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40 Acres and a Mule...How about a Jim Crow Instead?

This guest column by Richard Cuff shares the story behind "40 acres and a mule" and how Jacksonville was on the map of set aside land.

Published January 17, 2014 in History      8 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In the 12 years immediately after the end of slavery – a period known as Reconstruction – our nation was handed a rare opportunity for racial reconciliation unlike ever before and, simply put, we blew it.  Lost in our 150–year history – going back to the last days of the Civil War – was the desire for racial reconciliation; replaced by the fallout of decades of racism and bigotry that still hovers over this nation like a toxic cloud of radioactive waste.  

But there is one particularly dark moment in American history that’s worth taking a closer look.  It ultimately led to what is best known as "40 acres and a mule" that was promised to recently freed slaves. That moment also has an amazing connection to everyone living here in Jacksonville, especially north of the St. Johns River.  

In order to revisit that moment we have to consider the challenges this nation was facing back then.  It was December 9, 1864.  Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis and Major General William T. Sherman had moved 62,000 troops across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah.   As the Union army moved across the state of Georgia, they were freeing slaves from their owners and in the process they were picking up an ever-increasing hoard of freed slaves that followed the troops along the way.  

Davis had not been able to rid himself of the mass of former slaves following him across the state but the strongest of them proved to be quite useful.  They were more than willing to lend their muscle to helping make the roads passable for heavy wagons and by removing obstacles that Rebel troops had put in place.   But Davis had grown weary of the black refugees that were following him, especially the women, children, and elderly, who numbered in the thousands.  They were not able to help out as much and were seen as a burden.

The solution to the problem that Davis faced presented itself when they came upon Ebenezer Creek some 40 miles northwest of Savannah.  His troops built a pontoon bridge to cross the creek that had swollen to a depth of about ten feet.  Davis saw this as an opportunity to rid himself of the crowd of refugees that followed him.  Once the last of the troops had crossed, claiming it was for their safety because they may come under attack up ahead, Davis held back the crowd of Blacks preventing them from crossing the bridge.  He then gave the order to pull up the bridge leaving about 5,000 freed slaves stranded on the other side of the creek with no way to cross and with a Confederate Calvary closing in from behind.  

One doesn’t need much of an imagination to visualize what happened next.  When the Confederate troops arrived the massacre began.  Those that weren’t killed immediately were forced into the freezing cold water of the 165-feet wide Ebenezer Creek.  Most drowned immediately and only a handful were able to fight their way across.   Those that weren’t killed by the Confederate sword or drowned in the icy waters of the creek were captured and returned to their slave masters.

Map of the 400,000 acre "reserve" on the next page.

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January 17, 2014, 07:07:35 AM
Great article... I had to know more about Shermans... Special Field Order No. 15.

So here it is...

In the Field, Savannah, Georgia, 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


January 17, 2014, 07:46:42 AM
Since my ancestors on both sides of my family are long gone, I'd be willing to take 40 acres north of the river in their stead. I'll take the shipyards off Jax's hand but you guys can keep the mule.... ;)  Nevermind, the occupancy rates on Savannah's River Street look pretty good. Just give me ownership of what amounts to 40 acres in land area there and we'll call it a day!

Seriously though, great article. You learn something new every day. Thanks for sharing.


January 17, 2014, 09:07:37 AM
How horrid.


January 17, 2014, 09:13:35 AM
Reconstruction was mismanaged from the beginning. Ran by a bunch of fanatical people who were even more corrupt created more problems than it solved.

The post Civil War military occupation during Reconstruction was also mismanaged as the Union troops declared Marshal style laws but rarely did the actual police work.

In a defeated land filled with new impoverished occupied people, former slaves who now had to fend for themselves and the problem of criminals and mentally ill who live in every era and every country there was rampant crime and nobody was policing the area.  If the Union troops did their jobs and enforced the laws, perhaps we would have been a much different south.


January 17, 2014, 09:33:26 AM
A major problem with 40 acres is that no every plot of 40 acres is equal in land and crop growing capacity. Some areas flood.

While in 1864, 40 acres may have been a descent sized farm for poor subsistence farming, the world was rapidly changing and soon one needed over 100 acres to gain any sort of prosperity. The boll weevil would soon destroy cotton crops throughout the south.

Field slaves knew how to plant & harvest, however, plantations were complicated places with many slaves working non planting related tasks; they would have to learn how to do field hand work.

There is more than just planting & harvesting. Most 19th century farmers were always in debt as they had to borrower money to plant and hold them over for one or two or more years when weather destroyed crops or crop prices were too low for make a profit that year. 

Then you have to take your crops to market and negotiate a price. Most farmers have learned these techniques since they were very young and usually had relatives who helped them maneuver around unscrupulous buyers of crops.  Many white farmers lost their farms.  In the Midwest they came together for Grange style cooperatives to ensure big city buyers were not undercutting the price buy underpaying desperate farmers and then everybody suffered with the price declines.

Giving forty acres and a mule was a noble cause, though, you can give me forty acres, heck, you can give me a thousand acres, I'd probably lose my farm within five years because I don't know anything about farming & animal husbandry.  This program didn't do anything to help former slaves be successful farmers.   

Many Midwestern colleges were founded to help farmers get an education to return to the farm with the latest farming techniques. I'm not sure that Reconstruction had any of this in mind to help former slaves become successful farmers.

Even if 40 acres was granted to all former slaves, more likely, in the long term, most would still be subsistence farmers verging on poverty.

With all of the above said, farming is hard work, most fail but some become very successful. African Americans should of at least had the chance to become successful small farmers and they could have made the daily decisions to determine their own destinies.


January 17, 2014, 03:46:26 PM
One thing you come away with when you read about the civil war and reconstruction was how different the world would have been if Lincoln had not been assassinated.  My impression is that while Lincoln would have brought the southern states back into the union quickly, they would have come back in on his terms, not the old Planters terms that effectively paid off the government. It would have been an interesting world to read about and live in. A better world? Who knows. Probably just very different.


January 19, 2014, 02:59:13 PM
Interesting article. Bold Boy is quite correct on his observations. Forty acres and a mule was nothing more than what we would call reparations today. Good while it lasts, but certain to fail to accomplish anything, except make repo men and pawn shops a fortune. Then come the recriminations from the righteously indignant, claiming predatory financial practices......just a big, fine mess. No different from the experiences of every race, creed, and color known to man, since the dawn of time.


January 31, 2014, 03:29:10 PM
Very interesting article.  I have learned a lot more about the "40 Acres And A Mule" statement that has been around for years.  It has been a benefit to me because my great, great, grandfather did receive his 40 acres. I have a copy of the deed.  However, there is no mention of a mule. This is a part of our African American History, and more of this kind of information should be brought out and exposed to our kids.  You will never find this being taught in a class room.
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