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1865Reconstruction

Forty Acres, a Mule, and Knowing Your Place

Illustration of man plowing a field with girl in foreground

Plowing in South Carolina, 1866

Image of General Order #3 document

General Order No. 3, Issued June 19, 1865

Image of General Order #3 document

General Order No. 3, Issued June 19, 1865

On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger made his way into Galveston, Texas, and announced that enslaved African Americans were free in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued over two years earlier. Granger issued Order No. 3, which declared limited freedom. The order required that the newly emancipated men and women stay in their “present homes” (former slave cabins), enter an “employer and hired laborer” relationship with their “former masters,” and not engage in “idleness.” Black Americans’ freedom was conditioned upon their continued forced labor on land owned by others. The notion of Black freedom and its missing self-sustainability was beyond the imagination of non-Black citizens, regardless of Confederate or Union affiliations.

A few months earlier, after meeting with Black clergymen in Georgia, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Order No. 15, which distributed confiscated and abandoned lands along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coastline to formerly enslaved persons. Newly freed African Americans were promised 40-acre lots and the loan of a mule, providing some measure of assurance that they could successfully transition from slavery to freedom. Ultimately, the order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson, as he welcomed former Confederates back into the Union and ordered the return of their property. While some free people were able to secure property and build communities, many others suffered through peonage and the sharecropping system, enriching property they did not possess and lacking control of their own labor. Land made profitable by enslaved Black people was again stripped from them.