Saxton's Speech [xiii]
“And Now I Want to Tell You, You May Own the Soil”
Anyone who might wonder why African-Americans
should believe they ever had any legitimate claim to their
forty acres and a mule should look no further than the
speech below. It was contained in the article published
0n the front page of the Savannah Republican on
February 5, 1865 as recorded by an anonymous reporter.
The speech was given by Brevet Major-General Rufus B. Saxton at Savannah’s Second African Baptist Church shortly after he was appointed to implement Special Field Orders, No. 15.
[From the Savannah Republican.] Savannah (Ga.), February 5, 1865. — Having been called away to attend to my special work, I have not time to write extended transcription of my notes taken this afternoon at the meeting in the Secord [African] Baptist Church, called by General Saxton, to explain to the colored people their rights and privileges, in connection with the recent order of General Sherman.
While the people were gathering--which they did in such numbers that the building was densely crowded — the organ was played by a colored man, accompanied by male and female singers ; the instrumental and vocal music afforded evidence of the truth that Africa will yet excel in the imaginative arts. At the request of General Saxton, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," etc., was poured forth in rich volumes of sound, with very appropriate variations, suited to the present times and events.
Rev. Mr. French, Chaplain United States Army, of General Saxton's Staff, called on Rev. Mr. Houston, pastor of the Third Baptist (colored) Church, who led in prayer, fervently, eloquently, impressively. Mr. French spoke briefly, introducing General Saxton as a true man, and a true friend of the colored people, who had done much for them, and now, at the first opportunity, wished to explain a few things to them for their good.
General Saxton disclaimed special disinterested benevolent action for any particular class of persons; he had served his country for eighteen years, and is serving it now; and he loved to do good to any and every one. He had been pleased with the singing of the hymn; and he hoped it would ring and swell in sacred song, and make these walls shake with increased realization of the great thoughts expressed in it.
If he had been told, some years ago, when he passed through this State, that he would have attended and addressed such a meeting as this, he would have rejected the idea. He had bowed the knee to slavery for the sake of the Union; but a change had taken place. He thanked God for the new and better order of things in men's opinions and practices. He came here empowered by the President of the United States to say to every colored man that he is free, free, forever free! [Shouts of Amen, and much manifestation of joyous rapture.] Free to take care of himself, of his wife and children. This he had come to say to them; and he hoped they would thank the Lord for it — that they could walk the streets, free, every man, every woman.
He supposed they had not heard the history of this war; he would tell them a little of it before he presented his business talk. Up North, where the Abolitionists live — and he thanked Heaven that he was an Abolitionist — the law up North is that every man is free. All the Northern States believe this, and they belong to the United States. The Southerners told us, some years ago, that when one of the fugitives, weary and worn, came flying to us from slavery, we most send them back. When they told us that, we felt as if we could hardly do it, but still we did the best we could.
But when Sumter was fired upon, and our flag insulted, we could not stand it any longer, and we rushed to arms to defend our country and preserve the Union; and when in the course of the war it was seen that the destruction of slavery would aid the cause of truth and government, we were glad that God in His providence gave us an opportunity to provide for and declare you all to be free.
But it is of little use to a man to have his liberty given him, unless he has also given him something to do. Freedom does not mean laziness, idleness, liberty to steal, etc. Slavery does mean all such, and worse. No people can be truly free unless they have a place to live on and cultivate the soil.
A large number of colored folks followed General Sherman in his recent glorious march, and he said they need a means of living; and he has provided such for them. The soil is the source of all true prosperity and wealth; the soil is the foundation of the great ships, and stores, and wealth in the cotton fields, etc. When the Jew was curbed, the great item in the curse was that he was to be a wanderer; not to own the soil. No people can be great unless they own this soil. You know that; General Sherman knows it, our Father in heaven knows it.
And now I want to tell you, you may own the soil. [Deep sensation.] Here he read from the recent order of General Sherman, and said: Put that down and keep it in your heart, that the President has declared you all free. Nobody has a right to compel you to work for him. I want you all to work; to be industrious--and put the wages in your own pocket. You are not to be forced into the army service. If you want to enlist I will be glad to have you do so. You can work where you choose. If your old masters will give you good wages, you may work for them. And it will be better for them to hire you than it has been for them to hold you as slaves, if they will understand it, as I hope they will. It is the duty of the young man, who is able, to enlist in the service of the country. I mean the young man without wife or family. The first duty is to take care of the family. He that has a large family should first provide for them. The young man, without family, should enlist at once. But you will not be forced to enlist. Not only does the Government give you a chance to enlist, but it gives you a bounty of $300, and wages, and clothes and rations as other soldiers have. I had rather die— rather die — rather starve on a desert island than be a slave. I do not want anything that I cannot earn--nor do I want any man to work for me as a slave. I want pay for my work, and am willing to pay every man who works for me.
In the proclamation of the President, and in the order of General Sherman are the means to make you freemen, and to own the soil you live on. All these beautiful, fruitful islands spoken of are yours. I have been appointed by General Sherman as Inspector of Plantations; and will aid you in the getting of forty acre farms as homes.
Now, do you know how much a forty acre is, or how to measure it? Pace off four hundred paces one way ; and four hundred the other way, and you have forty acres ; only be sure that you step long, so as to have a good big tract. [Cheers.] If the land where you wish to go is so located that you do not wish to have the whole forty acres in one lot, you can pace off in the same proportion.
You ought to have some wood land. I recommend each family to have ten acres of wood land and thirty acres of tillable land. Two hundred paces each way will give you ten acres, etc. When you go on the large plantations you will find a great many forty acre lots: and you should divide accordingly. I expect you will all be industrious, get your farms and have houses pretty soon, and good gardens, and live like enlightened, civilized people. You are to have a certificate that this land has been given you according to General Sherman's order.
The officer having the matter in charge will explain all to you. There need not be any hurry; keep cool but busy, kind and patient; and by and by you will have the deed given you. Go and settle on the land at once, and in the proper time you will have the deeds.
Our troops have just got here; but they have been at Beaufort, and some of them on the islands for about three years. Some of the colored people there have made a great deal of money. I know of one who has made $5,000. The colored people there are as industrious as any people I ever have known. They read their Bibles, and write as well us white people under similar circumstances; the children go to school and learn as fast as white children who have had no greater advantages. They look respectable and attend school regularly.
No interference is to be made with the arrangements that have been made by the colored people on these islands. Many of the colored folks there have almost forgotten that they were slaves and their children hardly know anything about slavery, except as a rude relic of the past. You will get along much faster -than they have--we look for greater things from you.
Now, I came here today to tell these things to the colored people. I want you to understand that you can get land— those of you that want it— go to the islands, pick out the places you would like to have. I advise the most of you to go down to the islands and get farms and be independent, and then you can build good houses if you are only industrious. Some of you will probably have to stay in the city, but, generally, the country is the better place for you to live in.
It was in a great degree by your labor that this beautiful city was built, and when you are free you certainly can build house, villages and, cities for yourselves. Northern free cities are larger and better than than cities of the South, because the people there are free. God cursed the South on account of slavery. He cursed Egypt for making bondmen of the Israelites, and He will curse any nation that has slavery. I wish I could explain all this to you, but I have not time to do it. I say to you every colored man should thank the Lord that he is free.
Let the music swell the breeze, with the words: " We're free— we're free — forever free." In ten years I do not think there will be one that will be poor enough to do any honor to slavery. Slavery is a curse to itself, and every person that has to do with it.
The General took his seat amid much applause, and ascriptions of praise to God, and the President, General Sherman and General Saxton.
* * * *
Saxton was true to his word: By his account, he helped settle 40,000 freedmen on forty-acre tracts on the Sea Islands along the Southeast Coast. But after Andrew Johnson became president upon President Lincoln's assassination, Saxton related, “I was mustered out of the service and the lands were restored to their former owners.”[xiv]
xiii. Anonymous. (February 5, 1865). p. 1. “Freedmen’s Meeting in Savannah,” Savannah Republican.
xiv. Frank Abial Flower. (1905). p. 298. Edwin McMasters Stanton:The Autocrat of Rebellion, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Akron, Ohio: The Saalfield Publishing Company .
General Rufus Saxton