General William Tecumseh Sherman had a different idea regarding how the war should be prosecuted. Late in 1864 although the South had suffered extreme wounds on the battlefield the home and hearth of the South had yet to be really touched, and the morale and fighting spirit of the population remained extremely high.
General Sherman set out to change all that with his "March to the Sea". Sherman had just finished torching the city of Atlanta the confederate's workshop and his troops were fat and happy and ready to do some damage after spending months camped in the city.
Sherman let loose from his normal supply chain with the intent of "foraging liberally" and allowing both his armies hunger and thirst for vengeance bring the war to the actual people of the South.
Sherman split his 60,000 man force into two units and feinted towards two sides of the state while actually heading for the state Capital of Milledgeville. The twin forces made the populace howl, removing anything that could have been of military value and food.
He also began to collect a large following of newly freed slaves snapping at the first opportunity to leave the burning plantations and sullen White folks of their bondage.
General William Tecumseh Sherman was no natural friend of Black people. He counseled them to remain where they were. Sherman wanted people just given a promise by the Emancipation Proclamation to stay on the plantations and with Masssah. He had military reasons, his army was moving fast and light and without supply he had no real ability to provide for the newly freed, but that's just an excuse he could have, there were 1000's of former slaves assisting his army by building roads and providing the labor for military engineering, but he like many Union officers and his lieutenant General Jefferson Davis were racist.
As the XIV Corps prepared to cross Ebenezer Creek, Davis ordered that the refugees be held back, ostensibly 'for their own safety' because Wheeler's horsemen would contest the advance. 'On the pretense that there was likely to be fighting in front, the negroes were told not to go upon the pontoon bridge until all the troops and wagons were over,' explained Colonel Charles D. Kerr of the 126th Illinois Cavalry, which was at the rear of the XIV Corps.
'A guard was detailed to enforce the order, ' Kerr recalled. 'But, patient and docile as the negroes always were, the guard was really unnecessary.'
Kerr saw Wheeler's cavalry 'closely pressing' the refugees from the rear. Unarmed and helpless, the former slaves 'raised their hands and implored from the corps commander the protection they had been promised,' Kerr wrote. '...[but] the prayer was in vain and, with cries of anguish and despair, men, women and children rushed by hundreds into the turbid stream and many were drowned before our eyes.'
Though what happened once Davis's troops had all crossed remains in dispute, it seems fairly certain that Davis had the pontoon bridge dismantled immediately, leaving the refugees stranded on the creek's far bank. Kerr wrote that as soon as the Federals reached their destination, 'orders were given to the engineers to take up the pontoons and not let a negro cross.'
How many women, children, and older men were stranded cannot be determined precisely, but 5,000 is a conservative estimate. 'The great number of refugees that followed us...could be counted almost by the tens of thousands,' Captain Hopkins of New Jersey guessed. Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the right wing of Sherman's army (which included Davis's corps), recalled seeing 'throngs of escaping slaves' of all types, 'from the baby in arms to the old negro hobbling painfully along the line of march; negroes of all sizes, in all sorts of patched costumes, with carts and broken-down horses and mules to match.' Because the able-bodied refugees were up front working in the pioneer corps, most of those stranded would have been women, children,
and old men.
What happened next strongly suggests that Davis did not have the refugees' best interest in mind when he delayed their crossing of the creek, to say nothing of his apparently having ordered that the bridge promptly be dismantled. Davis's unabashed support of slavery definitely does not help his case, though Sherman insisted his brigadier bore no 'hostility to the negro.'
When news of the Ebenezer Creek Massacre reached the abolitionist North Secretary of War and strict abolitionist Edwin M. Stanton was not pleased. He travelled to Savannah Georgia the terminus of what became Sherman's successful march and there he held a meeting on January 12, 1865 with Sherman, but also with a group of Black Freedmen and religious leadership at Charles Green's mansion on Macon Street.
Their chosen leader and spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, aged 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, "when he purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver," as the New York Daily Tribune reported. Rev. Frazier had been "in the ministry for thirty-five years," and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.
And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! "The way we can best take care of ourselves," Rev. Frazier began his answer to the crucial third question, "is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor ... and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare ... We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own." And when asked next where the freed slaves "would rather live -- whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves," without missing a beat, Brother Frazier (as the transcript calls him) replied that "I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over ... " When polled individually around the table, all but one -- James Lynch, 26, the man who had moved south from Baltimore -- said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.
The order explicitly called for the settlement of black families on confiscated land, encouraged freedmen to join the Union army to help sustain their newly won liberty, and designated a general officer to act as inspector of settlements. Inspector General Rufus Saxton would police the land and work to ensure legal title of the property for the black settlers. In a later order, Sherman also authorized the army to loan mules to the newly settled farmers.
400,000 acres was set aside by the order in the mostly abandoned rice growing areas along the Atlantic Coast of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina including the Georgia Sea Islands dividing them by 40 acres provided room for 18,000 Black Settlers.
Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves: " ... 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 ... By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such."
The response from the newly freed populace of Black people in the south was electric.
When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that "From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be," reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, "the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order." Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the "black governor." And by June,
Where's my 40 Acres? Where's my mule?
Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 lasted only as long as Abraham Lincoln did. It was never national policy it was a military order. Sherman was asked if the order was supposed to be permanent or a temporary thing, he said temporary, and Andrew Johnson Lincoln's Democratic successor and Vice President was far more interested in reconstructing White power in the south than providing Black people with rights and land, so the order was revoked the same year it was issued