40 Acres and a Mule

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40 Acres and a Mule
Reconstruction History

40 Acres and a Mule
Freedmen’s Bureau

Introduction

 

40 Acres and a Mule, have you heard of it? It was a military order issued at the conclusion of the American the Civil War by infamous Union general Sherman to confiscate nearly half-million acres from Southern civilians. Although total war with Sherman's March to the Sea and through the South had previously wreaked all hell against everything in its path, Sherman, went a step further, some would say adding salt to the injury, and declared by military order that Southern land could be given away freely. Sherman literally circumvented the laws of the land and without due process had literally ripped the remnants of what remained from many destitute Southern widows and their children. This was one of the most unconstitutional and tyrannical orders supported by the United States government. “Although it was a military order, it was unconstitutional,” declared the US Supreme Court. Sherman's unconstitutional wrangling had been debunked finally by due process - something that Sherman had little respect for.

 

Special Field Orders, No. 15 and 40 Acres and a Mule

 

“Although it was a military order, it was unconstitutional.”

 

As Union soldiers advanced through the South, tens-of-thousands of freed slaves left their plantations to follow Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's army. To solve problems caused by the mass of refugees, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land on islands and the coast of Georgia. The army had a number of unneeded mules which were also granted to settlers.

 

Special Field Orders, No. 15 were military orders issued during the American Civil War, on January 16, 1865, by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi of the United States Army. The order provided for the confiscation of 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida into forty-acre parcels, on which were to be settled approximately 18,000 freed slave families and other black refugees then living in the area.

 

The orders were issued following Sherman's March to the Sea and were intended to address the immediate problem of dealing with the tens-of-thousands of black refugees who had joined Sherman's March in search of protection and sustenance. General Sherman issued his orders after meeting in Savannah, Georgia, with twenty ministers of the black community and with U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who had previously organized the recruitment of black soldiers for the Union Army, was delegated the responsibility of implementing the orders.

 

News of "forty acres and a mule" spread quickly; freed slaves welcomed it as proof that emancipation would finally give them a stake in the very land that they had previously worked as slaves.

 

The orders had little concrete effect, as they were revoked in the fall of that same year by President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln after his assassination.

 

Shortly after Sherman issued his orders, Congressional leaders convinced President Lincoln to establish the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March 1865 (General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U. S. Grant on April 9, 1865). Commonly referred to as The Freedmen's Bureau, it was authorized to give legal title for forty-acre plots of land to freedmen and white Southern Unionists. Tunis Campbell, a free Northern black missionary, was appointed to supervise land claims and resettlement in Georgia.

 

Over the objections of Freedmen's Bureau chief General Oliver O. Howard, President Andrew Johnson revoked Sherman's directive in the fall of 1865, returning these lands to the planters and civilians who had previously owned them. Although the "order was issued under great military necessity with the approval of the War Department," it did not supersede the United States Constitution. For decades after the Civil War, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field stated that "due process protected property rights, and that legislative property confiscation was illegitimate and unconstitutional." The U.S. Supreme Court would later agree.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Review: This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States. Continued below...

About the Author: Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

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Recommended Viewing: American Experience - Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (DVD) (175 minutes). Description: Spanning the years from 1863 to 1877, this dramatic mini-series recounts the tumultuous post-Civil War years. America was grappling with rebuilding itself, with bringing the South back into the Union, and with how best to offer citizenship to former slaves. Stories of key political players in Washington are interwoven with those of ordinary people caught up in the turbulent social and political struggles of Reconstruction.

 

Recommended Reading: A Short History of Reconstruction. Review: In an attempt to document the important issues of reconstruction, Eric Foner compiled his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Foner addresses all the major issues leading up reconstruction, and then finishing his book shortly after the end of reconstruction and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.  In the preface of his book, Foner discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. He notes that during the early part of the twentieth century many historians considered Reconstruction as one of the darkest periods of American history. Foner notes that this viewpoint changed during the 1960s as revisionists shed new "light" on reconstruction. The revisionists saw Andrew Johnson as a stubborn racist, and viewed the Radical Republicans as "idealistic reformers genuinely committed to black rights." The author notes that recent studies of reconstruction argue that the Radicals were actually quite conservative, and most Radicals held on to their racist views and put up very little fight as the whites once again began to govern the south. Continued below...

Foner initially describes the African-American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He argues that African-Americans were not simply figures that took little or no action in the events of the day, and notes the enlistment of thousands of African-Americans in the Union army during the war. Foner also notes that many of the African-Americans that eventually became civil leaders had at one time served in the Union Army. He states, "For men of talent and ambition, the army flung open a door to advancement and respectability." He notes that as reconstruction progressed, African-Americans were the targets of violence and racism. Foner believes that the transition of slaves into free laborers and equal citizens was the most drastic example of change following the end of the war. He notes how African-Americans were eventually forced to return to the plantations, not as slaves but as share croppers, and were thus introduced to a new form of slavery. He argues that this arrangement introduced a new class structure to the South, and states "It was an economic transformation that would culminate, long after the end of Reconstruction, in the consolidation of a rural proletariat composed of a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to Northern financiers and industrialists.” The author illustrates how both blacks and whites struggled to use the state and local governments to develop their own interests and establish their respective place in the evolving social orders. Another theme that he addresses in this excellent study is racism itself and the interconnection of race and class in the South. Another subject he addresses is the expanded presence of federal authority, as well as a growing idea and commitment to the idea that equal rights belonged to all citizens, regardless of race. Foner shows how both Northern and Southern blacks embraced the power to vote, and, as Reconstruction ended, many blacks saw the loss of suffrage and the loss of freedom. Foner illustrates that because the presence of blacks at the poll threatened the established traditions, corruption increased, which helped to undermine the support for Reconstruction. The former leaders of the Confederacy were barred from political office, who were the regions "natural leaders," a reversal of sympathies took place which portrayed the Southern whites as victims, and blacks unfit to exercise suffrage. Reconstruction affected the North as well, but argues that it was obviously less revolutionary than it was in the South. Foner notes that a new group of elites surfaced after the war, industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs emerged as powerful and influential leaders alongside the former commercial elite. The Republicans in the North did attempt to improve the lives of Northern blacks. However, there were far fewer blacks in the North, so it was more difficult for blacks to have their agendas and needs addressed in the local legislatures. He states, "Most Northern blacks remained trapped in inferior housing and menial and unskilled jobs." Foner adds that the few jobs blacks were able to acquire were constantly being challenged by the huge influx of European immigrants. Foner's subject is definitely worthy of his original volume. Reconstruction is a subject that can still be interpreted in several ways, including the revisionist school of thought. Foner, however, seems to be as objective as possible on this subject, and has fairly addressed all major issues that apply.

 

Recommended Reading: Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Description: In Forever Free, Eric Foner, the leading historian of America's Reconstruction Era, reexamines one of the most misunderstood periods of American history: the struggle to overthrow slavery and establish freedom for African Americans in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Forever Free is extensively illustrated, with visual essays by scholar Joshua Brown discussing the images of the period alongside Foner's text. (From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review.) Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Continued below…

Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period.

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon & Schuster). Description: One of the nation's foremost Lincoln scholars offers an authoritative consideration of the document that represents the most far-reaching accomplishment of our greatest president. No single official paper in American history changed the lives of as many Americans as Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But no American document has been held up to greater suspicion. Its bland and lawyerlike language is unfavorably compared to the soaring eloquence of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural; its effectiveness in freeing the slaves has been dismissed as a legal illusion. And for some African-Americans the Proclamation raises doubts about Lincoln himself. Continued below…

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation dispels the myths and mistakes surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and skillfully reconstructs how America's greatest president wrote the greatest American proclamation of freedom. About the Author: Allen C. Guelzo is the Grace Ferguson Kea Professor of American History at Eastern University (St. David's, Pennsylvania), where he also directs the Templeton Honors College. He is the author of five books, most recently the highly acclaimed Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2000.

References: Special Field Orders, No. 15, Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, 16 Jan. 1865. Orders & Circulars, ser. 44, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives; Paul Kens, Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age (University Press of Kansas, 1997); Library of Congress: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875: "An act to enlarge the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau," 39th Congress, 1st Session, S.60; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Daniel W. Hamilton, The Limits of Sovereignty: Property Confiscation in the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War; Daniel W. Hamilton, A New Right to Property: Civil War Confiscation in the Reconstruction Supreme Court. Journal of Supreme Court History, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 254-285, November 2004.

Keywords: 40 Acres and a Mule Reconstruction Freedmen Bureau 40 Acres Mule Purpose Results History Reconstruction Era Abandoned Land Act Lands Emancipation Slaves Facts Details Freedmen’s Bureau Order 15.

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