Major General William T. Sherman, before he left Savannah, issued Special Orders No. 15 on January 16, 1865. They set apart as reservations for former slaves, the sea islands from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Saint Johns River in Florida, and abandoned rice plantations from the coast to 30 miles up the Ogeechee and Altamaha rivers.
The orders stipulated that no white persons could reside in those areas. The Negroes would have “the sole and exclusive management of affairs, subject only to U.S. military authorities and laws of the U.S. Congress.
The Negroes were to be given “possessory title” to as much as 40 acres of land. This did not, as it developed, give them fee simple ownership and was intended only as a temporary measure. Major General Sherman, according to some federal officials, “wanted to get them off his hands.” Thus was born the phrase “a mule and 40 acres of land” which many Negroes thought the U.S. government had promised them, and which in fact none of them got.