Acres and a Mule" described a promise many formerly enslaved people believed the U.S. government had made at the end of the Civil War. A rumor spread throughout the South that land belonging to enslavers would be given to formerly enslaved people 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 Black people. However, Sherman's order did not become a permanent government policy.

And when lands confiscated from former Confederates were returned to them by the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the formerly enslaved people who had been given 40 acres of farmland were evicted.

Sherman's Army and the Formerly Enslaved People

When a Union Army led by General Sherman marched through Georgia in late 1864, thousands of newly freed Black people followed along. Until the arrival of federal troops, they had been enslaved people 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, many of whom had lived as enslaved people, expressed the desires of the local Black population.

According to a letter Sherman wrote a year later, Secretary Stanton concluded that if given land, the formerly enslaved people 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 Orders, No. 15

Following the meeting, Sherman drafted an order, which was officially designated as Special Field Orders, 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 formerly enslaved people 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 stated "each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground," 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.

Sherman's order received considerable notice. The New York Times, on January 29, 1865, printed the entire text on the front page, under the headline "General Sherman's Order Providing Homes for the Freed Negroes."

President Andrew Johnson Ended Sherman's Policy

Three months after Sherman issued his Field Orders, No. 15, the U.S. Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau for the purpose of ensuring the welfare of millions of enslaved people 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 formerly enslaved people 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 enslavers to formerly enslaved people under Reconstruction, Johnson's policy effectively thwarted that.

And by late 1865 the policy of granting the coastal lands in Georgia to formerly enslaved people 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 formerly enslaved people received grants of land under Sherman's order. But the land was taken away from them.

Sharecropping Became the Reality for Formerly Enslaved People

Denied the opportunity to own their own small farms, most formerly enslaved people 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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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Forty Acres and a Mule." ThoughtCo, Dec. 12, 2022, McNamara, Robert. (2022, December 12). Forty Acres and a Mule. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Forty Acres and a Mule." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).