A group of "contrabands," between 1861-1865. A stereograph showing a group of seven African American men, former slaves, dressed in old Union uniforms standing in front of a wagon and shack. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

On a rainy night in early 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived in Savannah, Ga. — which the Union had captured weeks earlier — with a question: What should become of newly free black people? It was a question that many in power had been asking for some time. What was different this time was to whom the question was posed: the newly free black people themselves.

It was a visit born of a massacre about a month before, and it launched a debate that continues to this day.

The issue of where these people should go had dogged Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, too, as he marched through Georgia in the fall of 1864. Sherman had expected to pick up able-bodied black men to assist his troops (but not to join them; Sherman would not allow that). An unintended consequence of his scorched-earth policy was that all manner of freed slaves — including women, children and the elderly — abandoned the plantations and fell in behind him.

More than 10,000 black refugees followed Sherman’s March to the Sea. That many mouths to feed would have proved challenging for a well-stocked force, but for an army that survived by foraging, it was nearly impossible. James Connolly, a 21-year-old major in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry (and future congressman), wrote that the refugee camps were so numerous that they often ringed the camps of the corps. The “contrabands,” as they were called, regularly wandered into Union camps to beg for food. And as Sherman’s force approached the sandy and less fertile Georgia coast, it became even more difficult to accommodate them.

There was one corps, however, the refugees seemed to avoid: the 14th Corps, led by a brigadier general with a most unlikely name: Jefferson Davis. Davis — derisively called “General Reb” not only for having the same name as the Confederate president but also for his hatred of black people — had become notorious two years earlier when he shot dead a superior officer, Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, during an argument at a hotel. He escaped punishment only because the military couldn’t afford to lose an experienced field commander.

Davis blamed the 600 or so black refugees following his unit for slowing down his 14,000 men in the closing weeks of the march. But from other accounts, it seems that the problem was the relentless winter rain. “At one time an officer counted 24 wagons sunk to their beds in mud,” writes Jim Miles in “To the Sea: A History and Tour Guide of Sherman’s March.” “He witnessed several mules sink out of sight.”

Speed was vital. Davis knew that Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry was hot on their heels.

For several days in early December, Davis drove the 14th Corps nearly nonstop, resting for two or three hours a night. One soldier reported falling asleep in the middle of “a fearfully hard march” and found himself in lock step upon jerking awake. Little more than coffee sustained them.

On the night of Dec. 8, the corps arrived at the western bank of Ebenezer Creek. The bridge had been destroyed, in anticipation of their arrival, and the frigid waters had swollen to 10 feet deep and 165 feet wide. Scouts from Wheeler’s cavalry harassed Union troops in the rear.

A pontoon bridge was in place by midnight, and Davis ordered the corps to cross the creek in silence and under the cover of darkness. According to Miles, a single Confederate cannon could have destroyed the bridge and stopped the entire corps, then only 18 miles from Savannah.

But in this tenuous artery, Davis saw an opportunity.

“On the pretence that there was likely to be fighting in front, the negroes were told not to go upon the pontoon-bridge until all the troops and wagons were over: a guard was detailed to enforce the order,” recalled Col. Charles Kerr of the 16th Illinois Cavalry in a speech 20 years after the incident. “As soon as we were over the creek, orders were given to the engineers to take up the pontoons and not let a negro cross. . . . I sat upon my horse then and witnessed a scene the like of which I pray my eyes may never see again.”

Just before sunrise, the refugees cried out as their escape route was pulled away from them. Moments later, Wheeler’s scouts rode up from behind and opened fire. Hundreds of refugees rushed forward into the icy current. Several Union soldiers on the eastern bank tried to help, pushing logs out to the few refugees still swimming.

Some of the refugees were crushed under the weight of the stampede. Most slipped under the water and drowned. Those who remained onshore were either shot or captured and re-enslaved.

And when Wheeler’s men began shooting across the creek, the Union soldiers helping the black people were ordered to rejoin the line and continue the march.

Connolly — the future congressman — was outraged. “I told [Davis’s] staff officers what I thought of such an inhuman, barbarous proceeding in language which may possibly result in a reprimand from his serene Highness [Davis],” he wrote in his diary. “But I don’t care a fig; I am determined to expose this act of his publicly.”

Connolly wrote a letter to the Senate Military Commission. The letter was leaked to the press, where it caught the attention of the secretary of war. Stanton had long been bothered by Sherman’s seeming ambivalence toward black Americans, both enslaved and free. He rushed to Savannah in secret, hoping to catch the general by surprise.

(He didn’t. Sherman was tipped off by Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck.)

The night after Stanton arrived, on Jan. 12, he asked Sherman to gather a group of black leaders at Sherman’s headquarters in a mansion on Macon Street.

All 20 men were church leaders. Most of them were preachers. Sixteen were former slaves. Their average age was 50. They chose Garrison Frazier, 67, a preacher, as their spokesman. After briefly quizzing Frazier on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation — he explained both elegantly — Stanton put a question to him that the nation has wrestled with for the ensuing 150 years: What should the government do for black people?

“We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own,” Frazier answered, according to detailed notes of the meeting that would be published in the New York Daily Tribune a month later.

Stanton asked Frazier if they would rather stay “scattered among the whites” or live by themselves, in a separate colony.

“I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over; but I do not know if I can answer for my brethren,” he said. All but one of the men agreed with Frazier that it would be better for black people if they lived apart from whites.

(The lone proponent of integration, James Lynch, at 26, was also the youngest man in the room. In the South for only two years, he had never been a slave. Lynch later became Mississippi’s first black secretary of state.)

Perhaps even more surprising than this focus group’s having taken place is that the government listened.

Four days after the meeting, Sherman issued Field Order No. 15 – or the “40 acres and a mule” rule. The mule technically came later, but the order set aside islands along the Georgia, Florida and Carolina coasts – nearly 400,000 acres – for black resettlement. Within months, more than 40,000 black Americans had flocked to the Sea Islands area, dubbed “Sherman Land.”

History, however, was as unkind to Sherman Land as it was to the stranded refugees at Ebenezer Creek. Soon after its inception, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His successor, Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, overturned Field Order No. 15 in the fall of 1865. The Sea Islands were returned to their prewar white owners, the sacrifice of hundreds of refugees at Ebenezer Creek went unpunished — and the debate about reparations for black Americans continues to this day.