Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands

Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (usually referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau) was a U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed refugees of the American Civil War.

The Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which created the Bureau, was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln and intended to last for one year after the end of the war. Passed on March 3, 1865, by Congress to aid former slaves through education, health care, and employment, it became a key agency during Reconstruction, assisting freedmen (freed ex-slaves) in the South. The Bureau was part of the United States Department of War. Headed by Union Army General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau was operational from June 1865 to December 1868. It was disbanded under Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson.

The Freedmen's Bureau spent $17,000 to help establish homes and distribute food, established 4,000 schools and 100 hospitals for former slaves. This Bureau also helped freedmen find new jobs.

At the end of the war, the Bureau's main role was providing emergency food, housing, and medical aid to refugees. It could also help reunite families. Later, it focused its work on helping the freedmen adjust to their conditions of freedom. Its main job was setting up work opportunities and supervising labor contracts. It soon became, in effect, a military court that handled legal issues. By 1866, it was attacked by former Confederate leaders for organizing Blacks against their former employers. Although some of their subordinate agents were unscrupulous or incompetent, the majority of local Bureau agents were hindered in carrying out their duties by the opposition of former Confederates, the lack of a military presence to enforce their authority, and an excessive amount of paperwork [Cimbala 1992] . (See Lost Cause of the Confederacy).

Howard University was established in Washington in 1867 with the help of the Freedmen's Bureau. The university was named after General Oliver O. Howard, a Civil War hero and Bureau commissioner.

Radical Republicans attempted to increase the powers of the bureau. President Andrew Johnson vetoed this bill in February 1866.


Day-to-day duties

The Bureau helped solve everyday problems of the freed slaves, such as clothing, food, medicine, communication with family members, and jobs. The Bureau distributed 15 million rations of food to African Americans [Goldhaber 1992] . Also, the Bureau set up a system where planters could borrow rations in order to feed freedmen they employed. Though the Bureau set aside $350,000 for this service, only $35,000 (10%) was borrowed.Fact|date=April 2007

The Bureau attempted to strengthen existing medical care facilities and expand services into rural areas through newly established clinics. Medical assistance and supplies as well as food were in short supply, and civil authorities often were reluctant to cooperate with the Bureau in aiding the freedmen. Despite the good intentions, efforts, and limited success of the Bureau, medical treatment of the freedmen was severely deficient. [Pearson 2002]

Gender roles

Freedmen's Bureau agents at first complained that freed women were refusing to contract their labor. They attempted to make freed women work by insisting that their husbands sign contracts obligating the whole family to work on cotton, and by declaring that unemployed freed women should be treated as vagrants just as men were. The Bureau did allow some exceptions such as married women with employed husbands and some "worthy" women who had been widowed or abandoned and had large families of small children and thus could not work. "Unworthy" women, meaning the unruly and prostitutes, were the ones usually subjected to punishment for vagrancy. [Farmer-Kaiser, 2004]

Under slavery, some marriages were informal, though there are many documented accounts of slave owners presiding over marriage ceremonies for their slaves. The forced migration of 1.2 million blacks in the internal slave trade to the Deep South had disrupted many families. Fact|date=August 2008 Others were separated during wartime chaos. Many families attempted to reunite after the war and the Bureau agents helped. The Bureau had an informal regional communications system that allowed agents to send inquiries and provide answers. It sometimes provided transportation to reunite families. Freedmen and freed women turned to the Bureau for assistance in resolving issues of abandonment and divorce.


The most widely recognized among the achievements of the Freedmen’s Bureau are its accomplishments in the field of education. Prior to the Civil War, no southern state had a system of universal, state-supported public education. Former slaves wanted such a system while the wealthier whites opposed the idea. Freedmen had a strong desire to learn to read and write and worked hard to establish schools in their communities prior to the advent of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Oliver Otis Howard was the first Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner. Through his leadership the bureau was divided into four divisions, Government-Controlled Lands, Records, Financial Affairs, and Medical Affairs. Education was considered part of the Records division. Mr. Howard turned over confiscated property, government buildings, books, and furniture to superintendents to be used in the education of freedmen and provided transportation, room and board for teachers.

Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau but did not fund it for the first year. By 1866, missionary and aid societies worked in conjunction with the Freedmen's Bureau to provide education for former slaves. The primary focus of these groups was to raise funds to pay teachers and manage schools, while the secondary focus was the day-to-day operation of individual schools. After 1866, Congress appropriated some funds to use in the Freedmen's schools. The main source of educational revenue for these schools came through a Congressional Act that gave the Freedmen's Bureau the power to seize Confederate property for educational use.

George Ruby, an African American, served as teacher and school administrator and as a traveling inspector for the bureau, observing local conditions, aiding in the establishment of black schools, and evaluating the performance of Bureau field officers. Blacks supported him, but planters and other whites opposed him. [Crouch 1997] Overall, the Bureau spent five million dollars to set up schools for blacks. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools. Attendance rates at the new schools for freedmen were between 79 and 82 percent. Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong created and led Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.

The Freedmen's Bureau published their own Freedmen's textbook. The Freedmen's Bureau pushed its particular philosophy of education for African Americans by controlling the curriculum and resources that were provided to these schools.

The Freedmen's readers represented the compromise reached between the groups wanting to educate African Americans and the communities where these schools were located. These readers were written using forgiveness as a theme. African Americans were encouraged to forgive their former masters, understand the anger of their former masters, and live on good terms with them. These readers were sympathetic with the slaveholders without ever mentioning slavery and emphasized the bootstrap philosophy, meaning that everyone had the ability to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do better in life.

These readers had some traditional literacy lessons and others on the life and works of Abraham Lincoln, excerpts from the Bible focused on forgiveness, biographies of famous African Americans with emphasis on their piety, humbleness and industry; and full essays on loving your enemies, humility, the work ethic and temperance.

By 1870, there were more than 1,000 schools for freedmen in the South. [McPherson, p. 450] J. W. Alvord, an inspector for the Bureau, wrote that the freedmen "have the natural thirst for knowledge," aspire to "power and influence … coupled with learning," and are excited by "the special study of books." Among the former slaves, children and adults sought this new opportunity to learn. After the Bureau was abolished, its achievements collapsed under the weight of white violence against schools and teachers for blacks. Later after the 1870s, when white Democrats regained power of southern governments, they reduced funds available to fund public education. Segregated schools for blacks were consistently underfunded. [Goldhaber 1992]

By 1871, northerners' interest in reconstructing the South had waned. Northerners were beginning to tire of the effort that Reconstruction required and were ready for the South to take care of itself. All of the southern states had created new constitutions that established universal, publicly funded education and groups based in the North began to redirect their money toward universities and colleges founded to educate African American leaders.

The building and opening of schools of higher learning for African Americans coincided with the shift in focus for the Freedmen's Aid Societies from an elementary education for all African Americans to a high school and college education for African American leaders. Both of these events worked in concert with concern on the part of white officials working with African Americans in the South. These officials were concerned about the lack of a moral or financial foundation seen in the African American community and traced that lack of foundation back to slavery.

Generally, they believed that blacks needed help to enter a free labor market and reconstruct family life. Heads of local American Missionary Associations sponsored various educational and religious efforts for African Americans. Samuel Chapman Armstrong of the Hampton Institute and Booker T. Washington began the call for institutions of higher learning so black students could leave home and "live in an atmosphere conducive not only to scholarship but to culture and refinement (Morris, 1981, p. 160.)"

Most of these colleges, universities and normal schools combined what they believed were the best fundamentals of a college with that of the home. At the majority of these schools, students were expected to bathe a prescribed number of times per week, maintain an orderly living space, and present a particular appearance. At many of these institutions, Christian principles and practices were also part of the daily regime.

Church establishment

The freedmen sought the Bureau's aid in establishing churches. After the war, control over existing churches was a contentious issue; Northern Methodists seized control of Southern Methodist buildings in some cities. Whereas whites and blacks had worshiped together before the war, blacks chose to set up their own churches to practice their own style of Christianity away from whites' attempted domination.Fact|date=April 2007

The Bureau, with close ties to Northern Methodist and other churches, facilitated new buildings, though it did not spend any government money on churches. Northern mission societies raised funds for land, buildings, teachers' salaries, and basic necessities such as books and furniture. [Morrow 1954]


Most of the assistant commissioners, realizing that blacks would not receive fair trials in the civil courts, tried to handle black cases in their own Bureau courts. Southern whites objected that this was unconstitutional. In Alabama, state and county judges were commissioned as Bureau agents. They were to try cases involving blacks with no distinctions on racial grounds. If a judge refused, martial law could be instituted in his district. All but three judges accepted their unwanted commissions, and the governor urged compliance. [Foner 1988]

Perhaps the most difficult region was Louisiana's Caddo-Bossier district. It had not experienced wartime devastation or Union occupation. Understaffed and weakly supported by federal troops, well-meaning Bureau agents found their investigations blocked and authority undermined at every turn by recalcitrant planters. Murders of freedmen were common, and suspects in these cases went unprosecuted. Bureau agents did manage to negotiate labor contracts, build schools and hospitals,Fact|date=April 2007 and provide the freedmen a sense of their own humanity through the agents' willingness to help. [Smith 2000]

In 1872, Congress terminated the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The Depression of 1873, combined with the violence of white paramilitary organizations such as the White League and Red Shirts from 1874 to 1877, drove many northerners out of the south. By 1877, white Democrats had regained control of the South. They passed laws to make voter registration and elections more complicated, thus reducing the black vote. From 1890 to 1908 in ten of eleven states, white Democrats passed constitutions or amendments that disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. They passed Jim Crow laws creating legal segregation in public facilities, schools and transportation, and barriers to freedmen exercising their civil rights.


ee also

* Race and health
* Freedmen's Savings Bank


* see also

Primary sources

* Berlin, Ira, ed. "Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War" (1995)
* [http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/freedmen/freedmen.html "Minutes of the Freedmen's Convention, Held in the City of Raleigh, [North Carolina] ...October, 1866"]
* [http://freedmensbureau.com/ Freedmen's Bureau Online]
* [http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/a
* [http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/slave-emancipation.html Slave Emancipation Through the Prism of Archives Records (1997) by Joseph P. Reidy]
* [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/ General Howard's report for 1869: The House of Representatives, Forty-first Congress, second session]
* Freeman's Bureau http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAslavery.htm


* Bentley George R. "A History of the Freedmen's Bureau" (1955)
* Carpenter, John A.; "Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard" (1999) full biography of Bureau leader
* Cimbala, Paul A. and Trefousse, Hans L. (eds.) "The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South After the Civil War." 2005. essays by scholars
* [http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=ABK2934-0087-50 W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, "The Freedmen's Bureau" (1901)] by leading black scholar
* Foner Eric. "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877" (1988) general history
* Litwack, Leon F. "Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery." 1979. Winner of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
* McFeely, William S. "Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen". 1994.


* Anderson, James D. "The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935" (1988)
* Bond, H. (1934). The education of the negro in the American social order. New York: Prentice-Hall.
* Butchart, Ronald E. "Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen's Education, 1862-1875" (1980)
* Crouch, Barry A. "Black Education in Civil War and Reconstruction Louisiana: George T. Ruby, the Army, and the Freedmen's Bureau" "Louisiana History" 1997 38(3): 287-308. Issn: 0024-6816
* Goldhaber, Michael. "A Mission Unfulfilled: Freedmen's Education in North Carolina, 1865-1870" "Journal of Negro History" 1992 77(4): 199-210. Issn: 0022-2992
* Jones, Jacqueline. "Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865-1873" U of North Carolina Press 1980
* Morris, Robert C. "Reading, 'Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870" 1981.
* Overview of reconstruction. Retrieved October 23, 2007. www.graves.k12.ky.us/schools/GCHS/sbradley/documents/Reconstruction.htm.
* Richardson, Joe M. "Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890" U of Georgia Press, 1986
* Span, Christopher M. "'I Must Learn Now or Not at All': Social and Cultural Capital in the Educational Initiatives of Formerly Enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862-1869," "The Journal of African American History", 2002 pp 196-222
* Swint, Henry Lee. "The Northern Teacher in the South: 1862-1870" (New York, 1967).
* Williams, Heather Andrea; "'Clothing Themselves in Intelligence': The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871" "The Journal of African American History" 2002. pp 372+.
* Williams, Heather Andrea. "Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom" U of North Carolina Press, 2006

Specialized studies

* Bethel, Elizabeth . "The Freedmen's Bureau in Alabama," "Journal of Southern History" Vol. 14, No. 1, Feb., 1948 pp. 49-92 [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0022-4642%28194802%2914%3A1%3C49%3ATFBIA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23 online at JSTOR]
* Bickers, John M. "The Power to Do What Manifestly Must Be Done: Congress, the Freedmen's Bureau, and Constitutional Imagination" Roger Williams University Law Review, Vol. 12, No. 70, 2006 [http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1014105 online at SSRN]
* Cimbala, Paul A. "On the Front Line of Freedom: Freedmen's Bureau Officers and Agents in Reconstruction Georgia, 1865-1868". "Georgia Historical Quarterly" 1992 76(3): 577-611. Issn: 0016-8297.
* Cimbala, Paul A. "Under the Guardianship of the Nation: the Freedmen's Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870" U. of Georgia Press, 1997.
* Click, Patricia C. "Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867" (2001)]
* Crouch, Barry. "The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans" (1992)
* Crouch; Barry A. "The 'Chords of Love': Legalizing Black Marital and Family Rights in Postwar Texas" "The Journal of Negro History", Vol. 79, 1994
* Durrill, Wayne K. "Political Legitimacy and Local Courts: 'Politicks at Such a Rage' in a Southern Community during Reconstruction" in "Journal of Southern History", Vol. 70 #3, 2004 pp 577-617
* Farmer-Kaiser, Mary. "’Are They Not in Some Sorts Vagrants?’ Gender and the Efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau to Combat Vagrancy in the Reconstruction South” "Georgia Historical Quarterly" 2004 88(1): 25-49. Issn: 0016-8297
* Finley, Randy. "From Slavery to Uncertain Future: the Freedmen's Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869" U. of Arkansas Press, 1996.
* Gerteis, Louis S. "From Contraband to Freedmen: Federal Policy toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865" 1973.
* Kolchin, Peter. "First Freedom: The Responses of Alabama's Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction" 1972.
* Lieberman, Robert C. "The Freedmen's Bureau and the Politics of Institutional Structure" "Social Science History" 1994 18(3): 405-437. Issn: 0145-5532
* Lowe, Richard. "The Freedman's Bureau and Local Black Leadership" "Journal of American History" 1993 80(3): 989-998. Issn: 0021-8723
* Morrow Ralph Ernst. "The Northern Methodists in Reconstruction". "Mississippi Valley Historical Review" 41 (September 1954): 197-218. in JSTOR
* May J. Thomas. "Continuity and Change in the Labor Program of the Union Army and the Freedmen's Bureau". "Civil War History" 17 (September 1971): 245-54.
* Oubre, Claude F. "Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership" 1978.
* Pearson, Reggie L. "'There Are Many Sick, Feeble, and Suffering Freedmen': the Freedmen's Bureau's Health-care Activities During Reconstruction in North Carolina, 1865-1868" "North Carolina Historical Review" 2002 79(2): 141-181. Issn: 0029-2494 .
* Quarles, Benjamin. "The Negro in the Civil War"'. Russell & Russell. (1953)
* Richter, William L. "Overreached on All Sides: The Freedmen's Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868" 1991.
* Ransom, Roger L. "Conflict and Compromise". Cambridge University Press. 1989. economic history
* Oubre, Claude F. "Forty Acres and a Mule". Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge and London. 1978.
* Rodrigue, John C. "Labor Militancy and Black Grassroots Political Mobilization in the Louisiana Sugar Region, 1865-1868" in "Journal of Southern History", Vol. 67 #1, 2001 pp 115-45
* Schwalm, Leslie A. "'Sweet Dreams of Freedom': Freedwomen's Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina" "Journal of Women's History", Vol. 9 #1, 1997 pp 9-32
* Smith, Solomon K. "The Freedmen's Bureau in Shreveport: the Struggle for Control of the Red River District" "Louisiana History" 2000 41(4): 435-465. Issn: 0024-6816
* Williamson, Joel. "After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877" 1965.
* [http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/FF/ncf1.html Freedmen's Bureau in Texas] ----

External links

* [http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-634&sug=y Georgia: Freedmen's Education during Reconstruction]
* [http://www.africanaheritage.com/Freedmens_Bureau.asp Africana Archives: Freedmen's Bureau Records at the USF Africana Heritage Project]
* [http://freedmensbureau.com Freedmen's Bureau Online]

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