The Ticket to Self Sufficiency
The Promise of 40 Acres
As Union soldiers advanced through the South, tens of thousands of freed slaves left their plantations to follow Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s army.
To solve problems caused by the mass of refugees, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, a temporary plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land on islands and the coast of Georgia. The army had a number of unneeded mules which were also granted to settlers.
News of “forty acres and a mule” spread quickly; freed slaves welcomed it as proof that emancipation would finally give them a stake in the land they had worked as slaves for so long.
In the Field, Savannah, Georgia, January 16th, 1865.
Some former slaves made a way where there seemed to be none and obtained land to farm. To them, ownership of a farm meant more than owning a business: the deed to the land signified the end of their days as slaves, as sharecroppers, as workers for someone else. It was true emancipation — no one could confuse a slave with a landowner. To be a landowner meant status as a voter, taxpayer, and citizen. Thus, possession of land represented a defiant step toward racial equality with white farmers, who had constituted the heart of the ruling class in the early 1800s south land. Now, for the first time, blacks controlled their own future and fate.The land offered a promise to future generations, too. No matter what misfortune or oppression might come (short of God’s wrath of drought and pestilence), the family could support itself — raise its own food, tend its own pigs and chickens, and pass on that security to children and grandchildren.The farm, then, went beyond land and ownership.
To a black man or woman it was a ticket to self-sufficiency, as well as a sign of having arrived in the eyes of their neighbors and themselves. The black farmer, working hard for his own, became the living symbol of the strong, independent black man. Farming also allowed black families to move into other businesses, from funeral homes to preaching to construction, and thus served as the bedrock of all black wealth in America.
Imagine yourself as a young person in a place where the land has all been taken. You might want to become a farmer, but there is no farmland available. Then imagine seeing advertisements for land, some for very little money, some for free! You face many unknowns. What is this new land really like? Will there be enough rainfall to grow your crops? Will you have neighbors? Who will they be? What about the people who are already on the land?
Suppose you are an African American living in a Southern state after the Civil War ended in 1865. You are a slave no longer. You are free, free to work where you want, free to live where you want. But you also probably have never received an education. You probably have very little money and fewer economic prospects. In addition, by 1877, federal troops are pulled out of the South; and laws segregating blacks from whites are being enacted.
You hear that some black families have moved North where it’s possible to claim free land. Would you join them?
Special Field Orders, No. 15.
I. 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 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. He cannot be subjected to conscription or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the Department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.
Negroes so enlisted will be organized into companies, battalions and regiments, under the orders of the United States military authorities, and will be paid, fed and clothed according to law. The bounties paid on enlistment may, with the consent of the recruit, go to assist his family and settlement in procuring agricultural implements, seed, tools, boots, clothing, and other articles necessary for their livelihood.
III. Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. 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 Quartermaster may, on the requisition of the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, place at the disposal of the Inspector, one or more of the captured steamers, to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points heretofore named in orders, to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.
IV. 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.
V. In order to carry out this system of settlement, a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible the description of boundaries; and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory. The same general officer will also be charged with the enlistment and organization of the negro recruits, and protecting their interests while absent from their settlements; and will be governed by the rules and regulations prescribed by the War Department for such purposes.
VI. Brigadier General R. Saxton is hereby appointed Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, and will at once enter on the performance of his duties. No change is intended or desired in the settlement now on Beaufort [Port Royal] Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.
By Order of Major General W. T. Sherman
The orders were in effect for only one year.