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The politics of Field Order 15

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 11/1/2017, 12:24 p.m.

As Union soldiers advanced through the South, tens of thousands of hopeful former slaves left the plantations and farms of their lives in particular to follow Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s army.

The trailing group finally got so big and bulky that it could no longer be ignored. Gen. Sherman called together 20 of the selected leaders of the group for discussions, initially telling them that his army was under strict war orders and could not delay its task to build a settlement for the group. Sherman asked exactly what the group wanted from him and his army. The discussions that followed produced Sherman’s famous Field Order 15, which allocated confiscated confederate land to hopeful former bondsmen and free Blacks.

Even though, in effect, Sherman’s Field Order 15 began the modern reparations movement, it never was the” promise of “40 acres and a mule” it has regularly been called. Doubtlessly, it raised the expectations among the Black population for opportunities to better themselves and their families, but it was not a promise made, and a promise broken.

Below a portion of the text of that Field Order.

“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 30 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 (South Carolina), Savannah (Georgia), Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville (Florida), 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.

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.