Special Field Order No. 15: Forty Acres and a Mule Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In early 1865, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, with the tacit approval of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, issued a field order that radically redistributed some 400,000 acres of Confederate agricultural lands owned by rebelling Southerners to newly freed African Americans. Sherman had recently embarked upon his psychologically and militarily shattering March to the Sea across Georgia, and a great number of emancipated slaves followed on the heels of his conquering army. Special Field Order No. 15 thus served a number of purposes: it resettled these refugees so that the army no longer had to protect them; it punished rebels in the very heart of the Confederacy; and it provided a potentially enduring means of support for newly freed slaves. Although this promise of “forty acres and a mule” proved short-lived, it carried lasting implications for both the reconstructed South and for African Americans.

Summary Overview

In early 1865, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, with the tacit approval of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, issued a field order that radically redistributed some 400,000 acres of Confederate agricultural lands owned by rebelling Southerners to newly freed African Americans. Sherman had recently embarked upon his psychologically and militarily shattering March to the Sea across Georgia, and a great number of emancipated slaves followed on the heels of his conquering army. Special Field Order No. 15 thus served a number of purposes: it resettled these refugees so that the army no longer had to protect them; it punished rebels in the very heart of the Confederacy; and it provided a potentially enduring means of support for newly freed slaves. Although this promise of “forty acres and a mule” proved short-lived, it carried lasting implications for both the reconstructed South and for African Americans.

Defining Moment

Lasting from 1861 until 1865, the Civil War was the bloodiest and most grueling conflict fought on US soil. The core cause of the war was the widespread practice of chattel slavery across the agricultural South, which relied on this cheap forced labor to support the large plantations that were the heart of its society and economy. The growth of abolitionist sentiment in the North and the election of a president who had avowed his unwillingness to see slavery expand into new US states and territories spurred some Southern leaders to secede from the United States. The resulting conflict at first focused mainly on the forcible reuniting of the sundered country, but in time it came to increasingly address the moral and political questions raised by slavery.

Although the conflict was less than three months from its end when Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 from his military headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, in January of 1865, its looming finality was not yet apparent to the governments, armies, and people of the divided United States. Union forces had made significant inroads into Confederate territory in recent months, with Sherman and his army inflicting incredible destruction in Georgia in a successful effort to show the Southern populace that war was a terrible machine from which their faltering Confederate government could not protect them. As Sherman’s army crossed the South, it enforced the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved African Americans in territories rebelling against the US federal government. Thus, Sherman’s March to the Sea was also a march of liberation for the region’s black residents, many of whom attached themselves to the trailing edge of Sherman’s army.

These human additions to Sherman’s marching force came to number in the thousands. Because the freed people had no money or possessions other than the clothes on their backs, they were entirely dependent on the Union Army to feed and shelter them. The pressure to care for a civilian populace in the midst of an intense military campaign was strategically unwelcome. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with a group of African American ministers at the conquered city of Savannah, Georgia, in January of 1865 to discuss possible arrangements to detach the refugees from Sherman’s army. A few days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 in a direct response to this conversation.

Author Biography

Born in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1820, William Tecumseh Sherman spent much of his adult life involved with the US military. He attended the prestigious West Point military academy, graduating near the top of his class, and participated to in both the Seminole War in Florida and the Mexican-American War in California. After leaving the army in the mid-1850s, Sherman worked in banking and real estate for several years. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he became an officer in the Union Army and rose rapidly through its ranks. He fought alongside Ulysses S. Grant to take control of Confederate strongholds along the Mississippi River and became the head of the Army of the Tennessee after Grant assumed leadership of the war’s western theater. The following year, Sherman took this position after Grant became the Union Army’s general-in-chief.

In late 1864, Sherman launched a devastating campaign across Georgia and the Carolinas. He and his troops pillaged and destroyed land and property to undermine civilian support for the Confederate Army and to show the futility of continued war. The combined psychological and physical warfare worked. Southern support for the Confederacy declined as Sherman’s “hard war” raged on, and his so-called March to the Sea has been widely credited as a factor in the Union victory in the spring of 1865.

Sherman was neither an abolitionist nor a particular supporter of African American rights; like the wide majority of Americans of his era and social station, he believed that black people were inherently inferior to white people. His racial views informed his actions both before and during the war. Prior the conflict, Sherman had shown little interest in using the US political system to curtail the spread of slavery, and some evidence suggests that he sympathized to a degree with the Southern position regarding African Americans. Immediately before the conflict erupted, Sherman lived in the Southern state of Louisiana, where he actively sought to remain neutral on the controversial issue of slavery. As a military officer, he declined to allow black soldiers to serve under him, believing that they could not possibly be equal to white soldiers. His motivations in issuing Special Field Order No. 15 must therefore not be viewed as an effort to support the social, political, or economic interests of freed black slaves in whom Sherman had little interest and even less respect.

Document Analysis

General William Tecumseh Sherman was far from a Radical Republican dedicated to the political, social, and economic equality of black and white Americans, but his Special Field Order No. 15 is among the most radical policies developed and implemented during the Civil War. Issued shortly before the war’s end, primarily as a way to clear a growing African American civilian contingent away from Sherman’s army and to weaken the Confederacy from within, the order instituted a policy of land redistribution that promised to dramatically reshape the economic and social position of freed African American slaves in the South in just a short time. The order punished Confederates by taking possession of valuable agricultural lands while assuring a base of Union support in the very heart of the Confederacy, not far from the place where the rebellion had begun years before with South Carolina’s declaration of secession. Although Sherman had little personal interest in the lasting success of a group of people that his writings suggest he felt were vastly inferior to their white counterparts, his order redrew the South along racial lines not seriously discussed even by the more moderate wing of the Republican Party leading the Union at the time; property rights were, after all, among the most fundamental of the liberties assured under the US Constitution. The radical nature of the order may belie Sherman’s intentions, but the lasting conversation that the action began influenced racial policies in the South well past the order’s own brief period of efficacy.

Special Field Order No. 15 begins by outlining the lands affected by its directives. These included “the islands from Charleston south”–more commonly known as Georgia’s Sea Islands–”the abandoned rice-fields” stretching along the coastline, and “the country bordering the St. John’s River, Florida.” In total, this area, which became known as “Sherman’s Land” or “Sherman’s Reservation,” encompasses a thirty-mile swathe inland along the southeast’s Atlantic coastline from Charleston, South Carolina, in the north to Jacksonville, Florida, in the south. Sherman’s language is somewhat vague, however, on whether the order commandeered all of the land within the borders that he outlined or merely those lands actually abandoned by their occupants; earlier Congressional legislation had declared lands belonging to Confederate soldiers or supporters to be abandoned, however.

Containing hundreds of thousands of acres, this region had historically been the heart of the rice-growing industry and as such held great agricultural and economic value for those in possession of it. Because of its plantation-based economy, the region was already home to thousands of African Americans who had toiled in bondage on the very land that Sherman’s order now reserved for them. The vast majority of these freedmen had only recently obtained liberty. Sherman’s order specifically grants the lands to those African Americans who had been freed by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and other “acts of war,” which particularly included Sherman’s own March to the Sea. Sherman may not have supported African American equality, but he firmly believed that his army deserved recognition and respect for the role that it had played in executing the practical emancipation of the multitudes legally freed by the authority of a government not then recognized in the South.

The second section of the order contains three main points. First, freedmen living in specified cities were permitted to carry on as residents of those mixed-race cities along whatever lines they may already have envisioned. In contrast, the second key point formally racially segregates the remainder of the land, creating a black-only territory outside of local or state government authority. This order of segregation can be traced to the discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton had with African American leaders in Savannah several days before the issuance of Special Field Order No. 15. As part of this conversation, the Union leaders asked the freedmen of Savannah whether Southern African Americans would on the whole prefer to live in an integrated society or in separate black-only colonies. The leaders, citing the history of institutionalized racism that they believed would take many years to overcome, mostly argued for racial separation. Special Field Order No. 15 complies with that request–a seemingly odd one when viewed through the lens of the later civil rights movement to eradicate just these kinds of racial barriers–by expelling any white people then residing in the Sherman Reservation from its boundaries, excepting government or military personnel charged with the management of the land and its people.

Finally, the second section sets guidelines for the enlistment of freedmen in the army, including the payment of enlistment bonuses to family members on the Sherman Reservation in order to support their agricultural endeavors. Sherman’s own refusal to employ African American soldiers in his army undermines the seeming magnanimity in this action. Although the Union Army had at first declined to allow black soldiers into its ranks, by early 1865 recruitment policies had changed. The Supreme Court decision stripping African Americans of citizenship still stood, and as such, black Americans could not be legally drafted into the army; they could, however, voluntarily enlist. Yet Sherman refused to allow black soldiers into his ranks, a clear reflection of his racist beliefs that black soldiers were simply not as good as white soldiers. Instead, he permitted African Americans only in support roles behind the lines. Although politicians in Washington–including President Lincoln–pressured Sherman to change his mind and follow the US laws allowing black soldiers into the army, Sherman resisted. Because of this, the encouragement that he gives to young freedmen to enlist in the army actually had the effect of separating those recruits even further from his own ranks. Telling freedmen to enlist got those soldiers as far away from Sherman’s army as he could possibly secure.

The order then lays out the specific details of the process of distributing land to the freedmen. Family groups were to settle in clusters, with three heads of households being required to apply together for permission to take control of an area of land. The government then granted the applicants an area of land that they were to divide among themselves, presumably so that larger families with more able hands could have larger plots than smaller families who were perhaps unable to manage a great deal of land. Land allotments were capped at forty acres per family, with further restriction preventing any one household from having access to more than 800 feet of waterfront. Forty acres was apparently an arbitrary division, but one that had been used before in planned Union subdividing and sale of confiscated lands; it became part of the Reconstruction-era rallying cry of “forty acres and a mule” commonly attributed to the promises of Special Field Order No. 15. This section further guaranteed freedmen settlers military protection on their forty acres “until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title”–that is, until the communities were sufficiently established to be able to care for their own interests or until Congress made other arrangements to finalize their temporary situation. To this end, the official managing the settlement could use seized Confederate vessels to conduct trade between the agricultural settlements and the cities encompassed by the order.

Further to the tenets of taking possession is a series of directives permitting freedmen to retain their land claims without being physically present on the land under certain circumstances. Soldiers and army laborers, for example, could establish and maintain land claims without being present. Freedmen who had already received land allocations could retain those claims while on nearby waterways. But the order specifically forbade people not contained in the group of recently freed slaves–the very people that Sherman wished to detach from his army–from undertaking to make a land claim under the order.

Next, the order establishes a government position, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, to “visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general arrangement, and who will furnish personally to each head a family… a possessory title in writing… and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts” that may result from this land distribution. The inspector also oversaw the military enrollment of African American soldiers and helped manage their lands while they were fighting. Yet the emphasis in this section on the possessory nature of the title is the idea that proved most pivotal in time. Because the title granted possession, but not ownership, of the land to the freedmen settled there, it did not provide an entire legal guarantee that the residents could not be expelled. If their possessory titles were revoked, they lost all claim to the farms or homes that they had established there. It was in fact this usage of the possessory title that Sherman himself later pointed to as a justification for President Andrew Johnson’s decision to rescind Special Field Order No. 15; because the titles were possessory, the actual land itself had not been given to its tenants, and returning possession to the original owners after the war was, by this logic, quite fair.

Whether this was the intention from the beginning remains debatable, however. On one hand, the order was issued in wartime by a military official and as such may be reasonably assumed to be effective largely as a function of that conflict; discussion of land redistribution throughout the war had mostly hinged on its use as a tool of war. On the other hand, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, an ally of the Radical Republican wing of Congress and a proponent of African American rights, had a definite if somewhat unclear role in the reading and revising of Sherman’s order. Using freedmen as an economic weapon only to discard them after the war had ended did little to further long-term Radical Republican goals.

The last section of Special Field Order No. 15 names Brigadier General Rufus Saxton as the official inspector of settlements and plantations and puts him in charge of administering the order’s tenets. Saxton, a Massachusetts native and decorated Union officer, was a logical choice for this role, although Saxton’s radical republicanism and personal beliefs made Sherman dislike him greatly (Fellman 165). Saxton was an abolitionist and supporter of African American political and economic advancement who could be expected to work diligently to execute Sherman’s order because of these moral values. Saxton was also an experienced quartermaster with particular experience in the distribution of lands. In 1863, Lincoln had named Saxton one of the commissioners responsible for the management of seized lands in South Carolina’s Sea Islands, amounting to a little over 60,000 acres. The commission had auctioned off some of the lands, but a substantial acreage was earmarked for sale to African American families. In an effort to secure more of these lands for prospective African American landowners, Saxton had devised a plan to settle African Americans on plots of land earmarked for auction before the sale took place. This, Saxton hoped, would allow a greater number of freedmen the opportunity to buy land at an affordable price. Although Saxton’s earlier efforts in the Sea Islands were not a success–much of the land sold for prices far higher than freedmen could pay–his belief in the vital importance of African American land ownership as an accompaniment to freedom was apparent (Oubre 8–11).

Indeed, Sherman seems to have felt confident that assigning this task–one that Sherman himself had essentially no interest in overseeing and little concern for its success beyond removing the unwanted civilian freedmen from his military machine–to Saxton would guarantee that the general could focus his attentions on the continued conquering of the South. Passing the job to Saxton also insulated Sherman from what he believed would be its inevitable problems, even as it made Sherman look like a great protector of an oppressed people. Although Sherman probably did not select Saxton in a real effort to help the freedmen succeed on their new lands, Saxton proved a strong advocate for the freedmen after Sherman appointed him to the task. Believing the government to have fallen through in its efforts to ensure land for freedmen in the past, he communicated with Stanton to ensure that the federal government would protect freedmen’s rights to the lands that he allotted in the Sherman Reservation; with Stanton’s assurance, Saxton distributed some 400,000 acres of land in less than six months’ time. In fact, the recipients of that land had tenancy for only a short time, but this was not due to any action on the part of either Saxton or Stanton.

Special Field Order No. 15 contains a series of directives outlining the extent and execution of the land redistribution policy. What the order does not contain, however, is a direct listing of its causes and goals; this information must be inferred from the document, from historical evidence about Sherman, and from evidence about the other key events and figures involved in the order’s creation. Ultimately, the policies promulgated in Special Field Order No. 15 served a number of purposes. For Sherman, the order rid him of the free black civilian population that he believed was weighing down his fighting force. It allowed him to make a strong move against the Confederate rebels that his army was in the midst of fighting on all fronts, while ensuring that the new residents of the Sherman Reservation were deeply supportive of that army. At the same time, the order appeased even the most radical of the Radical Republicans, a group with whom Sherman had clashed more than once in the past over what was generally perceived as his intense hatred of African Americans; Sherman later included a December 1864 letter in his memoirs referencing the “almost criminal dislike to the negro” that Republicans in the capital believed him to have shown in his actions to date (Sherman 247–48).

For Sherman, therefore, the order offered valuable military and political expedients that served his immediate aims in subduing the Confederacy and in streamlining his increasingly unwieldy army. Later, Sherman again used the freedmen as a way to improve his military operations, declaring that pack animals too strained for further military use be sent to the freedmen’s farms where they could provide useful, lighter-duty agricultural service and recover their strength at the same time–the “mules” of “forty acres and mule.” That the land redistribution established in Special Field Order No. 15 also greatly aided freed African Americans and provided a basis for the later work of Reconstructionists in establishing high levels of economic and political equality between the races in the South was, for Sherman, a side effect of these primary aims. Some historians have even speculated that Secretary of War Stanton, not Sherman, was the genesis of the land redistribution enacted by the order, in part because of this seeming disparity between Sherman’s previous actions and the apparent goals and effects of Special Field Order No. 15. Yet the uneasy alliance of the furtherance of African American equality with the achievement of military and political aims was at the core of the Civil War, which was a conflict begun as a result of racial issues and as time progressed became tied to changing the way that African Americans lived.

Essential Themes

Within a short time of its issuance, the promises of Special Field Order No. 15 were interpreted by the nation’s growing freed African American population to be “forty acres and a mule” in recompense for their time in bondage. Yet this interpretation quickly proved inaccurate. Although several thousand freedmen and their families were in fact settled on the lands seized and redistributed under Sherman’s order, regime change in Washington, DC, changed the flavor of Reconstruction almost before it was truly underway. Lincoln, who was assassinated not long after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant in an act that essentially ended the Civil War, was succeeded by the Southern-born Andrew Johnson. Johnson’s policies toward the defeated former Confederacy were even more lenient than those proposed by Lincoln, and his actions discouraged many of the gains that freed Southern African Americans longed for.

Among these actions was the revocation of Sherman’s order in the winter of 1866. As Johnson formally pardoned former Confederates, he restored confiscated lands to them and expelled the African American tenants who had taken possession under Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. By this time, even Sherman had undertaken to provide justification for this decision. In an open letter to the president published by the New York Times, Sherman explained that the order had been one with military aims that gave freedmen only possession, and not ownership, of the land. With the war over and military influence in the South at least temporarily waning, the order therefore had lost its justification; after military governments took control of much of the South under the more radical Congressional Reconstruction plan, the promise of “forty acres and a mule” was not resurrected.

Yet the promise was also not forgotten. Special Field Order No. 15 serves as a lynchpin of the argument in favor of government reparations to the descendents of formerly enslaved African Americans. During the civil rights era some one hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. specifically called out Sherman’s order as a broken promise to African Americans. The order was frequently cited during the unsuccessful legal and political attempts to secure reparations during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Supporters of restitution have argued that the legacy of slavery has unfairly taken wealth and property due to contemporary African Americans–a clear nod to the land granted and then rescinded from the freed African American population of 1865. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 thus carries lasting relevance for the country and its people despite losing its official authority to distribute land.

Bibliography
  • Buescher, John. “Forty Acres and a Mule.” Teachinghistory.org. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.
  • Fellman, Michael. Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random, 1995. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 1990. Print.
  • ---. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
  • Lewin, Tamar. “Calls for Slavery Restitution Getting Louder.” New York Times. New York Times, 4 June 2001. Web. 2 May 2013.
  • Marszalek, John F. “William Tecumseh Sherman.” American National Biography Online. Oxford UP, n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.
  • McPherson, James M. “The Ballot and Land for the Freedmen, 1861–1865.” Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings. Ed. Kenneth M. Stampp and Leon F. Litwick. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. Print.
  • Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978. Print.
  • Sherman, William Tecumseh. Memoirs of William T. Sherman. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1891. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1987. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
  • Reid, Debra A., ed. Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families since Reconstruction. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2012. Print.
  • Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.
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