Richard Brown gets 40 acres… for a while, at least.


40 Acres to Richard Borwn
Land Order for Richard Brown, April 1, 1865: “permission is hereby granted to Richard Brown to take possession of and occupy forty acres of land,” situated in St. Andrews Parish, Island of James, South Carolina, Berkley District.
Image Source: National Archives, Labor Contracts M1910, roll 62; from the Archive’s Freedmen’s Bureau records.

In 1865, US General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order 15. As discussed in the New Georgia Encyclopedia,

On January 16, 1865, during the Civil War (1861-65), Union general William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, calling for the redistribution of confiscated Southern land to freedmen in forty-acre plots. The order was rescinded later that same year, and much of the land was returned to the original white owners.

William T. Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which confiscated as Union property 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. The order redistributed the roughly 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black families in forty-acre segments.

Sherman’s order came on the heels of his successful March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah and just prior to his march northward into South Carolina. Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, for some time had pushed for land redistribution in order to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power. Feeling pressure from within his own party, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln sent his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to Savannah in order to facilitate a conversation with Sherman over what to do with Southern planters’ lands.

On January 12 Sherman and Stanton met with twenty black leaders of the Savannah community, mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, to discuss the question of emancipation. Lincoln approved Field Order No. 15 before Sherman issued it just four days after meeting with the black leaders. From Sherman’s perspective the most important priority in issuing the directive was military expediency. It served as a means of providing for the thousands of black refugees who had been following his army since its invasion of Georgia. He could not afford to support or protect these refugees while on campaign.

Details from Sherman’s meeting with the African American leaders of the Savannah are here. In that meeting, the leaders are asked to “State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.” The leaders respond that the “way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”

Richard Brown was one of those fortunate freedmen who received 40 acres, as shown by the above certificate. The land was in St. Andrew’s Parish, SC.  (Until the late 19th century, the South Carolina Lowcountry was divided into parishes which in turn were subdivided several “districts”; the Berkley and Charleston Districts were in St. Andrew.) The land was on James Island, which is south of Charleston on the other side of Charleston Harbor, from one of the Heyward plantations. The owner, whom I believe to be Charles Heyward, had several plantations. This website identifies several of the 491 enslaved people who were freed from his plantations in July 1865.

Brown’s certificate from the Office of the Superintendent of Freedmen. It is numbered as  No. 118, indicating that a good number of persons had already gotten land before him.

Brown’s claim to the land did not last. As noted by Libby Coleman in her article Flashback: When the U.S. Promised Former Slaves 40 Acres and a Mule:

No one would have used the word “reparations” back then, but many freedmen took the order to mean they were the landowners in perpetuity and began to plant and build.

Supporters argued that land redistribution was practical — it helped employ former slaves productively — and also helped balance the moral ledger. After all, slaveholders had unjustly benefited from centuries of unpaid labor, while the slaves themselves had never gotten anything from it. Critics argued that the scheme was too harsh on the planters, and warned redistribution would promote instability and obstruct peacemaking between the North and the South.

At any rate, the 40-acres plan was short-lived. Less than three months after Sherman’s order, John Wilkes Boothassassinated President Lincoln, and Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, effectively rescinded the order. Tens of thousands of freedmen were forcibly evicted, their land redistributed among the white Southern planter class. Some whites were uncomfortable taking back the land, including one government official who had attended the Savannah meeting. (“I consider that the faith of the Government is solemnly pledged to these people, who have been faithful to it, and that we have no right now to dispossess them of their lands,” he wrote.) But most former slaves and Blacks in the South ended up either buying small, low-quality plots or working as sharecroppers.

It’s important to understand that Sherman’s order was a temporary war-time measure, not a permanent measure that was intended to last into peace-time. As noted on the above certificate, freedmen were authorized to “take possession of and occupy”  the land, but there is no clear indication that they own the land, and the certificates are not land deeds.

In the end, the hope of 40 acres and a mule was a failed dream. As The Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era, Volume 1, page 248-9 put it:

Sherman instructed General Rufus Saxton to grant each head of a black family not more than forty acres of land and to “furnish… subject to the approval of the president of the United States, a possessory title.” Sherman authorized Saxton to loan the black family’s farm animals—decrepit creatures too broken down for military service. These presumably were is the”mules” intended to work the proverbial “40 acres.”

…Subsequent events — creation of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedman’s Bureau) in March 1865 and the passage of the Southern Homestead Act in June 1866—further complicated the role of the federal government in distributing land and farm animals to the freedpeople.

In fact, the Freedman’s Bureau was authorized to lease, not to grant outright, “not more than 40 acres” of abandoned or confiscated lands to freedmen with the option to “purchase the land and receive such titles thereto as to the United States can convey.” The Homestead Act set aside public land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, for purchase by the freedpeople for a five dollar fee. The available land, however, was generally of inferior quality and the freedmen lack sufficient capital to purchase implements and to farm the land properly. When, in 1876, Congress repealed to the Homestead Act, blacks cultivated only several thousand acres, mostly in Florida.

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