In January 1865, the famous General William Sherman met with Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, and twenty black church leaders in his quarters in Savannah, Georgia. The purpose of the meeting was to decide how to provide for the thousands of freed slaves—known as “contra-band”—following the Union army in its slow march across the South. A few days later, Sherman ordered that forty acres of land along the coast, from Charleston, South Carolina, to St. Johns, Florida, be given to each family of former slaves trailing in the army’s wake. The army would also loan draft animals to those families to use on their farms.

As winter turned into spring, a rumor that all freed slaves had been promised “forty acres and a mule” spread like warm weather through the Southern states. In the years to come, the phrase came to represent first a promise of a better society for blacks in the South and then a fading memory of what might have been, preserved in the stories of elderly former slaves, in textbooks, and eventually in the riffs and rhythms of modern black pop culture.

But it was only a rumor. The government never actually promised anyone forty acres and a mule. Sherman’s order was explicitly temporary, pending a final decision from Congress on the status of the land, and even then it applied only to a small fraction of freedmen.

He wasn’t the only Union army officer to look for a way to settle the former slaves. Meanwhile, in the North, some radical Republicans, including the vociferous Thaddeus Stevens, representative from Pennsylvania, supported the idea of giving all freed slaves land in forty-acre plots, which had been the standard division of land in the rural United States since the Northwest Ordinance. They believed that “black men and black families needed an economic stake, if freedom was going to be real, if freedom was going to be maintained in any meaningful way,” says Roy Finkenbine, a history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

While these proposals were never seriously considered, the rumors still flew. “I picked out my mule. All of us did,” Sam McAllum, a freed slave, said later, looking back on the end of the war. Plantation owners reported seeing former slaves walking the fields with stakes and balls of twine in anticipation of the Union army’s arrival, marking their claim on their piece of the land they’d spent their lives working.

But in the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson began giving parcels of land that had already been distributed to former slaves back to their previous owners. It was a disheartening turn of events for freed slaves and was motivated, most likely, by a simple political calculus. As a Democrat with little support in the North, says Steven Hahn, the author of A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, Johnson needed Southern white votes to build a working electoral coalition. The former slaves’ advocates, for their part, were largely silenced by economic concerns. “They thought if the southern states did not continue to produce cotton for the world market, that this would be a massive blow to the American economy,” Hahn says. Since freed slaves would have been working small plots of land and would not have had access to a cotton gin, they probably wouldn’t have cultivated cotton.

As Reconstruction continued, some former slaves did manage to hold on to small parcels, especially in the area governed by Sherman’s order. For the most part, though, former slaves became sharecroppers, trapped in continual debt. They depended on white farmers and merchants “for the horse, the mule, the seed, the equipment, as well as living until the crops came in,” Finkenbine says. In addition, surviving store ledgers show that freed slaves, many of whom were illiterate, paid interest rates as high as 70 percent—a preview of modern-day predatory lending practices.

A century after that fateful January meeting in General Sherman’s quarters, the apocryphal promise lived on in living rooms, street protests, and jazz clubs during the civil rights movement. In 1965, the musician and activist Oscar Brown Jr. released an album including a song called “Forty Acres and a Mule.” Brown chanted,

We had a promise that was taken back,
And when we hollered, it was, “Hush, be cool.”
Well, me, I’m being rowdy, hot, and black.
I want my forty acres and my mule!

In the background of Brown’s recording, the audience can be heard laughing ruefully, the promise of meaningful economic opportunity having become, for them, little more than a bad joke.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund