The origin of a revolutionary idea: 40 acres and a mule


The original idea for redistributing 40 acres of formerly Confederate land to newly freed African slaves was the brainchild of a group of 20 Black preachers. According to Henry Louis Gates, the idea was incredible at the time but, in fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today.

However, the early advocacy for Confederate land redistribution sprang from abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans who had been actively advocating the idea, as one historian put it, “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power.”

The idea, which has long been credited to General William Sherman, took shape on January 12, 1865 in a mansion in Savannah, Ga. The plan to redistribute 40 acres of formerly Confederate land was hatched at this meeting, which came on the heels of Northern outrage over the Ebenezer Creek Massacre.

Related Story: The Ebenezer Creek Massacre, a prelude to ‘40 Acres and a Mule’

The meeting was attended by Secretary of War Edward Stanton, Sherman, and 20 ministers.  Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them, “What do you want for your own people” following the war?

What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by Black leaders themselves. What was agreed upon was the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate landowners, and its methodical redistribution to former Black slaves.

How it came about

Twenty ministers attended the meeting, most of them either Baptist or Methodist. According to Gates, 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, and 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. The other ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.

A former slave, 67-year-old Garrison Frazier, was chosen by the group to be their leader. He had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857 “when he purchased freedom for himself and his wife for $1,000 in gold and silver. Frazier took on the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group.

It was the third of the 12 questions, “What did the Negro want most,” that brought a surprising request. Rev. Frasier answered, “Land!”

“The way we can best take care of ourselves,” said Rev. Frazier, “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.”

When Frazier was asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the Whites or in colonies by themselves,” Brother Frazier (Gates reports that this is how the transcript of the meeting referred to him) said, “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.

Field Order No.15

Section one of the Order designates that “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 the community be governed 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.”

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.

Eric Foner in his book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” noted, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.”

Freed people’s response

According to Gates the response to the Order was immediate. Historian Eric Foner noted that “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.’ The 40 acres decree became “40 acres and a mule” after Sherman ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules.

The traitors regain their land

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.

“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,” lamented Gates.