“Forty acres and a mule” is a popular name for an order which promised freed slave that every family would be given a plot of land, measuring up to 40 acres. The land was to be seized from southern plantation owners and divided up among the men and women who had formerly worked it as slaves.
On January 16, 1865, the Union general William Tecumseh Sherman issued an order – Special Field Order 15 – to seize 400,000 acres of land and redistribute them to the newly freed black families, after parceling the land out into 40-acre units. This order, which had been approved by President Lincoln, eventually came to be known as “40 acres and a mule,” although the idea of loaning out government mules to help work the land came later.
Sherman did not come up with the idea of redistributing land; neither did the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In fact, the idea came out of a meeting which Sherman and Stanton held with a group of black ministers in the days following Sherman’s famous March to the Sea. The meeting took place in Savannah, Georgia; Stanton preserved a transcript of it and sent it to the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, boasting that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” The transcript was later published in the New York Daily Tribune.
PBS notes that Stanton and Sherman met with 20 black ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. 11 of the ministers had been born free; the other nine had lived as slaves. The ministers’ spokesman was a 67 year old former slave named Garrison Frazier who had purchased his own freedom and the freedom of his wife.
Stanton and Sherman asked the group of ministers what it was that they wanted for the black community. The men said, unanimously, that they wanted land of their own. Frazier said, “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.” Sherman and Stanton then asked whether the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves.” Frazier replied, “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over … ” The others agreed, and just four days later, Sherman issued his order.
In the event, the order was reversed within just a few months. After Lincoln’s assassination, his Democratic vice president, Andrew Johnson, came into office and reversed Sherman’s order. The land was handed back to its former Confederate owners. WEB Dubois later said that “the vision of forty acres and a mule…was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”