City pays homage to '40 acres and a mule'

The History of Emancipation: Special Field Orders No. 15 historical marker was unveiled during a dedication ceremony Friday in Savannah, Ga. It honors blacks' struggles for freedom.

SAVANNAH, Ga. --- Known as "40 acres and a mule," an attempt by the U.S. government to help former slaves came to symbolize America's broken promises during a century of struggles for black Americans after the Civil War.

 

The policy began in Savannah by Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1865. The idea: give thousands of freed slaves land seized from white planters, plus a mule to help farm it.

To coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War, the Georgia Historical Society unveiled a historical marker Friday summing up the history of "40 acres" outside the cotton merchant's mansion that served as Sherman's headquarters toward the end of the war. About 80 people gathered to watch in oak-shaded Madison Square.

"This was an event of national significance," said Todd Groce, the society's president. "You're at a point where African-Americans are beginning to make a transition out of generations of slavery. And we see just how long and painful a road that's going to be."

Sherman issued the policy as a military order, Special Field Orders 15, after he met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and 20 black ministers. The ministers were asked how to deal with thousands of freed slaves who had followed the army since Atlanta.

Sherman's order granted the ex-slaves each 40 acres, to be located along the coast from Charleston, S.C., to the St. Johns River in Florida. The document didn't mention mules, but the Union troops had an excess and gave them away.

The promise didn't last. A few months after President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson or-dered that the lands seized from Southern whites be returned to them.

Many white planters allowed blacks to stay and keep farming their land, resulting in the sharecropper system that wasn't far removed from slavery.