What happened to 40 acres and a mule?

The concept of "40 acres and a mule" is at least partially derived from a military order issued by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. On Jan. 16, 1865, he issued "Special Field Orders, No. 15," which stated that the land from Charleston, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., was to be divided and awarded to freed slaves. Union forces supervised the settlement of 40,000 ex-slaves on this land that had previously belonged to slaveholders [source: McPherson]. There was no mention of the "mule" in the orders, but the Army presumably gave them some sort of assistance, typically a mule or some other farm animal. The order was rescinded by Congress one year later, and the land returned to the previous owners.

The Freedmen's Bureau

At first, the United States tried to help newly freed slaves. The horrible conditions in the contraband camps prompted the creation of societies and groups that provided clothing, medicine and financial aid to the newly freed. Out of these groups evolved the Freedmen's Bureau: "established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865. The Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory" [source: Freedmen's Bureau].

One of the bureau's tasks was enforcing the division of plantations. Some of the land was supposed to be directly sold to former slaves, other parcels were to be supervised by Northerners, and still others were returned to their owners in exchange for signed oaths of allegiance. Treatment of blacks on these plantations ranged from "benign to brutal paternalism" [source: McPherson].

But with Northern apathy and racist attitudes, as well as a crippled Southern economy, black rights to citizenship were quickly suppressed. Legislation authorizing the Freedmen's Bureau was allowed to lapse in 1872. Sharecropping -- former slaves "sharing" 50 percent of earnings with former masters to work the land -- kept many freed men in debt and tied to the plantation in de facto slavery.

To learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation, take a look at the links on the next page.

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