By Heather Gray
May 7, 2017
Justice initiative International
Most of my professional career has been devoted to cooperative economic development and issues relevant to Black farmers in the southern United States. Doing this work you cannot help but become ensconced in the history of slavery, the Civil War and its consequences. In this instance, knowing the actions and attitudes of General William Tecomseh Sherman is essential, albeit with his occasional condescending statements coupled with some understanding and seeming generosity (a general’s mindset some have noted).
In fact, it was Sherman and Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who initiated the concept of the “40 acres” for freed slaves after listening to the demands of the freedmen.
As Sherman marched through Georgia toward Savannah from November 15 to December 21, 1864, slaves left the Georgia plantations to follow him. Once in Savannah, Sherman realized he had to do something about the Black folks who had followed him so he and Stanton called for a meeting with Black elders to ask what they wanted.
“Forty Acres and a Mule”? In summary, the Black attendees in this historic meeting told Stanton and Sherman that they wanted land to grow food and a community of their own to develop. Sherman responded with the famous “Field Order 15.” In the “Order” Sherman provided 40 acres for families in the abandoned land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida “low country.” Sherman also ultimately offered Army mules that might be available – thus the, “Forty Acres and a Mule”. As a result, untold numbers of the Black families almost immediately moved into the lowlands.
Then on April 14, 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson becomes president and not long after he rescinds Field Order 15. The devastation and betrayal was immense. Johnson states ultimately that he is giving the land back to the white owners and blacks will need to work for the white owners.
However, for “Part One” about “Forty Acres and a Mule” I want to share the following:
(1) From Sherman’s Memoir – information about Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, in Savannah and the decision to meet with the Black community on January 12, 1865.
Mr. Stanton staid in Savannah several days, and seemed very curious about matters and things in general. I walked with him through the city, especially the bivouacs of the several regiments that occupied the vacant squares, and he seemed particularly pleased at the ingenuity of men in the constructing their temporary huts. Four of the “dog-tents,” or tentes d’abri, buttoned together, served for a roof, and the sides were made of clapboards, or rough boards brought from demolished houses or fences. I remember his marked admiration for the hut of a soldier who had made his door out of a handsome parlor mirror the glass gone and its gilt frame serving for his door.
He talked to me a great deal about the negroes, the former slaves, and I told him of many interesting incidents, illustrating their simple character and faith in our arms and progress. He inquired particularly about General Jeff. C. Davis, who, he said, was a Democrat, and hostile to the negro. I assured him that General Davis was an excellent soldier, and I did not believe he had any hostility to the negro; that our army we had no negro soldiers, and, as a rule, we preferred white soldiers, but that we employed a large force of them as servants, teamsters, and pioneers, who had rendered admirable service.
He then showed me a newspaper account of General Davis taking up his pontoon-bridge across Ebenezer Creek, leaving sleeping negro men, women, and children, on the other side, to be slaughtered by Wheeler’s calvary. I had heard such a rumor, and advised Mr. Stanton, before becoming prejudiced, to allow me to send for General Davis, which he did, and General Davis explained the matter to his entire satisfaction.
The truth was, that, as we approached the seaboard, the freedmen in droves, old and young, followed the several columns to reach a place of safety. It so happened that General Davis’s route into Savannah followed what was known as the “River-road,” and he had to make constant use of his pontoon-train–the head of his column reaching some deep, impassable creek before the rear was fairly over another. He had occasionally to use the pontoons both day and night.
On the occasion referred to, the bridge was taken up from Ebenezer Creek. while some of the camp-followers remained asleep on the farther side, and these were picked up by Wheeler’s cavalry.
Some of them, in their fright, were drowned in trying to swim over, and others may have been cruelly killed by Wheeler’s men, but this was a mere supposition.
At all events, the same thing might have resulted to General Howard, or to any other of the many most humane commanders who ﬁlled the army. General Jeff. C. Davis was strictly a soldier, and doubtless hated to have his wagons and columns encumbered by these poor negroes, for whom we all felt sympathy, but a sympathy of a different sort from that of Mr. Stanton, which was not of pure humanity, but of politics.
The negro question was beginning to loom up among the political eventualities of the day, and many foresaw that not only would the slaves secure their freedom, but that they would also have votes. I did not dream of such a result then, but knew that slavery, as such, was dead forever, and did not suppose that the former slaves would be suddenly, without preparation, manufactured into voters equal to all others, politically and socially.
Mr. Stanton seemed desirous of coming into contact with the negroes to confer with them, and he asked me to arrange an interview for him. I accordingly sent out and invited the most intelligent of the negroes, mostly Baptist and Methodist preachers, to come to my rooms to meet the Secretary of War. Twenty responded, and were received in my room up-stairs in Mr. Green’s house, where Mr. Stanton and Adjutant-General Townsend took down the conversation in the form of questions and answers. Each of the twenty gave his name and partial history, and then selected Garrison Frazier as their spokesman.
(2) General Sherman’s archived minutes in Sherman’s memoir of this historic January 12, 1865 meeting in Savannah also includes the names and description of the Black leaders. The minutes were also printed in the New York Tribune on February 13, 1865.
MINUTES OF AN INTERVIEW BETWEEN THE COLORED MINISTERS AND CHURCH OFFICERS AT SAVANNAH WITH THE SECRETARY OF WAR AND MAJOR-GEN. SHERMAN.
HEADQUARTERS OF MAJ.-GEN. SHERMAN,
CITY OF SAVANNAH, GA., Jan., 12, 1865-8 P.M.
On the evening of Thursday, the 12th day of January, 1865, the following persons of African descent met by appointment to hold an interview with Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Major-Gen. Sherman, to have a conference upon matters relating to the freedmen of the State of Georgia, to-wit:
One: William J. Campbell, aged 51 years, born in Savannah, slave until 1849, and then liberated by will of his mistress, Mrs. May Maxwell. For ten years pastor of the 1st Baptist Church of Savannah, numbering about 1,800 members. Average congregation, 1,900. The church property belonging to the congregation. Trustees white. Worth $18,000.
Two: John Cox, aged fifty-eight years, born in Savannah; slave until 1849, when he bought his freedom for $1,100. Pastor of the 2d African Baptist Church. In the ministry fifteen years. Congregation 1,222 persons. Church property worth $10,000, belonging to the congregation.
Three: Ulysses L. Houston, aged forty-one years, born in Grahamsville, S.C.; slave until the Union army entered Savannah. Owned by Moses Henderson, Savannah, and pastor of Third African Baptist Church. Congregation numbering 400. Church property worth $5,000; belongs to congregation. In the ministry about eight years.
Four: William Bentley, aged 72 years, born in Savannah, slave until 25 years of age, when his master, John Waters, emancipated him by will. Pastor of Andrew’s Chapel, Methodist Episcopal Church-only one of that denomination in Savannah; congregation numbering 360 members; church property worth about $20,000, and is owned by the congregation; been in the ministry about twenty years; a member of Georgia Conference.
Five: Charles Bradwell, aged 40 years, born in Liberty County, Ga.; slave until 1851; emancipated by will of his master, J. L. Bradwell. Local preacher in charge of the Methodist Episcopal congregation (Andrew’s Chapel) in the absence of the minister; in the ministry 10 years.?
Six: William Gaines, aged 41 years; born in Wills Co., Ga. Slave until the Union forces freed me. Owned by Robert Toombs, formerly United States Senator, and his brother, Gabriel Toombs, local preacher of the M.E. Church (Andrew’s Chapel.) In the ministry 16 years.
Seven: James Hill, aged 52 years; born in Bryan Co., Ga. Slave up to the time the Union army came in. Owned by H. F. Willings, of Savannah. In the ministry 16 years.
Eight: Glasgon Taylor, aged 72 years, born in Wilkes County, Ga. Slave until the Union army came; owned by A. P. Wetter. Is a local preacher of the M.E. Church (Andrew’s Chapel.) In the ministry 35 years.
Nine: Garrison Frazier, aged 67 years, born in Granville County, N.C. Slave until eight years ago, when he bought himself and wife, paying $1,000 in gold and silver. Is an ordained minister in the Baptist Church, but, his health failing, has now charge of no congregation. Has been in the ministry 35 years.
Ten: James Mills, aged 56 years, born in Savannah; free-born, and is a licensed preacher of the first Baptist Church. Has been eight years in the ministry.
Eleven: Abraham Burke, aged 48 years, born in Bryan County, Ga. Slave until 20 years ago, when he bought himself for $800. Has been in the ministry about 10 years.
Twelve: Arthur Wardell, aged 44 years, born in Liberty County, Ga. Slave until freed by the Union army. Owned by A. A. Solomons, Savannah, and is a licensed minister in the Baptist Church. Has been in the ministry 6 years.
Thirteen: Alexander Harris, aged 47 years, born in Savannah; free born. Licensed minister of Third African Baptist Church. Licensed about one month ago.
Fourteen: Andrew Neal, aged 61 years, born in Savannah, slave until the Union army liberated him. Owned by Mr. Wm. Gibbons, and has been deacon in the Third Baptist Church for 10 years.
Fifteen: Jas. Porter, aged 39 years, born in Charleston, South Carolina; free-born, his mother having purchased her freedom. Is lay-reader and president of the board of wardens and vestry of St. Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Colored Church in Savannah. Has been in communion 9 years. The congregation numbers about 200 persons. The church property is worth about $10,000, and is owned by the congregation.
Sixteen: Adolphus Delmotte, aged 28 years, born in Savannah; free born. Is a licensed minister of the Missionary Baptist Church of Milledgeville. Congregation numbering about 300 or 400 persons. Has been in the ministry about two years.
Seventeen: Jacob Godfrey, aged 57 years, born in Marion, S.C. Slave until the Union army freed me; owned by James E. Godfrey-Methodist preacher now in the Rebel army. Is a class-leader and steward of Andrew’s Chapel since 1836.
Eighteen: John Johnson, aged 51 years, born in Bryan County, Georgia. Slave up to the time the Union army came here; owned by W. W. Lincoln of Savannah. Is class-leader and treasurer of Andrew’s Chapel for sixteen years.
Nineteen: Robt. N. Taylor, aged 51 years, born in Wilkes Co., Ga. Slave to the time the Union army came. Was owned by Augustus P. Welter, Savannah, and is class-leader in Andrew’s Chapel for nine years.
Twenty: Jas. Lynch, aged 26 years, born in Baltimore, Md.; free-born. Is presiding elder of the M.E. Church and missionary to the department of the South. Has been seven years in the ministry and two years in the South.
Garrison Frazier being chosen by the persons present to express their common sentiments upon the matters of inquiry, makes answers to inquiries as follows:
First: State what your understanding is in regard to the acts of Congress and President Lincoln’s [Emancipation] proclamation, touching the condition of the colored people in the Rebel States.
Answer: So far as I understand President Lincoln’s proclamation to the Rebellious States, it is, that if they would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the first of January, 1863, all should be well; but if they did not, then all the slaves in the Rebel States should be free henceforth and forever. That is what I understood.
Second: State what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President’s proclamation.
Answer: Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.
Third: State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.
Answer: The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor-that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. And to assist the Government, the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted. (The Rebels told us that they piled them up and made batteries of them, and sold them to Cuba; but we don’t believe that.) We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.
Fourth: 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; but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren. [Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present, being questioned one by one, answer that they agree with Brother Frazier.]1
Fifth: Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors?
Answer: I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.
Sixth: State what is the feeling of the black population of the South toward the Government of the United States; what is the understanding in respect to the present war-its causes and object, and their disposition to aid either side. State fully your views.
Answer: I think you will find there are thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there are also many that are not willing to take up arms. I do not suppose there are a dozen men that are opposed to the Government. I understand, as to the war, that the South is the aggressor. President Lincoln was elected President by a majority of the United States, which guaranteed him the right of holding the office and exercising that right over the whole United States. The South, without knowing what he would do, rebelled. The war was commenced by the Rebels before he came into office. The object of the war was not at first to give the slaves their freedom, but the sole object of the war was at first to bring the rebellious States back into the Union and their loyalty to the laws of the United States. Afterward, knowing the value set on the slaves by the Rebels, the President thought that his proclamation would stimulate them to lay down their arms, reduce them to obedience, and help to bring back the Rebel States; and their not doing so has now made the freedom of the slaves a part of the war. It is my opinion that there is not a man in this city that could be started to help the Rebels one inch, for that would be suicide. There were two black men left with the Rebels because they had taken an active part for the Rebels, and thought something might befall them if they stayed behind; but there is not another man. If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out, you would not get through them these two weeks.
Seventh: State whether the sentiments you now express are those only of the colored people in the city; or do they extend to the colored population through the country? and what are your means of knowing the sentiments of those living in the country?
Answer: I think the sentiments are the same among the colored people of the State. My opinion is formed by personal communication in the course of my ministry, and also from the thousands that followed the Union army, leaving their homes and undergoing suffering. I did not think there would be so many; the number surpassed my expectation.
Eighth: If the Rebel leaders were to arm the slaves, what would be its effect?
Answer: I think they would fight as long as they were before the bayonet, and just as soon as soon as they could get away, they would desert, in my opinion.
Ninth: What, in your opinion, is the feeling of the colored people about enlisting and serving as soldiers of the United States? and what kind of military service do they prefer?
Answer: A large number have gone as soldiers to Port Royal [S.C.] to be drilled and put in the service; and I think there are thousands of the young men that would enlist. There is something about them that perhaps is wrong. They have suffered so long from the Rebels that they want to shoulder the musket. Others want to go into the Quartermaster’s or Commissary’s service.
Tenth: Do you understand the mode of enlistments of colored persons in the Rebel States by State agents under the Act of Congress?2 If yea, state what your understanding is.
Answer: My understanding is, that colored persons enlisted by State agents are enlisted as substitutes, and give credit to the States, and do not swell the army, because every black man enlisted by a State agent leaves a white man at home; and, also, that larger bounties are given or promised by State agents than are given by the States. The great object should be to push through this Rebellion the shortest way, and there seems to be something wanting in the enlistment by State agents, for it don’t strengthen the army, but takes one away for every colored man enlisted.
Eleventh: State what, in your opinion, is the best way to enlist colored men for soldiers.
Answer: I think, sir, that all compulsory operations should be put a stop to. The ministers would talk to them, and the young men would enlist. It is my opinion that it would be far better for the State agents to stay at home, and the enlistments to be made for the United States under the direction of Gen. Sherman.
In the absence of Gen. Sherman, the following question was asked:
Twelfth: State what is the feeling of the colored people in regard to Gen. Sherman; and how far do they regard his sentiments and actions as friendly to their rights and interests, or otherwise?Answer: We looked upon Gen. Sherman prior to his arrival as a man in the Providence of God specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously feel inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he would not meet the Secretary with more courtesy than he met us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman. We have confidence in Gen. Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be under better hands. This is our opinion now from the short acquaintance and interest we have had. (Mr. Lynch states that with his limited acquaintance with Gen. Sherman, he is unwilling to express an opinion. All others present declare their agreement with Mr. Frazier about Gen. Sherman.)
Some conversation upon general subjects relating to Gen. Sherman’s march then ensued, of which no note was taken.
Clipping from New-York Daily Tribune, [13 Feb. 1865], “Negroes of Savannah,” Consolidated Correspondence File, series 225, Central Records, Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives.
1. Brackets in the original.
2. The act, adopted on July 4, 1864, permitted agents from Northern states to recruit soldiers among black men in the Confederate states, crediting them against the draft quotas of the Northern states. (U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, vol. 13 [Boston, 1866], pp. 379-81.)
Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, pp. 331-38, in Free at Last, pp. 310-18, and in Freedom’s Soldiers, pp. 149-53.
General Sherman’s notes on Stanton and the minutes of the meeting with Black leaders in Savannah were available in:
William Tecumseh Sherman: Memoirs (First printed in 1875 by D. Appleton and Company & in the 2000 edition by Penguin Books.