AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On this day in 1865, in Savannah, Georgia, leaders of the Union Army met with a group of black ministers. The Civil War was winding down, and the Union wanted the ministers' thoughts on how to help thousands of newly freed slaves. From that meeting came General William Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15. It said, quote, "each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground." Reporter Sarah McCammon has the story of the plan better known as 40 acres and a mule.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: After he wrapped up his famous march, General Sherman spent a few weeks in Savannah, staying in an ornate, Gothic Revival mansion called the Green-Meldrim House. That's where he and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton held their meeting with local black leaders. The house is now owned by a local church. Susan Arden-Joly is the preservationist.
SUSAN ARDEN-JOLY: Sherman's memoirs say that he took them upstairs to his quarters. So that's where we will go.
MCCAMMON: Walking up the winding staircase, Arden-Joly says the meeting took place in a high-ceilinged room on a corner of the second floor. She reads from Sherman's memoirs, where he quotes minutes from the meeting. He and Secretary Stanton asked the group's leader, Reverend Garrison Frazier, a series of questions.
ARDEN-JOLY: (Reading) Fourth question, state in what manner you would rather live, whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves. Answer, I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.
MCCAMMON: Charles Elmore is an emeritus professor of humanities at Savannah State University. He says Sherman and Stanton listened to Reverend Frazier and the others.
CHARLES ELMORE: The other men chose this eloquent, 67-year-old, imposing black man who was well over six feet tall. And he said, essentially, we want to be free from the domination of white men. We want to be educated, and we want to own land.
MCCAMMON: Four days later, Sherman signed Field Order 15, setting aside 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land for freed slaves. Sherman appointed Brigadier General Rufus Saxton to divide up the land, giving each family up to 40 acres. Elmore says it wasn't in the order, but some also received leftover Army mules.
ELMORE: But it became known as 40 acres and a mule.
STAN DEATON: Once the passion of war was over, the idea of that kind of social experiment kind of lost favor with a lot of people very quickly.
MCCAMMON: That's Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society. As he points out, after Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman's order, giving the land back to its former Confederate owners.
VAUGHNETTE GOODE-WALKER: Some call it the biggest gotcha in American history.
MCCAMMON: Writer Vaughnette Goode-Walker leads tours focused on Savannah's black history.
GOODE-WALKER: You know, because here, take this land. But we can't give it to you because it really doesn't belong to us. It belongs to the Confederates when they come back home. How confusing is that?
MCCAMMON: That left many African-Americans with few options but becoming sharecroppers, often working for former slave owners. But Charles Elmore says the meeting in Savannah 150 years ago accomplished one important thing.
ELMORE: It set in motion the dialogue between the white power structure and black men in Savannah, Georgia. What do you all want? And they got some of it, however temporary and fleetingly. They got it. That is significant.
MCCAMMON: For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Savannah, Georgia.
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