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 The order was rescinded later that same year, and much of the land was returned to the original white owners.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: Continue reading

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