40 Acres and a Mule

“Undependable as a Government Mule”. “Worthless as a Government Mule”. We have always heard these phrases and it is interesting as to just how they, and many more divergent comments came about. Ironically, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman during his infamous and tyrannical march to the sea in the Civil War, issued Special Field Order No. 15 that, in part, granted all Freedmen (male slaves) Forty acres of land along with a mule with which they might work the land for crops.
That figure of forty acres apparently came from approximately four hundred freedmen somewhat collected along the route Sherman took on his way from Virginia to Atlanta and the port city of Savannah. Many of these freed slaves followed Sherman who, to them, was considered their liberator. But many problems were to develop concerning Sherman’s authority to live up to his promise. The congress of the Union made several unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the grant and see to it the slaves received awards they hoped for.
The land was to be confiscated from plantation owners who owned more than two hundred acres. That amount of land was made available to be four hundred thousand acres. Disbursement of mules used in the march was no longer needed by the army and could also be made available. Logistics became a big issue. Who would take care of the mules in the meantime? And who knows what and who would get the grants? On top of that, President Lincoln was assassinated. Then Vice President Andrew Johnson took over with a vowed claim to veto any such action by the Congress concerning the forty acres.

All the while the poor and confused slaves began to wonder who was going to take care of them. And, at least, where was that Government Mule? It didn’t happen. What did happen during that march was much destruction of life and property in the path taken by this march. Generals Sherman, Grant, Slocum and Howard carried out the mission showing little mercy. The freedmen faced hardships never before imagined.
One of the main objectives in the destructive advance by the Union forces was to obliterate all possibility of supplies coming northward toward Virginia and Lee’s army. Bridges were burned and rails from the rail roads were bent around trees and became known as Sherman’s bow ties.
Sherman handed down still another order that rang terror throughout his passage toward Savannah. He ordered the troops by order number IV as follows: “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. ‘Gather corn, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by your command.”
Order V: “Commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton gins, etc.
Order VI: “As for horses, mules, wagons, etc., belonging to inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery units may appropriate freely and without limit.” Discriminating between rich and poor was considered unnecessary.
Sherman’s declaration of “40 Acres and a Mule” became a challenge introduced to the Congress by Thaddeus Stevens. This portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act was defeated by the Union Congress on February 5, l866 by a vote of l26 to 36. Lands which had been, or intended to be, distributed to freedmen were reclaimed and returned to the previous owner. Even in this action there was no mention of a mule to be furnished to the freedmen or any other type animal.
Finally, Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto. They voted to extend the life of Freedmen’s Bureau. However, there seemed to be no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act as available to all.
From the tragic experience of this costly War Between the States both in property and lives, could there ever be a point of comic relief? Maybe so; and it came from an innocent joke being told at one of our Texas colleges of higher learning.
The professor in American History class was expounding on the horrors of Sherman’s march to the sea. He accounted in great detail of his march into Richmond and the burning of homes a properties. He further suggested that acts harmful to its many citizens caused much suffering for all.
At that point the nervous student could take no more. Alarm was seen on his face as he leaped to his feet and shouted, “Professor, I never heard that story about Richmond; and I have lived in Rosenberg all my life.”

Bob Jamison is a freelance writer. Contact him at jbobalong@yahoo.com