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 [sic] 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 [sic] 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.