January 16, 1865: Special Field Orders No. 15 and “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground”

Somewhat forgotten among the important proclamations, orders, and documents of the Civil War is Special Field Orders No. 15 issued by Major-General William T. Sherman on January 16, 1865.  We’ve all heard the gist of this order, but have you ever read the order in its entirety? —

Special Field Orders  No. 15.
Hdqrs. Mil. Div. of the Mississippi,
In the Field, Savannah, Ga.,
January 16, 1865.

I. The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the Saint John’s River, Fla., 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, Savannah, Fernandina, Saint Augustine, and Jacksonville 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; domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom and securing their rights as citizens of the United States. 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, boats, 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 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. The quartermaster may, on the requisition of the inspector of settlements and plantations, place at the disposal of the inspector one or more of the captured steamers to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points, heretofore named in orders, to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants and to sell the products of their land and labor.

IV. Whenever a negro has enlisted in the military service of the United States he may locate his family in any one of the settlements at pleasure and acquire a homestead and all other rights and privileges of a settler as though present in person. In like manner negroes may settle their families and engage on board the gun-boats, or in fishing, or in the navigation of the inland waters, without losing any claim to land or other advantages derived from this system. But no one, unless an actual settler as above defined, or unless absent on Government service, will be entitled to claim any right to land or property in any settlement by virtue of these orders.

V. In order to carry out this system of settlement a general officer will be detailed as inspector of settlements and plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible the description of boundaries, and who shalt adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory. The same general officer will also be charged with the enlistment and organization of the negro recruits and protecting their interests while absent from their settlements, and will be governed by the rules and regulations prescribed by the War Department for such purpose.

VI. Brig. Gen. R. Saxton is hereby appointed inspector of settlements and plantations and will at once enter on the performance of his duties. No change is intended or desired in the settlement now on Beaufort Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.

By order of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman:
L. M. Dayton,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

I’d intended to run this post yesterday, at the 150th of the issuance.  Technical issues and schedule prevented me from transcribing it and posting on Friday.  Better still, I did have a chance to see how the anniversary was observed… and generally it was not.  Not that I expected a sesquicentennial themed observance anywhere… though I think such an observance at a place like St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia would have been particularly moving.

As always, with respect to emancipation and its aftermath, I am most interested in the mechanisms by which it was implemented (and from 1863 through 1870, that was in a large part a task assigned to the military).  While focusing on the buzz phrase “Civil War to Civil Rights,” I think we miss some of the nuances of the story which are really important to consider.  Where we are today didn’t just happen at a snap.  There was a journey.  All of the steps forward, sideways, and back, need be examined and considered.  Not just the endpoints.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 60-2.)


4 thoughts on “January 16, 1865: Special Field Orders No. 15 and “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground”

  1. I suppose Dahlgren’s reaction to the loss of Patapsco may reflect the position of the monitor program in 1865. Much was hoped off the monitors, but Du Pont’s failure to do much with them in 1863 seems to have caused political repercussions as the program was so closely linked to Fox and to an extent Welles. But by 1865 a lot of sea water had flowed under the crappers, as it were, and problems with the monitor construction program which ultimately lead to the General Inspector Chief Engineer Stimers to be moved aside as well as continuing hostility / “I told you so’s” from the offices of the Chief Constructor and Chief Engineer may have led Dahlgren to want to disassociate himself with monitors (this is all speculation on my part though).

    • But of course, the Navy would faithfully keep their monitors (even to the point of pushing for extra funding to “rebuild” them) through the turn of the century.

  2. […] This proclamation was pure Rufus Saxton.  We don’t remember Saxton for his military deeds (though, there was much that a casual observer overlooks…).  Rather we remember his role with the freedmen.  Indeed, Saxton should rightly be seen as the architect of “forty acres and a mule.”  It is not hard to take this Thanksgiving proclamation and logically walk over to Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15. […]

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