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Timeline of Land Redistribution at the End of the Civil War

As the Civil War was drawing to a close, decisions had to be made about what would happen to the newly emancipated slaves and the land and property of the now defeated Confederates. General William T. Sherman, marching his triumphant Union forces through the South, issued a military order seizing Confederate land for distribution to former slaves; it is popularly remembered as promising the emancipated slaves "forty acres and a mule." Within a few months of the war's official end, however, the redistribution of land to former slaves was no longer part of plans for Reconstuction.

March 1862
Early in the Civil War, the Union navy bombards the Sea Islands off of South Carolina. The owners and overseers of the cotton plantations there flee, leaving behind their slaves. The U.S. government wants the former slaves to continue to grow cotton for wages, so it sends a group of northern abolitionists to educate and supervise them. But the former slaves challenge that plan; they want to work independently and grow vegetables to support their families.

November-December 1864
General William T. Sherman of the Union army marches through Georgia and defeats the Confederate army there. Along the way, thousands of former slaves, now free and without any means of support, follow him.

January 1865
On January 6, 1865, using his power as a military commander, Sherman issues Special Field Order Number 15, which sets aside more than 400,000 acres of abandoned coastal plantations from South Carolina to Florida for settlement exclusively by ex-slaves.

On January 12th in Savannah, Georgia, Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton meet with a group of 20 African American ministers and ask them what the former slaves need in order to take care of themselves. The ministers answer, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

March 1865
The U.S. Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom.

April 1865
President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. 

May 1865
President Andrew Johnson offers amnesty to most Confederates. Under the amnesty plan, southern planters reclaim abandoned lands occupied by freedmen.

September 1865
Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposes a bill in Congress that would allow the federal government to confiscate all lands in the former Confederacy owned by slave owners and redistribute the land in 40-acre portions to ex-slaves and poor whites. Few other Congressmen support this bill, however, and it is never even voted on.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Timeline
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Timeline of Land Redistribution at the End of the Civil War,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 28, 2023,

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