What does “forty acres and a mule” mean?

Emancipation Read more from
Chapter Civil Rights and Protests

The term originated with General William T. Sherman (1820–1891) toward the end of the Civil War. On January 16, 1865, in his “March to the Sea,” a military advancement he led from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside a tract of land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts for the exclusive settlement of forty thousand freed slaves. According to the order, each black family was to be given “a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground … 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.” All of the lands were former plantations that had been confiscated during the war; they became the jurisdiction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Though there was a provision for “one or more of the captured steamers to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points … to sell the products of their land and labor,” there was no mention of providing a mule, or any other animal, to each freedman. The mules, tired army work animals, were distributed to the landholders. News of “40 acres and a mule” spread among the freed slaves.

Soon after the war ended in April 1865, this promise to materially assist the freedmen was abandoned when President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) issued pardons for the ex-Confederates and ordered their lands returned to them. The somewhat obscure term “40 acres and a mule” resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s as the issue of reparations came to the fore in the United States.


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