Most of the tourists who trundle their way around the squares of Savannah on trolleys and carriages — hopefully not on double–decker buses soon, as is being proposed! — are eventually told the story, with varying degrees of accuracy by their tour guides, of Gen. William T. Sherman giving Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present in Dec. 1864.
Sherman’s army, fresh from its infamous “March to the Sea” from Atlanta, rolled into town three days before Christmas to secure our vital seaport and rest up before heading over the river into South Carolina, where the whole shootin’ match started.
But many fewer tourists are told what happened here a few weeks later, 147 years ago this month. On Jan. 16, 1865, at Second African Baptist Church on Greene Square, Sherman issued “Special Field Order Number 15” — more commonly known to posterity as “40 Acres and a Mule.”
(Actually, Order No. 15 just mentioned the 40 acres. The mules were a later addition, loaned from the U.S. Army.)
The idea of “40 Acres and a Mule,” though simple, was stunning in its sweep, and groundbreaking in a literal sense: About half a million acres of coastal land from Charleston down to the St. John’s River in Florida would transfer from the former slaveowners to the former slaves themselves.
While radical land redistribution is a common feature of successful revolutions the world over, from France to Russia to Cuba, the unique irony of our version was that it was the result of a failed insurrection, and of course the failed institution upon which that insurrection was based.
Black newspapers publicized the Order and the new Freedmen’s Bureau administered it. Newly freed slaves enthusiastically responded. Minister Ulysses Houston of First Bryan Baptist Church and a thousand emancipated African Americans went to Skidaway Island to establish an independent community, with Houston himself as self–appointed “Black Governor.” In just a few months nearly 50,000 former slaves had settled onto formerly white–owned land.
Just as the March to the Sea is misunderstood — it wasn’t nearly the swath of wholesale destruction as has been portrayed, with Sherman’s army notably declining to burn hundreds of antebellum homes in its path — so too has Sherman’s stay in Savannah been burnished over the years.
The general gets most of the credit for 40 Acres and a Mule — the redistributed property was often called “Sherman Land” by the new owners — but Sherman himself was ambiguous on issues of what today we would call social justice.
During the March to the Sea, for example, his army was followed by a growing crowd of newly emancipated slaves, entire families who left the land to follow his blue–clad troops somewhere, anywhere, to whatever kind of freedom was at the end of the line.
Contrary to the Southern image of Sherman as an abolitionist avenging angel, he regarded this ad hoc entourage as simply more mouths to feed. By giving them land of their own to farm, in Sherman’s military mind the refugee problem was solved and he and his army could move on.
In what is surely one of the first acts of political autonomy by African Americans in the South, 40 Acres and a Mule was actually the brainchild of local black leaders. The idea came from a meeting Jan. 12, 1865 at the Green–Meldrim House (now the rectory of St. John’s), which Sherman used as his Savannah headquarters.
About 20 black ministers met with Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the latter of whom was sent here by Lincoln specifically to seek retribution against Southern white plantation owners — what in a later time might have been called a plan for ethnic cleansing.
In a remarkable development for its time and place, the black ministers weren’t told what was to happen, but instead were asked what they wanted to happen.
One, Rev. Garrison Frazier, replied, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor ... and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
And so Sherman, frankly eager to get on with bringing the war to a swift and victorious close, gave them what they wanted.
But unlike Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Caesar–like edicts on Japan’s reconstruction after World War II — many of which shaped world history for decades — Field Order No. 15 would have little lasting impact.
The assassination of Lincoln three months after Field Order No. 15 ushered in President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer not inclined to be swayed by the intensity of abolitionists like Stanton and Thaddeus Stevens (the latter flamboyantly portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the recent film Lincoln).
By the end of 1865, Field Order No. 15 was rescinded, along with the promise of those 40-acre parcels. White landowners returned to reclaim most of the land and resume paying taxes on it.
Not all the land reverted. Legacies of Field Order No. 15 remain today in pockets along the coast such as St. Helena Island, S.C. near Beaufort, and the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo Island, Ga.
As for the rest of the Georgia Sea Islands, ironically many ended up neither in white Southern hands nor in black hands, but with wealthy Northern industrialists who bought the land on the cheap to use recreationally. In another layer of irony, this saved many of our barrier islands from overdevelopment.
A case study is the example of the preservation of Ossabaw Island by its current owner Mrs. Sandy West. Our Jessica Leigh Lebos talks about Ossabaw, its future, and its remarkable centenarian matriarch in her column this week.
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