In January 1865, three months prior to the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman met with a group of freed slaves who were petitioning for land. There he delivered Field Order 15, also known as the “Savannah Colloquy,” which set aside large parcels of Confederate land along the Atlantic coastline from Charleston, South Carolina to St. Johns, Florida. Generations of slaves had lived and farmed on the massive rice plantations of these costal Sea Islands, the same lands that produced vast wealth for their former owners. It has been suggested that the conditions surrounding Sherman’s land grant led to the term “forty acres and a mule,” indicating the amount of land each slave family was either allowed to buy or would be granted as well as the retired army mule they were to receive.
The agency charged with the land distribution was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Signed into law by President Lincoln in March 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created in response to the conditions existing in the South at the close of the Civil War: the widespread destruction of farmland, machinery and capital; upheaval in the old social order creating ill-defined relations between former slaves and slaveholders; and the urgent need to transition black people from slavery to freedom. Although the Bureau gave crucial assistance in the form of meal rations, education and medicines, an early function of the agency was land redistribution, a goal that ironically never came to fruition.
Although 40 acres was the allotment designated for each family, Congress allowed the Bureau to offer only 5 to 10 acre plots for sale. In June 1865, approximately 40,000 freedmen were settled on 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina and Georgia, referred to as “Sherman’s Land.” Southern whites were outraged. The idea of freedmen owning land was an explosive topic in the post-Civil War South. Southern white society resented the anarchy and upheaval caused by the war. They wanted to return the freedmen to their subordinate position in society, understanding that white control over land was key to regaining political, economic and social control over blacks in the South.
Andrew Johnson, an advocate for the interests of the Southern states, became President following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of 1865, President Johnson rescinded Sherman’s Field Order, issued a special pardon to Confederates and instructed General O. O. Howard of the Freedmen’s Bureau to return land to the previous owners. Many freedman, like the inhabitants of Edisto Island, worked the “promised” land but did not yet legally own it. With this order, most freedmen were not only evicted, losing their investment in tools, crops and time, they also lost the promise of independence and self-sufficiency that comes with land ownership.
Narrator: Conflict over black emancipation is as old as the nation. In 1861, the South left the union rather than remain part of a country that restricted the expansion of slavery. At first, Abraham Lincoln saw the struggle as simply a war to save the nation. But in time he would recast the Civil War as a war to end slavery. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. Six months after the South surrendered, Congress ratified the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The federal government had made a promise to the former slaves, these newly freed men and women who knew what they wanted; education, and the right to vote, equal rights in the courts and mostly land.
W.W. Law (V.O.): What is it that your people need now that you are free?
W.W. Law: Our people need land. And they need tools to work the land. And so there we begin to see the priority, to own our own land.
Peter Hall :Every colored man will be a slave and feel himself a slave until he can raise his own bail of cotton and put, his own mark upon it and says, 'this is mine." Without independence and self-employment, freedom would be meaningless.
Narrator: On Edisto Island off the cost of South Carolina thousands of newly freed blacks were making that dream come true on land abandoned by their former masters and given to them by the Union Army. They had built schools and churches, established family and community life.
Narrator: But they had heard rumors that their future was at risk. Lincoln had been assassinated and a Southerner Andrew Johnson was president, Johnson fought to save the union, but not to free slaves. “This is a country for white men,” he said, “and as long as I am president it will be a government for white men”
Song: Motherless Child
Narrator: On October 19, 1865, a boat carrying a deeply troubled Union General, Oliver O. Howard, slowly made its way toward Edisto. Howard was known as "the Christian General." A deeply religious man who hated slavery, he was in charge of the new Freedman's Bureau established by Congress that year to protect the confiscated lands given to the former slaves. Howard was revered second only to Lincoln by the free blacks.
Marquetta Goodwill: They got the message from the Freedman's Bureau that the General was coming back, General Oliver O. Howard. Who they were expecting to hear nothing but good news from him because he was the man who had told them about how this land now was transferred to them and they owned it and they didn't have to worry about "massa" no more and everything.
Marquetta Goodwill: He asked them to gather together at the church on Edisto. So over two thousand people came from all among the oak trees,
Marquetta Goodwill: And all off back in the woods, from their shacks and their dirt road to meet there at the church to hear this new discussion about their land.
Narrator as O. O. Howard:I have been sent by the President to tell you that your old masters have been pardoned and their plantations are to be given back to them, and that they would hire blacks to work for them. Lay aside your bitter feelings and be reconciled to them…
Marquetta Goodwill: So people were enraged and people started hollering out ""No, No. Ain't no way. That ain't what you tell us before. "No suh, No suh”
Man's Voice: General Howard, why do you take away our lands! You take them from us who are true, always true to the government. You give them to our all time enemies. The man who gave me 39 lashes, and who stripped and flogged my mother and sister- who keeps land from me well knowing I would not have anything to do with him if I had land of my own- that man I cannot well forgive.
Marquetta Goodwill: Some went into "Nobody Knows the Trouble We've Seen," and some went into "Motherless Child", and all those things rippled off the sea.
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