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40 Acres and a Mule


The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 and became effective on January 1 1863. So as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”


It freed every enslaved person in the United States.


But there was a problem. A little thing called the Civil War.


So it could not be enforced in the territory held by the confederate states. Where according to the constitution of the Confederate States of America: “In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected”.


So as Union troops took territory from the confederacy, the slaves in that area became free.


This bring us to Sherman’s march…. And a couple of betrayals.


Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s mission was to cut across the confederacy and destroy the military and civilian infrastructure thereby seriously damaging the confederacy’s ability to resource and fight a war.


From November 15 until December 21, 1864 he conducted a successful campaign. His army of 62,000 soldiers crossed across the confederacy and destroyed infrastructure. The campaign is credited with helping to accelerate the surrender of the confederacy.


But it also meant that as he took confederate land, he freed slaves on that land.


The freed slaves did what anyone would do. They followed Sherman’s army. It gave them protection from confederate soldiers and plantation owners. They also acted as scouts and helped the Union army gather provisions since they knew the territory.


They were not the only ones following Sherman’s army. The confederate calvary corps of General Joseph Wheeler numbering about 10,000 men was harassing Sherman from the rear.


On December 8, 1864, The Union XIV Corp reached the western bank of Ebenezer Creek. The Union XIV Corp, 14,000 men, was under the command of General Jefferson Davis. He was no relation to the confederate president of the same name, yet he was not a progressive abolitionist and had no love for the freed slaves following his corps.


The Confederate forces following Davis were close enough to sporadically shell the Union forces. Ebenezer creek was impassible as the confederate forces had burned the one bridge needed to cross the creek. Engineers began constructing a pontoon bridge. The bridge was ready by midnight.


The freed slaves began to try and cross but Davis lied. Davis claimed there were confederate forces on the other side and the Union soldiers should go first to clear the way. Davis then posted a guard to prevent them from crossing.


When the Union troops had completed their crossing, Davis ordered the bridge supports cut, stranding the freed slaves on the other side of the water with the confederate forces. The stranded people understandably panicked. Confederate forces would kill or re-enslave African Americans they found with brutal efficiency. They rushed into the icy water and stampeded to get across. Most drowned, many were crushed in the panic. Wheelers Calvary cut through them. In the end it is estimated about 5,000 perished.


Colonel Charles Kerr of the 16th Illinois Cavalry recalled the incident:


“On the pretense that there was likely to be fighting in front, the negroes were told not to go upon the pontoon-bridge until all the troops and wagons were over: a guard was detailed to enforce the order… As soon as we were over the creek, orders were given to the engineers to take up the pontoons and not let a negro cross. I sat upon my horse then and witnessed a scene the like of which I pray my eyes may never see again.” (Washington Post)


Davis’ betrayal was so heinous that Major James Connolly of Illinois described these events in a letter to the Senate Military Commission two weeks after the incident. The letter was leaked to the press and created such a stir that it caught the attention of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton went down unannounced to talk to Sherman to understand what had happened. When Stanton arrived he began questioning Sherman about the events. Sherman, himself not exactly a progressive on the subject of slavery, defended his general. Davis was never reprimanded.


However the issue of how to deal with the freed slaves was still prominent. So Sherman and Stanton met with 20 African American ministers on January 12, 1865 and put forth a list of 12 questions designed to facilitate a solution and understand what the refugees needed. The minister led by Baptist minister and former slave Garrison Frazier presented their answers, which included:


“The way we can best take care of ourselves 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 in response to whether they would want to live amongst the white populace they prophetically indicated they would “prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over …”


Four days later, on January 16, 1865, Sherman issued Special Order No 15 which contained 6 parts. The 3 most relevant parts were:


Section 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 [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”


Section II: ” … 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.”


Section III: “… 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.”


So Sherman’s Special Order 15 gave 40 acres of land to freed families and allowed them to govern themselves without interference from the white community.


This solved several problems for the Union. First, it helped a public relations crisis. Second, it relieved the Union army of the bulk of the burden of the refugees. It also accomplished something Stanton had been wanting to do for a while.


The land designated in Section I of the order was plantation land taken from wealthy slave owners. Stanton had been trying to figure out how to decrease the political power of the wealthy plantation owners and this was a quick way to do this.


This was also historically significant as it was the first (not last) act of reparations to an oppressed group by the government of the United States - Ronald Reagan over a century later would sign reparations for Asian Americans interred in camps during World War II.


The infamous mule came into being when Sherman ordered that the army could lend the settlers some mules.


However, it was not to last. Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 brought Andrew Johnson into the presidency. Less than a year after Special Order No 15 was signed, a second betrayal was committed when New President Johnson reversed the order and handed the land back to the very plantation owners who had enslaved the refugees.


I am sure there are more detailed accountings of its origin, but that is the story behind “40 acres and a mule”. A phrase which represents both promise and betrayal.


As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.


All the best,

Dave Terné








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