January 16, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman issued directives for Federal troops to seize abandoned land along the Atlantic coast and redistribute it to newly freed slaves.
As Sherman’s armies conducted their march from Atlanta to Savannah, they were inundated by thousands of slaves fleeing from nearby plantations. Sherman had complained that his men should not be responsible for taking care of these refugees because they 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.”
Sherman’s troops routinely mistreated the refugees, and in Washington rumors spread that Sherman “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the Negro.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton headed south, ostensibly for health reasons, but really to discuss the matter with Sherman. (President Abraham Lincoln also asked Stanton to urge Sherman to hurry and launch a new campaign, explaining that “time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the downhill, and somewhat confused, keep him going.”)
Stanton met with Sherman and a delegation of black preachers who testified that the general was a “friend and a gentleman.” The delegation’s spokesman said, “We have confidence in General Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be in better hands.” When Stanton asked how best to transition from slavery to freedom, he said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor… We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.”
The preachers stated that recruiting black men for the army did not actually grow the army as much as it allowed white men to let the blacks take their place. The leader also opined that if the Confederates recruited blacks into their armies, “I think they would fight as long as they were before the ‘bayonet’, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.”
Sherman later wrote that Stanton was skeptical about his handling of fugitive slaves, “but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of this negro question.”
After Stanton left, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which authorized the redistribution of confiscated land to former 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. Approved by both Stanton and Lincoln, this was the most radical military order of the war.
The order served two military purposes:
- It gave the refugees their own land so they would no longer rely on Sherman’s army for protection and subsistence
- It encouraged 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:
- It offered Washington politicians a solution to the problem of what to do with the millions of new free southern laborers
- It blunted the perception in Washington that Sherman and his armies were callous toward blacks
Each slave family was to receive “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” 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 and redistribute it to former slaves. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had previously overseen black recruitment into the army, was assigned to enforce Sherman’s order.
Under this directive, some 40,000 former slaves and black refugees temporarily received “possessory title” of land until Congress “shall regulate the title.” Once on their land, “the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations” and “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.”
Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this measure was imposed based on the executive’s supposed “war powers.” Sherman also issued a proclamation regarding the treatment of former slaves:
“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 toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”
Later this year, President Andrew Johnson revoked Special Field Orders No. 15, citing the constitutional ban on confiscating private property without due process.
BlackPast.org-Special Field Orders No. 15; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 406; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15336-46, 15684-704; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-41, 544; GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org-Sherman’s Field Order No. 15; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 237; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 841; Wikipedia.org-Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15