Forty Acres and a Mule: Reconstruction Starts

After my talk on April 5, 2013, Florida During the Civil War, at the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center, a question was raised about the expression “Forty Acres and a Mule.”

While several people expressed opinions, nobody had a definitive answer for the term’s origination and history.

After some research, here is a synopsis:

As General Sherman marched across Georgia, escaped slaves by the thousands followed the troops and many more had already been liberated in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The U.S. Army needed to provide refuge for them.

In Florida, a federal enclave existed along the Atlantic Coast as far south as St. Augustine and as far west as the St. John’s River. Also, many inhabitants had abandoned their land along the St. John’s River due to the war’s turmoil or in compliance with Confederate government orders to leave. Even if not physically abandoned, the Federal Government declared some properties abandoned because they were owned by Rebels.

In an effort to provide for the displaced slaves, General Sherman issued Special Field Order, No. 15 on January 16, 1865 at Savannah, Georgia that set aside hundreds of thousands of acres in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida for settlement by the refugees on the “abandoned” land. As a result, as many as 10,000 former slaves settled the land which came to be described as “Sherman’s Reservation.”

Sherman’s order granted “possessory title” for the war’s duration and was subject to further presidential and congressional action. The order was marked up and approved by Secretary of War, Stanton before issue.

Special Order 15 granted forty acres for settlement per family, but it didn’t say anything about mules. Nevertheless, the army did give some refugees surplus mules, hence the term: “Forty Acres and a Mule.”

President Johnson revoked Sherman’s order in September 1865. The effect was to return the land to the prior Confederate owners if they had been pardoned and could prove title to the land.

Here are excerpts from Sherman’s Special Order  No. 15 and a citation to the revocation order:   

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….

III. …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,…


Special Field Orders, No. 15, Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, 16 Jan. 1865, Orders & Circulars, ser. 44, Adjutant General’s Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.

You can find the entire Special Field Order 15 at:  General Sherman also sent a letter to President Johnson explaining the order:

On September 12, 1865 the order was revoked by the War Department, Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands, Circular 15, signed by Major General, Commissioner, Oliver Howard, Freedman’s Bureau Commissioner and approved by President Johnson. Circular 15 can be found at:



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