Special Field Orders No. 15

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Special Field Orders No. 15


By: William Tecumseh Sherman

Date: January 16, 1865

Source: Sherman, William Tecumseh. "Special Field Orders No. 15." January 16, 1865.

About the Author: William Tecumseh Sherman, a West Point graduate and a former instructor and banker, volunteered his services at the outset of the Civil War and rose to become Supreme Commander of the western forces during the Civil War. Known for the burning of Atlanta and his march to the sea during that war, Sherman played an important role in Reconstruction efforts.


The emancipation of slaves and the end of legal slavery involved three major turning points: the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Special Field Orders No. 15 of 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Each of these actions were important to the abolition of slavery; General William T. Sherman's Special Field Orders No. 15 helped bring an end to slavery while using federal control to enact social and economic change.

One of the pro-slavery arguments posited by southern slave owners was, "What would we do with all the slaves if they were free? Where would they live? What jobs would they take?" This question weighed on President Abraham Lincoln's mind as he considered the slavery issue. By 1863, Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in rebel-controlled areas, and offering slaves a place in the Union army. This gradualist approach was followed by the January 1865 Special Field Orders No. 15 issued by Sherman, and then the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution later that year.

Sherman's field order, approved by Lincoln, seized portions of the south to redistribute to current and former slaves. In addition, it offered military service opportunities for current and former slaves, encouraging slaves to flock to Union territory to receive commissions and land.


In the Field, Savannah, Georgia, 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.

III. 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 (40) forty acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 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 orders, to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.

IV. 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.

V. 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.

VI. 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 [Port Royal] Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.

By Order of Major General W. T. Sherman


Special Field Orders No. 15 provided a framework for post-Civil War living conditions and resettlement for former slaves. By offering young, able-bodied black males a position in the Union army, Sherman and Lincoln created encouraging conditions for slaves to abandon their work on plantations and with smaller southern farmers, doubly assisting the Union cause by weakening the south and strengthening Union forces.

The 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares), which stretched from South Carolina to Florida, were taken from Confederate States of America supporters. During Sherman's campaign, thousands of slaves had followed his army; Sherman met with black leaders in Savannah to brainstorm and find a way to help these refugees. Six weeks after Sherman and Lincoln issued Special Field Orders No. 15, Lincoln established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, known as the Freedman's Bureau, to create a federal agency designed to coordinate assistance for freed slaves to adjust to their new lives. The Freedman's Bureau helped former slaves in finding food, shelter, jobs, and land. However, after Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after Lincoln's assassination, he overturned Sherman's order in the fall of 1865. In 1867, Republican Thaddeus Stevens attempted to pass a bill distributing land to former slaves, but the bill failed.

Although very few former slaves received the benefits of Sherman's field order, and President Andrew Johnson returned the seized lands to the planters who had owned the lands before the order, the short-lived program provides an example to modern slave reparations groups who call for payments from the U.S. government to the descendents of former slaves. Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced The Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, or Congressional Bill H.R. 40, in 1989; the bill has not yet passed, but groups such as Black Thought for Justice and Change and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America have argued that slave reparations would be on par with the 1988 reparations made to Japanese-Americans and their descendents, who were placed in internment camps during World War II. Critics of reparations, such as public policy specialist and cultural analyst Wendy Kaminer, argue that reparations 160 years after the end of slavery apply a form of "inherited guilt" to slavery, and that reparations are not the best way to address inequities and social problems caused by slavery.

The 40 acres (16 hectares) noted by Sherman became part of the "forty acres and a mule" promise cited by historians as one of the great unfulfilled promises made by the U.S. government to former slaves (a later order issued by Sherman called for the loaning of mules to former slaves). While Sherman's field order was short-lived, it provides an example of Lincoln's approach to Reconstruction and also gives modern-day reparations activists a precedent to cite when looking at ongoing social, economic, and racial issues in the United States.



Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 2002.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Tsesis, Alexander. The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Web sites

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. "Slave Reparations." January 5, 2001. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/ week419/feature.html> (accessed June 18, 2006).

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