William T. Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15

Order by the Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi IN THE FIELD, SAVANNAH, GA., January 16th, 1865.


I. 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.

II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations–but 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, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress. 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. He cannot be subjected to conscription or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the Department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.

Negroes so enlisted will be organized into companies, battalions and regiments, under the orders of the United States military authorities, and will be paid, fed and clothed according to law. The bounties paid on enlistment may, with the consent of the recruit, go to assist his family and settlement in procuring agricultural implements, seed, tools, boots, clothing, and other articles necessary for their livelihood.

III. Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty 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. The Quartermaster may, on the requisition of the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, place at the disposal of the Inspector, one or more of the captured steamers, to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points heretofore named in orders, to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.

IV. Whenever a negro has enlisted in the military service of the United States, he may locate his family in any one of the settlements at pleasure, and acquire a homestead, and all other rights and privileges of a settler, as though present in person. In like manner, negroes may settle their families and engage on board the gunboats, or in fishing, or in the navigation of the inland waters, without losing any claim to land or other advantages derived from this system. But no one, unless an actual settler as above defined, or unless absent on Government service, will be entitled to claim any right to land or property in any settlement by virtue of these orders.

V. In order to carry out this system of settlement, a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible the description of boundaries; and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory. The same general officer will also be charged with the enlistment and organization of the negro recruits, and protecting their interests while absent from their settlements; and will be governed by the rules and regulations prescribed by the War Department for such purposes.

VI. Brigadier General R. SAXTON is hereby appointed Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, and will at once enter on the performance of his duties. No change is intended or desired in the settlement now on Beaufort [Port Royal] Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.


which is historically known as the "40 acres and a mule" ("promise") was issued on January 16, 1865; see The Truth Behind '40 Acres and a Mule' by Henry Louis Gates Jr

What Became of the Land That Was Promised?

The response to the Order was immediate. When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that "From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be," reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, "the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order." Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the "black governor." And by June, "40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of 'Sherman Land.' " By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, "40 acres and a mule."

See also Sherman's Field Order No. 15; LCV Cities Tour - Savannah: Sherman's Special Field Order #15 - 40 Acres and a Mule. The political reasons behind the Order vary in interpretation of purpose among the relevant parties, from military, political and historical perspectives, see Passage of Shermans Special Orders No. 15.

According to the linked resources President Andrew Johnson either "overturned", performed a "revocation", or "voided" the Order in the same year following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, though it is not clear by what official means President Johnson made the Order null and void, nor which official document can be referenced to to verify the nullification of the order.

What are the primary source records which document both the official action and the reasons for President Andrew Johnson's decision to overturn, revoke or void Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs to history.stackexchange.com – SJuan76 Sep 2 '18 at 9:24
  • 7
    @SJuan76 A question is not off-topic just because it might happen to be on-topic elsewhere. I don't remember the community deciding that questions about the history of politics are off-topic here. – yannis Sep 2 '18 at 11:45
  • 2
    @yannis The reason cited for voting to close this question are baffling to this user. That is, the reason cited for voting to close the question makes absolutely no sense and puts the "close" votes "good-faith" in question. Have opened a Meta question in attempt to understand the correlation between the actual language within question and the premise that the question's "primary purpose of this question appears to be to promote or discredit a specific political cause, group or politician" politics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3606 – guest271314 Sep 2 '18 at 17:40

Basically, Johnson strong armed the Freedman Bureau in issuing circular #15 (issued on Washington Sep 12, 1865) which, according to Wikipedia

Circular #15 established strict criteria for designating a property as "officially confiscated" and had the effect in many places of ending land redistribution completely.

The full text of the latter can be found e.g. on UMBC website. I won't paste the text here since it's 5 pages-long (with variants). Basically it allowed the president to give the lands back:

IV. Land will not be regarded as confiscated until it has been condemned, and sold by decree of the U.S. Court for the District in which the property may be found, and the title thereto thus vested in the United States. [...]

VII. Abandoned lands held by this bureau may be restored to owners pardoned by the President, by the assistant commissioners, to whom applications for such restoration should be forwarded, so far as practicable, through the superintendents of the districts in which the lands are situated.

An example application is given by Abbott:

Reluctantly, then, the Bureau commenced a general restoration. By the close of 1865, about eighty thousand acres and more than one thousand town lots had been returned to their owners [...]

An especially complex phase of the entire land question was that having to do with the sea islands and coastal rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. There, some forty thousand freedmen had been settled on forty-acre plots by provision of Sherman's famous field order of mid-January, 1865, and assigned "possessory titles" to their holdings. They had been confirmed in their occupancy by the act establishing the Bureau. [...]

Ultimately, the impasse was resolved during the course of 1866 through the removal of [Rufus] Saxton and his replacement with a more cooperative officer, Robert K. Scott. The new assistant commissioner, prodded by the federal commander in the state, devised two basic regulations that in time brought a solution. First, possessory titles, to be valid, must be held by freedmen who had cultivated a crop on the land during 1865 and who had settled upon the assigned plantation-rather than, as often had happened, holding a certificate for one plot and settling upon another. Second, those freedmen holding invalid grants, or none at all, must contract with the planters or be ejected by military force. Through enforcement of these regulations, Bureau agents and officers were able to reduce the total of legal titles to about sixteen hundred. Final disposition of that number was made early in 1867 when holders of valid certificates were ordered to exchange them for grants of land in the Hilton Head region to which the federal government had acquired definite title. Those refusing to make the exchange were forcibly removed from their holdings.

With this episode ended the laudable effort to underpin the Negroes' freedom with economic self-reliance. By the close of 1868, of the original eight hundred thousands acres of land and five thousand pieces of town property once held, the Bureau had remaining but one hundred and forty thousand of the former, and eight hundred of the latter; and at the close of the year, agents were instructed to restore what was left or to drop it from Bureau rolls. For the freedmen it was a frustrating, not to say embittering, experience to have been so close only to end so far from their dream of "forty acres and a mule."

I'm not sure what was the official act of 1868 that was final nail in the coffin. Abbott cites it to a report of Howard to Congress, which is probably not the actual executive act.

Actually Beard has some more detail on an intermediate act (Congress got involved):

In July 1866, the congressional reauthorization of the Freedmen’s Bureau included a provision returning all the lands included in the Sherman Reservation to their original owners. Those freed people continuing to occupy confiscated land were generally given a choice: Sign work contracts, thereby accepting peonage, or leave. Most left.

Congress' site mentions that Johnson vetoed the 1866 reauthorization and that only a "moderate" version mustered the votes to override his veto. It doesn't say what compromises were made in this "moderate" version though.

A law review says that

Section 5 authorizes those freedmen who occupied southern lands under General Sherman’s authority during the Civil War to retain their right to possession for three years.

That probably explains why they were evicted (unless they accepted a swap) by 1868. And Sherman himself accepted in a public letter to Johnson (2 Feb. 1866) that:

I know of course we could not convey title to land and merely provided “possessory” titles to be good so long as war and military power lasted. I merely aimed to make provision for the negroes who were absolutely dependent on us, leaving the value of their possessions to be determined by after events or legislation.

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