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William T. Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 –
40 Acres to Newly Freed Families
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With General John Foster’s Implementation Order, Signed by AAG of First Regiment, New York Engineers, Who Saw Extensive Action during the War. Although the order does not actually mention mules, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend mules to the new settlers, providing the origin of the common phrase, “40 acres and a mule.” In one development arranged by General Foster, the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island, 2200 freedmen had settled on household plots. The families who settled these lands were devastated when, soon after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson revoked Sherman’s orders, stripping the emancipated slaves of their homes and in many cases their only source of income. When the Army abandoned the colony under Johnson’s presidency, most of the freedmen had to return to the mainland in search of work.

WILLIAM T. SHERMAN. Printed Document, Unsigned. Special Field Orders, No. 15. January 16, 1865. Headquarters, Military Division of the Mississippi: Savannah. 2 pp. 5 x 8 in. With a closely related document:

JOHN G. FOSTER. Printed Document, Signed by William L.M. Burger as Assistant Adjutant General to Major General Foster. General Order No. 8, Affirming and Implementing Sherman’s Special Order No. 15. January 25, 1865. Hilton Head, S.C. 1 p. 5 x 8 in.

Inventory #24378.01-.02       Price: $10,000

Historical Background

Sherman’s landmark military order, issued following his 1864 “March to the Sea,” was aimed at providing stability for the millions of formerly enslaved Americans who had been formally emancipated in 1863.  The Special Orders set aside 400,000 acres of land confiscated from slave holders in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida for distribution to those, “now made free by the acts of war and the Proclamation of the President of the United States.” The orders outlined the method by which these lands would be distributed: “Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose and island or 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 lands... The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector... so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground...

Major General John G. Foster affirmed Sherman’s orders on January 25, 1865, in his own “General Orders No. 8,” and went even further, outlining the specific protections to be offered to the “negro Settlers” and the geographical boundaries covered by Sherman’s orders.

Condition

Both neatly cut at left margin, previously bound, slight toning. Orders No. 15 has soiling along the very edge on right. Orders No. 8 has a single vertical crease.

John Gray Foster (1823-1874) served with distinction during the Civil War. In 1862 -1863 he commanded the Department of North Carolina. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he appointed a Congregational minister, Horace James, to help freedmen prepare for independent life, and developed the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island. After the war, in 1869, he wrote the definitive treatise on underwater demolition.

William L. M. Burger, the A.A.G. who signed General Orders No 8, served in the 1st Regiment, New York Engineers. His unit saw extensive action in Sherman’s Expedition to Port Royal, S. C., the capture of Forts Walker and Beauregard, Port Royal Harbor, and Hilton Head, S. C., the capture of Forts Wagner and Gregg, the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston, at Hilton Head, S. C., until April 1864, assaults and siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond, the mine Explosion at Petersburg, Chaffin’s Farm, New Market Heights, Fair Oaks, and the fall of Petersburg and Richmond on April 2-3, 1865.

Full Transcript

Order by the Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi

IN THE FIELD, SAVANNAH, GA., January 16th, 1865.  / SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS, No. 15.

            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.

            BY ORDER OF MAJOR GENERAL W. T. SHERMAN


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