Edwin McMasters Stanton was nobody’s idea of hero. He wore his long Brillo beard defiantly. He was called both a coward and a bully. His enemies were legion. Two of his biographers, one admiring, the other denigrating, used the word “autocrat” in their titular descriptions of Stanton. Yet he was intelligent, hardworking and indispensable to Abraham Lincoln, who was often told to replace him. He was also duplicitous, which is probably a major reason he was—and is—so reviled. But in at least one instance, that instance of “forty acres and a mule,” he used his duplicity to try to see justice done for four million people. Had it not been for the assassin’s bullet, I believe he would have been successful.
Today, if the idea of “forty acres and a mule” is associated with anyone it is William T. Sherman, the man who loved being lauded by the freedmen while denying them a place in his army. I believe Stanton used Sherman’s popularity among the blacks and the politicians in Washington to sell the idea of giving land to the freedmen. The African-Americans trusted Sherman; the Republicans, with Lincoln at the front of the line, believed he was their political savior.
Recall that, as Sherman writes in his memoirs, it was Stanton who wanted to meet with African-American leaders to find out their wants and needs. After listening to them, he wasted no time finding a solution. A year after the meeting, Sherman wrote to President Andrew Johnson, “After the conference [Stanton] was satisfied the Negroes could, with some little aid from the United States, by means of the abandoned plantations on the Sea Islands and along the navigable waters to take care of themselves. He requested me to draw up a plan that would be uniform and practicable. I made the rough draft and we went over it very carefully, Mr. Stanton making many changes, and the present Orders No. 15 resulted and were made public.”[xv] The orders went into effect four days after the meeting.
It is clear to me that Stanton wanted to hand official Washington a fait accompli. That is, by getting the freedmen settled on the land as soon possible, no one would dare complain about it (except perhaps the former owners, of course), because, after all, the great war hero Sherman had sanctioned it.
But why would Sherman, who, we recall, had defied Stanton by not employing blacks as soldiers, allow himself to be used like this?
Well, Sherman knew he had something to gain by settling the freedmen besides being famous for coming up with the plan. In his first communication to Stanton after he secured Savannah, he said, “My first duty will be to clear the army of surplus Negroes, mules, and horses.”[xvi] But did he have a plan? Not until Stanton gave him one. Finding a home for the freedmen instead of having thousands continue to follow Sherman on his way through the Carolinas would ensure that there would be no more Ebenezer Creek tragedies to blemish his record.
Further, I believe, Stanton felt he had the upper hand so strongly that he forced Sherman to include these words in the orders: “the young and able-bodied Negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”[xvii]
To what can we attribute Sherman’s change of heart? Blackmail, probably. (Of course, Sherman never did employ one single African-American as a soldier, but at least Stanton had the satisfaction of seeing the general put those words in writing if not into practice.)
President Lincoln’s role in tacitly approving or even knowing about Special Field Orders, No. 15 prior to its issuance is doubtful. Recall it was published by Sherman on January 16th, with Stanton’s approval, a scant four days after the Savannah meeting. Briefing the president and cabinet on January 20th about his trip south, the secretary of war does not so much as mention the meeting or the resulting orders. “His statements were not so full and comprehensive as I wished,” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded in his diary, “nor did I get at the real object of his going [to Savannah], except that it was for his health, which seems improved.”[xviii]
But while Stanton was keeping his boss and colleagues in the dark, someone seemed to be determined to make this temporary war measure into “Sherman’s famous field order[s],” as it would be called (a year later) in the New York Times. That someone made certain that Sherman's order was distributed to the press. By the end of January, northern newspapers were editorializing about the impact that the order would have on the freedmen—and most of the commentary was positive.
But when the New York Herald dared to complain it would unfairly segregate the African-Americans, Stanton wasted no time in giving the minutes of the meeting to leading abolitionists so that the word would go out it was the freedmen themselves who wanted to live apart from the whites. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher read the text from his pulpit on February 12. The next day, the full version of the minutes was published in the New York Tribune.
Stanton knew that if Sherman's plan were fully implemented--as it was by Rufus Saxton--it would sooner or later, whenever the war was over, be challenged in court, probably successfully. After all, it was just a temporary war measure--just like the Emancipation Proclamation.
This is why I believe Stanton surreptitiously leaked the field orders and the minutes of the meeting to the northern press: To build public support that Congress could follow. On March 3, 1865, the national legislators passed the law implementing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (or Freedmen's Bureau), to be run by Stanton's Department of War. One of the provisions stated "...To every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land and the person to whom it was so assigned shall be protected in the use and enjoyment of the land for three years. At the end of the said term, or any time during the term, the occupants of any parcels so assigned may purchase the land and receive such title thereto as the United States can convey."[xix]
While not as generous as the terms under "Sherman's famous field order[s]", the law, signed by President Lincoln on the same day Congress passed it, would nevertheless solidify the freedmen's hold on the land.
But then Satan intervened.
xv. "Sherman's Famous Field Order," New York Times, 3 February 1866, p 2.
xvi. Davis, et. al. pp.60-62. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II—Correspondence, Etc.
xvii. Scott et. al. p. 701. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II—Correspondence, Etc.
xviii. Gideon Welles and Edgar T. Welles. (1911). p. 228. Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, April 1, 1864-December 31, 1866
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
xix. U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 13 (Boston, 1866), pp. 507–9.