Freedmen’s Bureau — (March 3, 1865 – 1872)
Introduction: The U.S. Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands on March 3, 1865, as part of its plans for reconstructing the post-Civil War South. The program was to function for one year after the close of the war. President Andrew Johnson vetoed new legislation extending the Bureau’s life and increasing its powers on Feb. 19, 1866. President Johnson viewed the legislation as an unwarranted continuation of war powers in peacetime. The veto marked the beginning of the President’s long and unsuccessful fight with the Republican Congress over issues of Reconstruction. In slightly different form, the bill was passed over Johnson’s veto on July 16, 1866.
Organized under the War Department, Major General Oliver Otis Howard was appointed as commissioner of the Bureau in May 1865, and he served as the agency’s only commissioner until Congress formally dismantled it in 1872. Howard was from Maine and the former commander of the Army of the Tennessee. A wartime convert to emancipation and a firm believer in the ability of humanitarian assistance to uplift the former slaves, he provided a moral purpose, an ideological framework, and a vision for the bureau. Known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, this temporary federal agency undertook the formidable and unprecedented responsibility of safeguarding the general welfare of both recently liberated slaves and white refugees in the former Confederacy. In all of its activities, the Bureau sought to teach black and white southerners the meaning of freedom and how to negotiate their seemingly incompatible visions of life and labor in the new order.
Progress and Problems: Under the leadership of General Howard, and backed by military force, the Freedman’s Bureau was one of the most powerful instruments of Reconstruction. The Bureau was charged with overseeing the transition from slavery to freedom for 4 million freed slaves. In this process, the Freedmen’s Bureau became the principal expression and extension of federal authority in the defeated South. General Howard divided the ex-slave states, including the border slave states that had remained in the Union, into 10 districts, each headed by an assistant commissioner. The bureau’s work consisted chiefly of five kinds of activity—1) relief work for both blacks and whites in war-stricken areas; 2) regulation of black labor under the new conditions: 3) administration of justice in cases concerning the blacks: 4) management of abandoned and confiscated property: and, 5) support of education for blacks.
Charged with exercising control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from the rebel states its activities were myriad. It provided provisions, clothing and fuel to refugees, freedmen, and their wives and children; it assisted in reuniting black families; it supervised labor agreements between blacks and their former masters; it monitored state and local officials’ treatment of the former slaves; it established informal tribunals to settle disputes between whites and blacks and among African Americans themselves; it instituted clinics and hospitals for the former slaves; and it aided efforts to provide freed people education in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath. The agency distributed trainloads of food and clothing provided by the federal government to freed slaves and Southern white refugees. The Bureau built hospitals for the freed slaves and gave direct medical aid to more than 1 million of them. The greatest successes of the Freedmen’s Bureau were in the field of education. More than 1,000 African American schools were built and staffed with qualified instructors. Most of the major African American colleges in the United States were founded with the assistance of the bureau.
Though his personal integrity was never questioned, the Bureau General Howard led was riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and charges of misappropriation of funds. The agency also became the pawn of the corrupt Radical Republican government and was used to help maintain Republican control of the states occupied by federal troops. Unprincipled agents, both military and civilian, too often discredited district and local offices. Its efforts toward establishing freed slaves as landowners were unsuccessful. The work of the Freedmen’s Bureau was discontinued July 1, 1869. Its educational activities, however, were carried on for another three years. Congress discontinued the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872.
Freedmen’s Bureau Records: At no time was the federal government more involved with African Americans than during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when approximately four million slaves became freedmen. No agency epitomized that involvement more than did the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually called the Freedmen’s Bureau. No series of essays on the impact of federal records on historical research on African Americans would therefore be complete without some mention of the Freedmen’s Bureau (Record Group 105) and related military records in the National Archives. In the last decades, extensive research among these records has been a significant factor in the revision of the history of Reconstruction and the subsequent highlighting of the condition and plight of the freedmen. Once discredited because of its alleged corruption and ties to the “Radical” Republicans, the Freedmen’s Bureau is now most often viewed mainly as an agency of relief, with some historians going so far as to fault it for failing to achieve significant advances for the freedmen.
Useful as the Freedmen’s Bureau records are for research about federal policies, their most enduring legacy may be the human face they give to slavery and emancipation. Records containing names of both freedmen and their former owners, some of which list freedmen only by their first names, are poignant reminders that slavery was the ownership of one human being by another; marriage registers and certificates remind us that marriage was a legal right denied slaves. The applications for relief, reports of the distribution of food and clothing, hospital records, and registers kept by superintendents of freedmen tell of the poverty and destitution, the disease and death that accompanied the freedom resulting from the Civil War. Letters and reports of Freedmen’s Bureau officers describe the problems, trials, and tribulations of individuals and their families. Less poignant, but equally important, are the statistical and narrative reports that contain much aggregate data about the freedmen.
Source: Freedmen’s Bureau Records: An Overview By Elaine C. Everly: Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)
Historical Note: Howard University in Washington, D.C. is named after General Oliver Otis Howard
Additional Information is available in the National Archives: www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/
A PDF brochure about the Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records is available to view or print: https://www.archives.gov/files/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/brochure.pdf