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What Was Special Field Order 15?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Special Field Order 15 was actually a series of Special Field Orders issued on 16 January 1865, under a single numeric designation. These field orders set aside a huge swath of the Atlantic Coast in the South for the exclusive settlement of freed slaves, established an administrator for the redistribution of the land, and encouraged freed slaves to join the Union Army. Although the order did not last long, as it was repealed in the fall by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, many people consider it to be a landmark in American history, and it is often used as a precedent in court cases that involve reparations for the descendants of slaves.

These field orders were issued by General William Tecumseh Sherman after meeting with 20 prominent black religious leaders in Savannah, Georgia. Special Field Order 15 was a response to a very real problem, the issue of what to do with the untold numbers of freed slaves in the American South. Many of these people had joined Sherman's March to the Sea, and he was unable to care for them and unsure about what to do with them. Order 15 established a method for dealing with freed slaves while also punishing the South.

Under this order, the lands between Charleston and the Saint John's River in Florida were confiscated for 30 miles (48 kilometers) inland, and broken into 40 acre (16.18 hectare) parcels. Black families were entitled to a parcel each. Subsequently, General Sherman ordered the army to loan mules to the families to work the land, leading to the widespread use of the phrase “40 acres and a mule” in the American South. Naturally, this land was already owned and occupied, primarily by rice planters, but Sherman planned to expel them to make way for the resettlement.

Special Field Order 15 also specified that Brigadier-General Rufus Saxon would administrate the plan and deal with the diverse issues involved, ranging from confiscating the land to creating new deeds for black landowners. This series of field orders was only one among many designed to deal with the cascading problems associated with Reconstruction, as Americans attempted to rebuild a country torn apart by Civil War.

Had this order remained in effect, it certainly would have been a radical legacy. The thought of confiscating and redistributing land might sound suspiciously like communism to most modern Americans, even in the context of reparations, and the character of that region of the United States would undoubtedly be markedly different. As it is, several people have attempted to sue the United States government for reparations related to slavery, arguing that Special Field Order 15 indicated a good faith belief in reparations on the part of the government.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Cageybird — On Feb 27, 2014

@Phaedrus, I want to say that the US government and other countries also considered a similar relocation plan for European Jews during WWII. The landowners along that same Southern coastline would be bought out through eminent domain, then the government would establish basic housing and schools and other necessities for the displaced Jewish population. I don't think this suggestion got past the drawing board, however.

I wonder if freed slaves would have even wanted to be put into a separate part of the country. Many of them chose to remain in the South, since that was now their adopted homeland. Others moved to the Northern free states to find work. I don't know if they would have been truly satisfied with 40 acres and a mule if the area didn't have much else to offer.

By Phaedrus — On Feb 26, 2014

I live in the Deep South, and every once in a while the subject of slave reparations arises. Obviously, the US government could not afford to pay restitution to every descendant of every freed slave. That's usually as far as discussions ever get in courtroom challenges. What happened 150 years ago was a humanitarian disgrace, but the time for actual financial reparations is long past. I think modern generations should recognize the benefits and protections their ancestors never enjoyed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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