The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out who came up with the idea, and how it fell through.

Ulysses L. Houston, in lithograph (He Was a Friend to All, W.&M., Savannah, Ga., 1890)
Ulysses L. Houston, in lithograph (He Was a Friend to All, W.&M., Savannah, Ga., 1890)

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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.

Who Came Up With the Idea?

Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.

Stanton, aware of the great historical significance of the meeting, presented Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous brother) a verbatim transcript of the discussion, which Beecher read to his congregation at New York’s Plymouth Church and which the New York Daily Tribune printed in full in its Feb. 13, 1865, edition. Stanton told Beecher 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.” Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: “What do you want for your own people” following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.

Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.