150 Years Waiting on 40 Acres and a Mule: Sherman and the Sea Islands of the Gullah/Geechee

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com)

150 years ago today Union Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman stood in Savannah, GA here in the Gullah/Geechee Nation and issued “Special Field Order No. 15” which has long since been referred to as “40 Acres and a Mule” throughout communities of people of African descent in America aka the “Black community.”  Most often, we have dialogued about how we are yet waiting for our 40 acres and a mule.  However, many of our folks truly wouldn’t know what to do with a mule nor would want to raise and take care of one if it was part of the deal.  So, they would probably rapidly sell or trade the mule and simply take the 40 acres.  However, how long would the 40 acres be held on to after waiting for it all this time?

Unfortunately, the consistent disenfranchisement and urbanization that took place during the Great Depression when the “Great Migration” from the south and the deep south took place caused multiple generations of Black folks to be in places that are now food deserts and not places of the rich farm land like that of the area that this field order applied to.   As a result, many that grew up in those environments have come to or returned to the Gullah/Geechee Nation and prefer to go to the store and not into the field.  The field conjures images in their minds of enslavement and taking low instead of images of self-sufficiency, nurturing, and strength.  Any time you can feed your family without relying on another, you are blessed.  The ownership of land and the ability to harvest from it allows you to do this.  This is what the ministers that met with Sherman in Savannah four days before this order was issued knew and that is why they wanted to have land that they could till on their own and to be left alone.

No longer wanting to till the land on our own nor to maintain the solid wooden houses that our ancestors built on that land has caused family members to sell out and lose tens of thousands of acres of land that had been owned by people of African descent during Reconstruction.  There are also those that have returned home with no acculturation to the land and no knowledge of how to till it nor how to live in this environment with those who continue to maintain it and sustain it by farming and adding on to their ancestral homes as they gained the materials and material wealth to do so.  So, the forty acres that they may be heirs to looks like “undeveloped land” and forest to them and they do not have the vision that their foreparents had when they bought their land at the auctions and tilled it and built on it.  Thus, an immeasurably valuable inheritance falls to heirs that do not appropriately value it.   If the only value to you would be a one time sale so that you could pocket some cash, then you are not assessing this correctly at all!

Those that did not have the funds to buy land at auctions while the US Civil War was still underway, were truly looking forward to the land grants that were to be issued by Sherman and his colleagues because they knew that having land that they owned would allow them to be their own bosses and would allow them to maintain and sustain their families on and from it.  The reality of the magnitude of mental, cultural, and economic empowerment that would come from this would be able to truly bring forth freedom and independence.  This is no doubt why, this field order essentially got rescinded and why the history books in the United States do not usually discuss it.  Yet, it is a major document of ourstory in the Gullah/Geechee Nation since it reads:

“1. The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John’s River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the [Emancipation] proclamation of the President of the United States.
2. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations—but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress. By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription,
or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the [War] Department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.  Negroes so enlisted will be organized into companies, battalions, and regiments, under the orders of the United States military authorities, and will be paid, fed, and clothed, according to law. The bounties paid on enlistment may, with the consent of the recruit, go to assist his family and settlement in procuring agricultural implements, seed, tools, boots, clothing, and other articles necessary for their livelihood.
3. Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a
plot of not more than forty (40) acres of tillable ground, and, when it borders on some water channel, with not more than eight hundred (800) feet water-front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title. The Quartermaster may, on the requisition of the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, place at the disposal of the Inspector one or more of the captured steamers, to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points heretofore named, in order to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.
4. Whenever a negro has enlisted in the military service of the United States, he may locate his family in any one of the settlements at pleasure, and acquire a homestead, and all other rights and privileges of a settler, as though present in person. In like manner, negroes may settle their families and engage on board the gunboats, or in fishing, or in the navigation of the inland waters, without losing any claim to land or other advantages derived from this system. But no one, unless an actual settler as above defined, or unless absent on Government service, will be entitled to claim any right to land or property in any settlement by virtue of these orders.

5. In order to carry out this system of settlement, a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible the description of boundaries; and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory. The same general officer will also be charged with the enlistment and organization of the negro recruits, and protecting their interests while absent from their settlements; and will be governed by the rules and regulations prescribed by the War Department for such purposes.

Union Major-General William T. Sherman

Union Major-General William T. Sherman

6. Brigadier-General R. SAXTON is hereby appointed Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, and will at once enter on the performance of his duties. No change is intended or desired in the settlement now on Beaufort Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.


L. M . Dayton, Assistant Adjutant-General.”

As a result of this, the Gullah/Geechees of the Sea Islands remained the Black majority until the onslaught of displacement brought on by cash based activities encroached upon their traditional agrarian community in the 1970s and 1980s.  The more that they had to use cash, the more cash focused some people became.  As people sent their children into the military or away from the island to work elsewhere during segregation so that they could make more money to send home or to have saved up when they came home to till and build on their parcels of the family compounds, these folks started to be indoctrinated into believing that there was nothing on that land to return to.  They were taught to devalue the country dirt roads lined with the Spanish moss covered oak trees.  Thus, the family compounds that remained on these Sea Islands that had be created by those that purchased lands during the Civil War like the people of St. Helena Island and by some who did obtain their land grants from this field order such as some folks on Edisto Island did, started to see destructionment approaching around them as new people of other cultures marched in.  They probably had the same reaction that our ancestors had when the new faces of the soldiers and missionaries marched in during the Civil War and brought with them cultural values that were not Gullah/Geechee traditions. Gullah/Geechees had to figure out what would happen now that these folks where here and they slowly saw that what was happening was that they were literally losing ground!  The same ground that the Union had helped them to gain was somehow slowly being sold back from beneath them!

Many Black folks that had moved away from the south and from the Sea Islands in particular, believed it was no longer their duty to send money back home once they started residing in urban areas away from the islands.  They felt that they had moved into a better life where they didn’t have to work as hard not considering that they were losing major assets by losing their land.  Some made major investments in the equity in real estate of land lords in urban areas to the point that they had no funds to send home to assist with land taxes or the maintaining of family homesteads.  Yet, these are the ones that would sit down in extensive conversations and say how they were still waiting on America to give them their 40 acres and a mule.  They never thought of how they had traded their 40 acres and the mule for a ticket on the grey dog that many had ridden from the south up north or for the box car that they took there and for the spaces that they did not own where they were residing.

The ministers that spoke to Sherman were invested in the Sea Islands and the coastal region.   They spoke clearly and he adhered to what they said and provided a means by which the land therein would be distributed to the people of African descent that had been working it for free.  He realized that these men and those that they represented truly understood the value of the land and of self-sufficiency. Thus, he provided a means for them to have it and to govern and sustain themselves on it.

Once the families received their 40 acres with or without mules, but definitely with tools, they worked that land.   Many of us that still reside on our family compounds to this day work the land.   Disya da whey de Gullah/Geechee wha bin hab de mudda wit still dey!  So, on this day, 150 years later, we salute Major-General Sherman for his Special Field Order Number 15 and its intent.

Gullah/Geechee, hunnuh betta hol pun hunnuh disy san!  Ain nuttin fa hunnuh wait fa no mo!  GAWD ain da mek no mo lan.  So, whey hunnuh gwine go?  It seems to me, it may be time for many of the Gullah/Geechee family to do as Sherman did and march back to the sea, work your land, and lun who webe!



  1. Gullah/Geechee Land & Legacy: WE Property by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation | Gullah/Geechee Nation

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