Forty Acres and a Mule

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"FORTY ACRES AND A MULE," a phrase echoed throughout the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, asserting the right of newly freed African Americans to redistributed landsparticularly those plantations confiscated by U.S. troops during the waras compensation for unpaid labor during slavery. Many historians trace the phrase to General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15, issued on 16 January 1865, which set aside a thirty-mile tract of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for former slaves and promised the army's help securing loaned mules. In addition, the Freed-men's Bureau initially was authorized to divide abandoned and confiscated lands into forty-acre tracts for rental and eventual sale to refugees and former slaves. Despite the efforts of Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction period, however, significant land redistribution measures ultimately were abandoned, and virtually all southern lands were returned to white owners. The resulting sharecropping system left the social and economic structures of slavery essentially intact in the South.

The phrase itself continued to live vividly in the minds of most African Americans throughout the twentieth century, symbolizing to many the "unfinished business" of the Civil War. It thus was used to advocate the affirmative action programs that developed from the civil rights movements of the 1960s. As the twenty-first century began, moreover, a group of prominent defense attorneys and civil rights advocates used the phrase in making proposals for class-action lawsuits and other measures designed to secure financial reparations for the descendents of African American slaves.


Donald, David Herbert, Jean H. Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Lori Askeland

See also Freedmen's Bureau ; Reconstruction ; Sharecroppers .