Sherman’s Redistribution Order

January 16, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman, having recently completed his March to the Sea through Georgia, issued military directives seizing abandoned land along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and redistributing the land in 40-acre segments to newly freed slaves. The land included a strip of coastline from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida, Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast.[1]

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Sherman’s order had been approved by both Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln. Stanton had recently visited Sherman in Savannah to confer with the general regarding his true opinion of blacks. Sherman had complained that the massive wave of black refugees following his army through Georgia impeded his military progress. Sherman wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “The South deserves all she has got for her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.”[2]

The order served two military purposes by 1) giving the refugees their own land so they would no longer rely on Sherman’s army for protection and subsistence, and 2) encouraging freed slaves to join the Federal army as soldiers so they could fight to maintain their new liberty. The order also served two political purposes by 1) offering Washington politicians a solution to the problem of what to do with the millions of new free southern laborers, and 2) blunting the perception in Washington that Sherman was callous toward blacks.[3]

Each slave family was to receive “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground,” and this order became the basis for the slogan “forty acres and a mule,” or the notion that Federal authorities should forcibly seize land from southern planters for redistribution to former slaves. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had previously organized black recruitment into the army, was assigned to enforce Sherman’s order.[4]

Under this directive, some 40,000 former slaves and black refugees received land. However, President Andrew Johnson revoked Sherman’s order in the fall of 1865 based on the U.S. Constitution barring the confiscation of private property without due process.[5]



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One thought on “Sherman’s Redistribution Order

  1. […] William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, empowering Federal authorities to seize abandoned lands on the Sea Islands and inland tracts in Georgia and South Carolina. […]


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