Who Needs 40 Acres and a Mule?
We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. It’s a staple of black history lessons, and it’s the name of Spike Lee’s film company. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time, proto-socialist in its implications. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves. What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.
It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” 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.
What Exactly Was Promised?
We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.
Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “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 now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely 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 is free and must be dealt with as such.”
Finally, 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. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually. (Henry Louis Gates, n.d.)
As insightful as the article, “The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule” is, there is an omission about its origin so glaring that it is impossible to move forward without mentioning it. The impetus for these “reparations” was not slavery at all. These reparations were proposed in response to a massacre of hundreds if not thousands of freed slaves, mainly women, children and the elderly. (Brockell, 2014) These freed slaves were abandoned by the Union Army as a measure of expediency. The “able-bodied” men had worked to clear passage for a portion of Sherman’s Army but the women, children and the elderly were looked as an “irritant” and as “slowing down the march” of Union troops by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis of the Union Army. (Churchill, 1988)
Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis had few complaints about the able-bodied black men who were supplying the muscle and sweat to keep his Union XIV Corps on the move with Major General William T. Sherman’s 62,000-man army. The black ‘pioneers’ were making the sandy roads passable for heavy wagons and removing obstacles that Rebel troops had placed in his path. Davis was irritated, though, by the few thousand other black refugees following his force toward Georgia’s coast. He had been unable to shake them since the Union army stormed through Atlanta and other places in Georgia in late 1864, liberating them from their owners.
The army fed the pioneers in exchange for their labor. It also took care of the refugees who worked as teamsters, cooks, and servants. It did not, however, assume responsibility for the others. So every day, hundreds of black women, children, and older men wandered into the camps, begging for food…
Besides exacerbating the food-shortage problem, the refugees tested Davis’s volatile temper by slowing down his march. Davis was eager to reach Savannah, the destination of Sherman’s 250-mile destructive ‘March to the Sea’ from Atlanta to Georgia’s coast. But at every step of the 25 miles left in Davis’s march, the XIV Corps would have to contend with Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry corps, a constant hindrance and annoyance. Quicker movement would make it easier to evade the Rebel horseman as well as to defend against them.
So as Davis’s men approached the 165-feet-wide and 10-feet-deep swollen and icy Ebenezer Creek on December 3, the general envisioned more than merely another mass pontoon-bridge crossing. He saw an opportunity to rid himself of the refugees in a manner he thought would be subtle enough to elude censure. Controversy might follow, but he was used to that…
As the XIV Corps prepared to cross Ebenezer Creek, Davis ordered that the refugees be held back, ostensibly ‘for their own safety’ because Wheeler’s horsemen would contest the advance. ‘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,’ explained Colonel Charles D. Kerr of the 126th Illinois Cavalry, which was at the rear of the XIV Corps.
‘A guard was detailed to enforce the order, ‘Kerr recalled. ‘But, patient and docile as the negroes always were, the guard was really unnecessary.’
Though what happened once Davis’s troops had all crossed remains in dispute, it seems fairly certain that Davis had the pontoon bridge dismantled immediately, leaving the refugees stranded on the creek’s far bank. Kerr wrote that as soon as the Federals reached their destination, ‘orders were given to the engineers to take up the pontoons and not let a negro cross.’
‘The order was obeyed to the letter,’ he continued. ‘I sat upon my horse then and witnessed a scene the like of which I pray my eyes may never see again.’
How many women, children, and older men were stranded cannot be determined precisely, but 5,000 is a conservative estimate. ‘The great number of refugees that followed us…could be counted almost by the tens of thousands,’ Captain Hopkins of New Jersey guessed. Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the right wing of Sherman’s army (which included Davis’s corps), recalled seeing ‘throngs of escaping slaves’ of all types, ‘from the baby in arms to the old negro hobbling painfully along the line of march; negroes of all sizes, in all sorts of patched costumes, with carts and broken-down horses and mules to match.’ Because the able-bodied refugees were up front working in the pioneer corps, most of those stranded would have been women, children, and old men.
What happened next strongly suggests that Davis did not have the refugees’ best interest in mind when he delayed their crossing of the creek, to say nothing of his apparently having ordered that the bridge promptly be dismantled. Davis’s unabashed support of slavery definitely does not help his case, though Sherman insisted his brigadier bore no ‘hostility to the negro.’
Kerr saw Wheeler’s cavalry ‘closely pressing’ the refugees from the rear. Unarmed and helpless, the former slaves ‘raised their hands and implored from the corps commander the protection they had been promised,’ Kerr wrote. ‘…[but] the prayer was in vain and, with cries of anguish and despair, men, women and children rushed by hundreds into the turbid stream and many were drowned before our eyes.’
Then there were the refugees who stood their ground. ‘From what we learned afterwards of those who remained upon the land,’ Kerr continued, ‘their fate at the hands of Wheeler’s troops was scarcely to be preferred.’ The refugees not shot or slashed to death were most likely returned to their masters and slavery.
Kerr’s descriptions of the atrocity apparently met widespread skepticism, and he was forced to defend his integrity. ‘I speak of what I saw with my own eyes, not those of another,’ he asserted, ‘and no writer who was not upon the ground can gloss the matter over for me.’ Still, he left it to another officer, Major James A. Connolly of Illinois, to blow the whistle on Davis. ‘I wrote out a rough draft of a letter today relative to General Davis’ treatment of the negroes at Ebenezer Creek,’ Connolly wrote two weeks after the incident. ‘I want the matter to get before the Military Committee of the Senate. It may give them some light in regard to the propriety of confirming him as Brevet Major General. I am not certain yet who I had better send it to.’
Connolly decided to send the letter to his congressman, who evidently leaked it to the press. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reacted to the subsequent bad publicity by steaming down to Savannah, which Sherman’s army had captured on December 21, to investigate the matter. Stanton did not preannounce his visit, but Sherman had received advance notice about it from President Abraham Lincoln’s chief-of-staff, Major General Henry W. Halleck. ‘They say that you have manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro…, [that] you drove them from your ranks, preventing their following you by cutting the bridges in your rear and thus caused the massacre of large numbers by Wheeler’s cavalry,’ Halleck wrote.
Stanton arrived on January 11 and began asking questions. ‘Stanton inquired particularly about General Jeff. C. Davis, who he said was a Democrat and hostile to the negro,’ Sherman later wrote. Stanton showed Sherman a newspaper account of the affair and demanded an explanation. Sherman urged the secretary not to jump to conclusions and, in his postwar memoirs, reported that he ‘explained the matter to [Stanton’s] entire satisfaction.’ He went on to say that Stanton had come to Savannah mainly because of pressure from abolitionist Radical Republicans. ‘We all felt sympathy…for those poor negroes…,’ Sherman wrote, ‘but a sympathy of a different sort from that of Mr. Stanton, which was not of pure humanity but of politics.’
Sherman’s attitude toward black people is perhaps best illustrated in his own words, in a private letter he wrote to his wife, Ellen, shortly before he left Savannah to continue his march up the coast. ‘Mr. Stanton has been here and is cured of that negro nonsense,’ he wrote. ‘[Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase and others have written to me to modify my opinions, but you know I cannot, for if I attempt the part of a hypocrite it would break out in every sentence. I want soldiers made of the best bone and muscle in the land, and won’t attempt military feats with doubtful materials.’ As he admitted in his memoirs, ‘In our army we had no negro soldiers and, as a rule, we preferred white soldiers.’
‘The negro question was beginning to loom up…and many foresaw that not only would the slaves secure their freedom, but that they would also have votes,’ his memoirs further reveal. ‘I did not dream of such a result then, but knew that slavery, as such, was dead forever; [yet I] did not suppose that the former slaves would be suddenly, without preparation, manufactured into voters–equal to all others, politically and socially.’
In course, when considering Sherman and his actions, it’s important to remember that his ideas about black people, though shocking today, were hardly unique in his time. The majority of Union volunteers, and of Northerners in general, were at most ambivalent about emancipation and were vehemently opposed to black suffrage.
Given the prevailing beliefs of the time, it might be no surprise that Union authorities justified the incident at Ebenezer Creek as a ‘military necessity.’ None of the officers involved was even officially reprimanded. Most of them advanced in their military and, later, civilian careers.
Davis’s commander, Howard, who had been described as ‘the most Christian gentleman in the Union army,’ went on to found Howard University, a black college in Washington, D.C. He also became the first director of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which the Federal government
set up to help the recently freed slaves make the transition from slave to citizen.
Wheeler’s cavalry was roundly condemned for its part in the affair, but the reputation of its young commander was evidently not harmed. Wheeler went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1885 to 1900 and as a major general of volunteers in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Davis handled the Ebenezer Creek commotion with the same coolness that had taken him back to battlefield command so soon after the Nelson shooting. Again he was never punished or even reprimanded. In fact, he was later made a brevet major general.
Then there is William T. Sherman, the field commander ultimately responsible for Davis’s actions. Sherman was rewarded with the Thanks of Congress for the revolutionary ‘total war’ he waged during his March to the Sea. At the May 1865 Grand Review of the Armies, the huge parade through Washington, D.C., to celebrate Union victory, Sherman was hailed as a war hero. A few years later, newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant made Sherman a full general and general-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
Sometime during those postwar years, Sherman offered a rosy recollection of the reception he and his men had received as they marched through Georgia. ‘…the Negroes were simply frantic with joy,’ he said. ‘Whenever they heard my name, they clustered about my horse, shouted and prayed in their peculiar style, which had a natural eloquence that would have moved a stone.’ Apparently, though, it did not move Sherman deeply enough to make him seek justice for the soon-forgotten victims of the Ebenezer Creek incident.
I struggled mightily as I tried to cut down this quote as it seemed too long to include. However, it is a portrait of American history in 1864 that few have ever seen. To cut any more of the quote would in effect change the picture, change the view of history. As African-Americans, we have always been fed a history of Sherman’s march and of the Union Army that doesn’t resemble reality. This article fills in some holes for me.
I’ve always wondered how the North could offer the blood of its sons, grandsons, and nephews but not support the equality of the black people that it freed. I didn’t live in 1864 but I can see through this missing portrait of US history that great American heroes such as Sherman wanted an end to slavery but by my no means saw the negro as an equal, worthy of the rights possessed by white Americans.
I can see that though the end of slavery was worth fighting for by America’s civilian and military leaders, that the lives of the slaves they fought for were often deemed inconsequential. So much so that the reparations proposed for the massacre were never given and those responsible for the massacre, even on the “losing” side, were never punished. Perhaps as I glance at this historical portrait even closer, I see a white America fighting more to preserve the “union” than for the end of slavery or the rights of the freed slaves.
The Gates article refers to the taking of lands from the defeated Confederates and giving it to the freed slaves as “socialist.” (Henry Louis Gates, n.d.) In what other war that Americans have fought and died in would we refer to the redistribution of defeated enemy lands as anything other than spoils or reparations? In what other war would the defeated combatants be given rights greater than those on the winning side? In what other war in which we have we gone in to liberate a subjected people did we allow the oppressor, the antagonist, to retain rights to lands that were greater than those of the people who were liberated? Other than the loss of its soldiers on the battlefield and being forced to rejoin the Union, what other reparations did the “South” have to pay?
The “40 Acres and a Mule” proposal was the only type of reparations for freed slaves that I have ever heard proposed. As I read the article it almost sounded like the reservation system set up for displaced Native Americans. As such it didn’t seem “radical” to me. I have gone into great detail to describe the massacre at Ebenezer Creek and the origin of “40 Acres and Mule” to set the stage for what I consider a greater injury to the freed slaves than the cancellation of “40 Acres and a Mule.”
It was important to share the historical portrait of America in 1864 in order to understand why another post-Civil War action, that could have been done for the freed slave, was not done. Without an understanding of how American leaders in the north felt about the freed slaves, it was difficult for me an as African-American to grasp why it wasn’t.
Sherman issued his field order in 1865. A year prior, President Lincoln was stirring the nation to encourage immigration to fill jobs in America to work in the mines, build railroads, work in agriculture in the South.
The “40 Acres and a Mule” reparations against former slave owners would no doubt have catapulted the freed slaves who received it into economic self-sufficiency and possibly generational wealth. However, the great tragedy here is that the leadership of post-Civil War America, leaders such as Lincoln, that put an end to slavery, fell short of providing what could have been the most impactful reparation of all.
Instead of enacting the most sweeping legislation in American history to promote immigration to fill American jobs, America’s post-Civil War leaders could have encouraged the employment of the newly freed slaves from the South. Understandably, freed slaves would not be the first choice of employers in the South. But what about the North? Wasn’t the North the champion that freed the slaves and cared to the point of committing the ultimate sacrifice to free them? What would be the economic state of African-Americans today if their freed slave ancestors had been allowed to work in the mines or build America’s railroads?
We’re not talking about giving every freed slave 40 acres and a mule. We are talking about newly freed men and women being given the right to work and earn a living. Instead, our nation’s leaders used immigration, primarily from Europe, to fill jobs that could have gone to those who were already born in America and granted American citizenship.
The Civil War cost of over 620,000 American lives. (American Battlefield Trust, n.d.) The emancipation proclamation freed an estimated 3 to 4 million slaves. (History.com Editors, 2019) In a sense, then, 3 to 4 million people instantly became unemployed and homeless. Also, these 3 to 4 million people, even though emancipated now encountered a new government that openly preferred white immigrants for the many jobs needed to build a great America. (Harris, 2012) The labors who irrefutably had made the American South great were cast aside when America looked to make the North and the West great.
If you consider that these 3 to 4 million emancipated slaves instantly became unemployed and homeless, under a new government that was not looking to employ them, you can see why sharecropping became the only option for many. For those not familiar with sharecropping, here is a very simple definition “a type of farming in which families rent small plots of land from a landowner in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year.” (Harris, 2012)
This definition, however, falls far short of describing the terrible system of sharecropping that the emancipated slaves, the hundreds of thousands or millions of newly unemployed and homeless people who remained in the South, had to endure:
In the early years of Reconstruction, most blacks in rural areas of the South were left without land and forced to work as laborers on large white-owned farms and plantations in order to earn a living. Many clashed with former slave masters bent on reestablishing a gang-labor system similar to the one that prevailed under slavery.
In an effort to regulate the labor force and reassert white supremacy in the postwar South, former Confederate state legislatures soon passed restrictive laws denying blacks legal equality or political rights, and created “black codes” that forced former slaves to sign yearly labor contracts or be arrested and jailed for vagrancy.
These black codes provoked a fierce resistance among the freedmen and undermined support in the North for President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. A Republican victory in the Congressional elections of 1866 led to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, beginning a new phase of Reconstruction.
During this period, the passage of the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote, equality before the law and other rights of citizenship.
Rise of the Sharecropping System
Despite giving African Americans the rights of citizens, the federal government (and the Republican-controlled state governments formed during this phase of Reconstruction) took little concrete action to help freed blacks in the quest to own their own land.
Instead of receiving wages for working an owner’s land—and having to submit to supervision and harsh discipline—most freedmen preferred to rent land for a fixed payment rather than receive wages.
By the early 1870s, the system known as sharecropping had come to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South. Under this system, black families would rent small plots of land, or shares, to work themselves; in return, they would give a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year…
In addition, while sharecropping gave African Americans autonomy in their daily work and social lives, and freed them from the gang-labor system that had dominated during the slavery era, it often resulted in sharecroppers owing more to the landowner (for the use of tools and other supplies, for example) than they were able to repay.
Some blacks managed to acquire enough money to move from sharecropping to renting or owning land by the end of the 1860s, but many more went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation. (History.com Editors, 2019)
When you consider that post-Civil War America was not actively looking to fill railroad and other jobs in the North and West with freed slaves and that sharecropping in many cases was for most the only alternative in the South, it makes you wonder how the newly freed slaves survived. The startling truth, in a new book “Sick From Freedom” by historian Jim Downs, is that many of them did not:
The analysis, by historian Jim Downs of Connecticut College, casts a shadow over one of the most celebrated narratives of American history, which sees the freeing of the slaves as a triumphant righting of the wrongs of a southern plantation system that kept millions of black Americans in chains.
But, as Downs shows in his book, Sick From Freedom, the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death.
After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. He writes in the book that it can be considered "the largest biological crisis of the 19th century
Downs's book is full of terrible vignettes about the individual experiences of slave families who embraced their freedom from the brutal plantations on which they had been born or sold to. Many ended up in encampments called "contraband camps" that were often near union army bases. However, conditions were unsanitary and food supplies limited. Shockingly, some contraband camps were actually former slave pens, meaning newly freed people ended up being kept virtual prisoners back in the same cells that had previously held them. In many such camps disease and hunger led to countless deaths. Often the only way to leave the camp was to agree to go back to work on the very same plantations from which the slaves had recently escaped.
Treatment by union soldiers could also be brutal. Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller's young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead. For Downs such tales are heartbreaking. "So many of these people are dying of starvation and that is such a slow death," he said.
Downs has collected numerous shocking accounts of the lives of freed slaves. He came across accounts of deplorable conditions in hospitals and refugee camps, where doctors often had racist theories about how black Americans reacted to disease. Things were so bad that one military official in Tennessee in 1865 wrote that former slaves were: "dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagonloads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench".
So bad were the health problems suffered by freed slaves, and so high the death rates, that some observers of the time even wondered if they would all die out. One white religious leader in 1863 expected black Americans to vanish. "Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us," the man wrote. (Harris, 2012)
When I think of the challenges that unemployed and homeless people face in 2020, I think of some of the same things that befell the freed slaves. The freed slaves encountered hunger, disease, despair in addition to racism on a scale that I cannot imagine. Truly this post-Civil War era decision to choose immigrant labor over the freed slaves, after enduring generations of suffering and unimaginable cruelty, is one where Founding Fathers like President Lincoln fell short.
I don’t imagine that President Lincoln envisioned the plight of the freed slave as being what has been previously described, but the fact is that the legislation he championed to bring immigrant labor to America, helped cause it. Here is one view of the outcome of President Lincoln’s legislation:
Although he did not live to see the completion of his dream that America would welcome immigrants to its shores as a natural resource and a very valuable ingredient in the nation’s future success, Lincoln nevertheless deserves the credit for initiating a plan that personified Emma Lazarus’ words long before they were memorialized on the Statue of Liberty. For in so doing, the Great Emancipator was also the Great Egalitarian who believed firmly that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution applied to all, regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin. Lincoln’s America would eventually become what he had envisioned: a kind mosaic of all peoples who sought to find a new life within its bountiful borders.
There is no doubt that President Lincoln’s efforts went a long way to create a mosaic of all peoples. However, it cannot be said that this “mosaic” was created with a view towards egalitarianism when immigrants were viewed as a greater “natural resource” to America than the slaves that created the economic wealth of the South. How could America welcome a new generation of immigrants to a “new life within its bountiful borders” while stepping over generations of people who were forced to immigrate against their will (slavery)—people that had already proven valuable to “the nation’s future success?”
Slavery in America was an incomprehensible moral injustice that stains America to this day. Many have spoken about its lingering effects. Could the use of immigrant labor over the freed slaves be viewed as another great blight on the leadership of America? We know from history that 40 Acres and a Mule was rescinded, and the land given back to the slave owners who fought against the union. As a result of not having any other jobs to go to, many freed slaves had to go back to the same lands they worked on as slaves. Perhaps the greatest reparation that was never considered by American leaders in the post-Civil War era was the basic right to earn a fair wage.
There so much racial rhetoric about immigrants “stealing jobs” from American citizens. The horrible truth is that in the 1860s the leadership of America enacted legislation that helped “steal” jobs from the neediest Americans that have ever lived.
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