Allocation of Land to the Freed Black People


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.University of Virginia

After the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent establishment of contraband camps in which freed black people were placed, the situation proved to be problematic, and a solution had to be considered. The most practical solution was giving land to the freed people. Nevertheless, it wasn’t simple to implement.

A group of African American slaves escaping to the Union Army lines.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, many freed African American slaves broke free and escaped to the Union Army lines. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Logic Behind the Idea

After facing challenges in contraband camps during the Civil War, black people advocated for land allocation. They wanted land in order to rely on themselves and not remain dependent on the government.

Black people believed this to be the solution for building a future for themselves where they will be among the landowners of southern society and that without land, they would never be truly free. The abolitionists and radicals supported their cause.

By the end of the war, about 20 percent of the land under Union control in the South was being farmed independently by black people, including a great deal of land that had been owned by Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph Davis along the Mississippi River. Much of their former holdings was in the hands of their former slaves and being farmed by them.

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Opposition to the Idea

Still, many Northerners opposed this “handing over” to black people. Speculators insisted on exploiting these lands themselves. They viewed black people as cheap labor and didn’t want them to turn into a vigorous and powerful black landowner class. For instance, in the extensive land holdings that became available in Sea Islands off the Carolina and Georgia coasts, black people got nearly 5,000 acres, while speculators received over 20,000 acres.

The situation became even more complicated in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln stated said that property could be confiscated from Rebel owners only for the life of that owner, not indefinitely. What wasn’t at all clear was whether after the owner’s death, the property would belong to the owner’s descendants or not. Moreover, the eventual disposition of such land wasn’t clear.

In December 1863, Lincoln partly clarified this, saying any Confederate who took the oath of allegiance to the Union could have all of his property back, except slave property. But again, it wasn’t clarified what would happen to confiscated and seized lands. Lincoln’s pronouncement also induced a radical republican to note that the war would be a massive failure indeed if the president returned these lands to their traitor owners.

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The Congressman’s Endeavor

In 1864, radical congressman George W. Julian offered a bill that would have made the Homestead Act applicable to abandoned as well as seized lands of the Confederacy. The Homestead Act had already been passed in 1862, and it had made 160 acres available to male or female settlers if they would live on it and improve it for five years, after which the land would belong to the settler.

What Julian was seeking was applying a version of this in the South. He intended to give 40 to 80 acres of seized land to every head of a freed family, every Confederate Unionist, as well as every Union veteran. However, his offered bill didn’t pass. Later in March 1865, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau. Part of this legislation said that any freed person or Unionist could lease 40 acres of abandoned or confiscated land with an option to buy it after three years.

The Initial Settlement of Freed People

Photo of General William Tecumseh Sherman during Civil War.
General William Tecumseh gave land to freed African Americans in South Carolina. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Prior to the Congress effort, General William Tecumseh Sherman had put his land redistribution program into practice. Even though he was a racist who didn’t care about black people’s welfare, he did care about the fact that thousands of black men were members of his army. He wanted to be rid of these people; hence, he devised a plan.

He met with a group of black leaders who told him that if they had land, they would be able to have a good chance of making it on their own. Sherman agreed and on January 16, 1865, he set aside the coastlines and riverbanks 30 miles inland from Charleston, South Carolina as an area where freed black people could resettle.

Each family would get 40 acres of land and they would have a “possessory title”, as Sherman put it, to the land until such time as Congress would regulate the final title.

By the end of June 1865, over 40,000 freed black people were settled by the army on the land that Sherman had allocated. This, however, was only the start. It was the later actions of Congress that would determine their long-term fate.

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Difficult Yet Fairly Successful

The problem was that the U.S government had never taken an action like this before. There was a massive refugee population to deal with, and they had no bureaucracy to handle it. No agency or department was responsible for overseeing this gigantic shift from an enslaved population to an emancipated one. It was the first time in the entire history of the world when a country had freed such a massive number of slaves simultaneously.

There were also some who exploited the situation and did great harm to this newly-freed population. In a horrifying case, officials in Kentucky seized hundreds of black refugees from Tennessee and Alabama. They imprisoned them before selling them as slaves (slavery was still legal in Kentucky). Other people saw blacks only as tools to be used during wartime.

Despite all this, the U.S. effort was reasonably successful, considering the era and the existing circumstances and challenges back then.

Common Questions about Allocation of Land to the Freed Black People

Q: Why were speculators against land allocation to black people?

The speculators insisted on exploiting these lands themselves. They viewed freed black people as cheap labor, and they didn’t want them to become prosperous black landowners.

Q: What was congressman George W. Julian’s intention regarding freed people, as stipulated in his bill?

He wanted to apply a version of the Homestead Act in the South by giving 40 to 80 acres of seized land to every head of a freed black family, every Confederate Unionist, and every Union veteran.

Q: What did William Tecumseh Sherman do after meeting a group of freed black people who wanted land?

He set aside the coastlines and riverbanks 30 miles inland from Charleston, South Carolina as an area where freed black people could resettle. He also stated that each family would get 40 acres of land and they would have a “possessory title”.

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