40 Acres And A Mule

Did you know that "40 Acres and a Mule" was not actually promised to freed slaves after the Civil War? Well here is the real story of what happened and how the phrase "40 Acres and a mule" became such a catch phrase for African Americans…

On March 3, 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and almost a year prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment the Freedmen’s Bureau was created by Congress. Originally the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and AbandonedLands, the Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for, among other things, "the supervision and management of all abandoned lands . . . ..the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States."

Also according to Section 4 of the First Freedmen’s Bureau Act, this agency "shall have authority to set apart for use of loyal refugees and freedmen such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise; and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid there shall be assigned not more than 40 acres of such land."

Introduced into Congress by Thaddeus Stevens this portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act was defeated by Congress onFebruary 5, 1866 "by a vote of 126 to 36." Lands which had been distributed to freedmen were reclaimed and returned to the previous owners.

It should be noted that there is no mention of providing the freedmen with a mule (or any other type of animal) in any portion of this legislature. So the question remains in part unanswered. What is the origin of the promised 40 acres and a mule?

The second possibility for the basis of the ‘promise’ has to do with the efforts of the War Department to furnish accoutrements for the thousands of freedmen who assisted General Sherman in his triumphant march across Georgia. According to Claude F. Oubre in his book Forty Acres and a Mule, General Tecumseh Sherman, acting under an edict from the War Department, issued Special Field Order No. 15. Promulgated on January 16, 1865, after Sherman had conferred with 20 black ministers and obtained the approval of the War Department, Special Order No. 15 provided that:

"The islands of Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of

[N]egroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States."

The land was then divided into 40-acre tracts. Sherman then issued orders to General Saxton to distribute the plots and processory titles to the head of each family of the freedmen. There were no mules included in the order, so where did the "and a mule" come from? Shortly after Stanton left, Sherman’s commissary man came to him complaining that he had a large number of broken down mules for which he had no means of disposal. Sherman sent the useless animals to Saxton for distribution along with the land.

"By June, 1865 approximately 40,000 freedmen had been allocated 400,000 acres of land." However, by September, 1865 former owners of the land reserved by Sherman "demanded the same rights afforded returning rebels in other states."

After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became President. One of his first acts was to rescind Special Military Order No. 15 because of the constitutional violations that it created. Former slave owners were then exempted from the initial general amnesty given to them, and instead secured special pardons from President Johnson, who broke the promise made to the freedmen when he ordered the processory titles rescinded and the land returned to the white plantation owners. Johnson gave little or no regard to the fate of the former slaves

From the viewpoint of the former slaves, who believed that they were owed this property, their eviction from land was seen as another example of ill treatment. The illegality of the promise was not their concern, but from that late war incident grew an urban legend that survives into the present day.

Dismayed, like many, Saxton wrote Oliver O. Howard (Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau) stating:

"The lands which have been taken possession of by this bureau have been solemnly pledged to the freedmen. The law of Congress has been published to them, and all agents of the bureau acting under your order have provided lands to these freedmen . . . . I sincerely trust that the government will never break its faith with a single one of these colonists by driving him from the home which he was provided. It is of vital importance that our promises made to freedmen should be faithfully kept . . . . The freedmen were promised the protection of the government in their possession. This order was issued under great military necessity with the approval of the War Department . . . . More than 40,000 freedmen have been provided with homes under its promises. I cannot break faith with them now by recommending the restoration of any of these lands. In my opinion this order of General Sherman is as binding as a statute."

Saxton’s pleas were to no avail. The freedmen were ultimately summarily removed from the land. There were however, numerous individuals and organizations which believed the freedmen were entitled to land. Their conviction in this belief was not easily thwarted. Between 1865-9 countless alternatives for solving this matter were proposed and presented to Congress as well as President Johnson. The motivations for these proposals were as varied as the propositions themselves. They ranged from a sincere belief that the freedmen were entitled to land, to fear of violence, resistance to social, economic and political equality, concern about miscegeny, attempts to purge the country of the burden of freedmen on the doles, economic gain and to eliminate any competition they might present for employment.

For instance, quartermaster M.C. Megis devised a plan which would enable the freedmen to secure land in the South. Simply put he suggested that:

1) As a condition of receiving pardons, southerners, whose net worth exceeded $20,000 and were not recipients of an automatic pardon as a result of Johnson’s amnesty proclamation, give to each head of family of their former slaves from 5 to 10 acres of land.

2) The freedmen would receive full title to the land with the stipulation that the land could not be alienated during the life time of the grantee."

President Johnson chose not to adopt this recommendation. However, according to Oubre, Megis’ proposal may have been the inspiration for Thaddeus Stevens’ confiscation plan (one of the many he proposed for black reparations). Just and well thought out I feel had it been approved Stevens’ proposal may have provided a more equal distribution of wealth. The primary points of Stevens’ ‘confiscation plan’ according to Oubre are as follows:

1) The government would confiscate the property of all former slaveholders who owned more than 200 acres of land.

2) The property seized would have been allocated to the freedmen in lots of 40 acres.

3) The remaining land would be sold and the monies would be used to remunerate loyalists whose property had been seized destroyed or damaged as a result of the war.

4) Any remaining funds would be utilized to augment the pensions of Union soldiers and to pay the national debt.

Yet another proposal suggested that the government transport the freedmen west and colonize them along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was argued that to do so would prove beneficial for the railroad as well as the freedmen. The freedmen would have their land. The railroad would have both an accessible labor force and someone to protect the trains from Indian attack Additionally, adopting this particular proposal would also bode well for the government. permitting it to keep its promise to provide land for the freedmen. Simultaneously, according to Carl Schurz sand John Sprage, "this plan would serve to remove some of the "surplus" black [people] from the South."

The American Missionary Association requested, to no avail, that President Johnson reserve the land promised to the freedmen. If that was not a suitable option they further petitioned that the freedmen be provided with transportation to homestead lands in the west and provided with rations enough to sustain them until crops could be yielded.

Concerned with the burgeoning African American population in Virginia, Orlando Brown proposed, that some 10,000 African American soldiers stationed in Texas, might be provided with a land bounty in Texas if they remained there and sent for their families. A similar proposal was made by "Sergeant S.H. Smothers, an African American soldier from Indianaserving with the 25th Army Corps in Texas."

But President Johnson seemed to be determined to make sure that freedmen received no land. He mercilessly vetoed any proposal having to do with providing land to the freedmen that reached his desk. Finally, Congress overrode his veto and passed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, it contained no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act at the standard rates of purchase.

Be they White or Black God Bless The Southern People.

God Bless the South for We Certainly Deserve it!

Gary Adams