Merely 35 years after the last shot was fired in the American Civil War on June 22, 1865, in 1901, anticipating his imminent displacement, George White—the last African American remaining in Congress—retired. He was a victim of North Carolina’s disfranchisement schemes. On the eve of his departure from the House, Mr. White lamented, “The mule died long ago and the land grabbers have obtained the 40 acres.” Audible in his tone was the frustration that underlay more than 30 years of broken promises made to African Americans.
The phrase “forty acres and a mule” that Mr. White refers to in his address has its roots in the Special Field Order # 15 (SFO # 15). The order was signed into effect on January 16, 1865 by General William Tecumseh Sherman; just two months after Abraham Lincoln had been reelected to office. SFO #15 entitled each freed family forty acres of tillable land on islands and the coast of Georgia. However, there is no mention of mules (or any animals) in the field order.
A popular fable is that Sherman's commissary man came to him complaining that he had a large number of “broken down” mules for which he had no means of disposal. Sherman sent the useless animals for distribution along with the land. The first two sections of the SFO # 15 describes the area where the land was to be reserved and section three clearly indicates the size of the land to be allocated.
“Special Field Orders, No. 15
I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty (30) miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, 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, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or...