A Dream Deferred
When Andrew Johnson, a southern unionist from Tennessee, assumed the presidency, no one, including Stanton, knew how he would deal with "the Negro question." Slowly but surely he showed his lack of interest in elevating the freedmen to first-class
citizenry. He did everything in his power to gut the Freedmen's Bureau, which
supervised all relief and education efforts for the newly emancipated four million
On May 29 President Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation. Most of the former owners of the coast and island plantations immediately received pardons and
their property rights were restored. In the fall, Johnson ordered General O. O.
Howard, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to restore most of the confiscated tracts of
lands to the former owners. The freedmen were allowed only to bring in their crops.
Then they would have to leave the promised land or else work as sharecroppers.
Because he resisted restoring the lands to their former owners, on order of President Johnson, General Saxton was removed from his duties on January 15, 1866. As for Edwin Stanton, he hung onto his position until May 1868, futiley fighting Johnson's anti-Reconstuction policies for most of that time. When Johnson fired Stanton, the president was impeached by the House of Representatives, but escaped removal from office by a single vote in the Sentate.
The great "what if" of this saga is Abraham Lincoln. Would he have allowed the freedmen to keep the land or given it back to the former owners? I'm convinced Stanton believed Lincoln would have sided with the African-Americans or why else would the secretary of war do the extraordinary things he did to make the promise to the freedmen real? He was not interested in moral victories, but victory, period.
We'll never know for certain what would have happened if Lincoln had lived, but we do know something was born in the upstairs room of Charles Green's house on Madison Square in Savannah, Georgia on January 12, 1865 that could not be destroyed by prejudice, ignorance, incompetence, cowardice, selfishness, indolence, or the devil himself: the pursuit of equal rights by the black race in America.
"For Listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty."
James 5:4 (NLT)
xx. Walter L. Fleming, "Forty Acres and a Mule," North American Review 182 (May 1906), pp. 725-726.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 also killed, I believe, the dream of forty acres and a mule. By June of that year, more than 40,000 freedmen were settled on the Sea Islands along the Southeast Coast. Rufus Saxton reported "that the movement was a great success. Thousands of acres of land were allotted to blacks; Negro communities grew up, the government was carried on, churches and schools were established and roads made, by the Negroes under Army officials."[xx]