Sherman's Field Order No. 15
On January 16, 1865, during the Civil War (1861-65), Union general
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.
The order explicitly called for the settlement of black families on confiscated land, encouraged freedmen to join the Union army to help sustain their newly won liberty, and designated a general officer to act as inspector of settlements. Inspector General Rufus Saxton would police the land and work to ensure legal title of the property for the black settlers. In a later order, Sherman also authorized the army to loan mules to the newly settled farmers.
The immediate effect of Sherman's order provided for the settlement of roughly 40,000 blacks (both refugees and local slaves who had been under Union army administration in the Sea Islands since 1861). This lifted the burden of supporting the freedpeople from Sherman's army as it turned north into South Carolina. But the order was a short-lived promise for blacks. Despite the objections of General Oliver O. Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau chief, U.S. president Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman's directive in the fall of 1865, after the war had ended, and returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it.
Although Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 had no tangible benefit for blacks after President Johnson's revocation, the present-day movement supporting slave reparations has pointed to it as the U.S. government's promise to make restitution to African Americans for enslavement. The order is also the likely origin of the phrase "forty acres and a mule," which spread throughout the South in the weeks and months following Sherman's march.
Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (New York: Random House, 1995).
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (New York: New York University Press, 1985).
Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Noah Andre Trudeau, Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (New York: Harper, 2008).
Barton Myers, Texas Tech University, Lubbock
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.