In an attempt to deal with the tens of thousands of black refugees who were following his army, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. Issued to deal with an emergency situation and not as an attempt to chart Reconstruction Policy, the order looms large in the mythology of Reconstruction and is the origin of the belief that freed slaves were all promised 40 acres and a mule. The order was rescinded by President Johnson in the fall of 1865.
Sherman commented on the Order in his Memoirs:
During Mr. Stanton’s stay in Savannah we discussed this negro question very fully; he asked me to draft an order on the subject, in accordance with my own views, that would meet the pressing necessities of the case, and I did so. We went over this order, No. 15, of January 16, 1865, very carefully. The secretary made some verbal modifications, when it was approved by him in all its details, I published it, and it went into operation at once. It provided fully for the enlistment of colored troops, and gave the freedmen certain possessory rights to land, which afterward became matters of judicial inquiry and decision. Of course, the military authorities at that day, when war prevailed, had a perfect right to grant the possession of any vacant land to which they could extend military protection, but we did not undertake to give a fee-simple title; and all that was designed by these special field orders was to make temporary provisions for the freedmen and their families during the rest of the war, or until Congress should take action in the premises. All that I now propose to assert is, that Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, saw these orders in the rough, and approved every paragraph thereof, before they were made public.
Here is the text of the Order:
IN THE FIELD, SAVANNAH, GA., January 16th, 1865.
SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS, No. 15.
I. 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. 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 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 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 towards 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. Continue reading
The first black Congressman elected and seated in the House of Representatives was Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina. Born to slaves on June 31, 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina, he became a free man soon after his birth, thanks to his father, Edward Rainey, a successful and industrious barber who purchased his family’s freedom. He followed his father in the barber trade, until the beginning of the Civil War. Drafted as a laborer, he worked on fortifications and blockade runners. Escaping with his wife, they spent the rest of the war in Bermuda where Rainey resumed his trade as a barber. After the war he returned to South Carolina and became active in Republican party politics. Well read and intelligent, Rainey quickly made his mark. In 1868 he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention. In 1870 he won election to the state senate of South Carolina and then, winning a special election to fill a vacancy, he was elected to Congress and would serve there until March of 1879, making him the longest serving black congressman until William Dawson of Illinois eclipsed his record in the 1950s.
In Congress Rainey fought for civil rights for blacks and against the ultimately successful effort in the South to effectively disenfranchise blacks. He brought to his efforts a keen wit and eloquence as can be seen in this speech which he delivered after disparaging remarks were made about blacks in the South Carolina legislature by Democrat Representative Samuel Cox of New York in 1871:
The remarks made by the gentleman from New York in relation to the colored people of South Carolina escaped my hearing, as I was in the rear of the Hall when they were made, and I did not know that any utterance of that kind had emanated from him. I have always entertained a high regard for the gentleman from New York, because I believed him to be a useful member of the House. He is a gentleman of talent and of fine education, and I have thought heretofore that he would certainly be charitable toward a race of people who have never enjoyed the same advantages that he has. If the colored people of South Carolina had been accorded the same advantages—if they had had the same wealth and surroundings which the gentleman from New York has had, they would have shown to this nation that their color was no obstacle to their holding positions of trust, political or otherwise. Not having had these advantages, we cannot at the present time compete with the favored race of this country; but perhaps if our lives are spared, and if the gentleman from New York and other gentlemen on that side of the House will only accord to us right and justice, we shall show to them that we can be useful, intelligent citizens of this country. But if they will continue to proscribe us, if they will continue to cultivate prejudice against us; if they will continue to decry the Negro and crush him under foot, then you cannot expect the Negro to rise while the Democrats are trampling upon him and his rights. We ask you, sir, to do by the Negro as you ought to do by him in justice.
If the Democrats are such staunch friends of the Negro, why is it that when propositions are offered here and elsewhere looking to the elevation of the colored race, and the extension of right and justice to them, do the Democrats array themselves in unbroken phalanx, and vote against every such measure? You, gentlemen of that side of the House, have voted against all the recent amendments of the Constitution, and the laws enforcing the same. Why did you do it? I answer, because those measures had a tendency to give to the poor Negro his just rights, and because they proposed to knock off his shackles and give him freedom of speech, freedom of action, and the opportunity of education, that he might elevate himself to the dignity of manhood. Continue reading
Poor Andrew Johnson! You know that a President is obscure when a film made 67 years ago, when the average American knew far more American history than the average American does today, has a trailer with a quiz about the presidential subject of the film. This is a shame. Andrew Johnson was a fascinating man and led a fascinating life.