Skip to main content
Select Source:

Freedmen's Bureau

FREEDMEN'S BUREAU


After the end of the American Civil War (18611865) in April 1865, the newly reunited United States faced a humanitarian disaster on a scale not before seen. In the battle-torn South, cities, plantations, and crops had been burned, railroads were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of whites and newly freed blacks suffered from disease and hunger. Also, most of the four million newly freed slaves were illiterate and largely incapable of succeeding in the postwar economy. In response to the suffering and the need to reintegrate the rebel states back into the Union, the U.S. government introduced an unprecedented bureaucracy of relief effort. The most important arm of this bureaucracy was the Freedmen's Bureau.

The Freedmen's Bureau was established by Congress as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands on March 3, 1865, to aid and protect former slaves after the end of the war. Its original charter was for one year. On July 16, 1866, the Bureau was reorganized under the U.S. War Department, which gave it the backing of military force. The 200,000 federal troops occupying the southern states helped establish military law and order. As a result of its military ties, the Freedmen's Bureau became one of the most powerful tools wielded by the federal government during Reconstruction (18651877).

The first commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau was General Oliver O. Howard, who had the power to organize the former slave regions into a structure that the Bureau could oversee. Howard created ten districts out of the slave-holding states, including those slave-holding states that had remained in the Union during the war. The work of the Freedmen's Bureau was concentrated to five areas: relief work for all citizens in war-torn areas; regulation of black labor; management of abandoned and confiscated property; administration of justice for blacks; and the education of former slaves. The Bureau compiled an impressive record in the first and last of these areas, but it had little success in setting up former slaves as landowners. During the summer of 1865 alone, the Freedmen's Bureau distributed 150,000 food rations daily50,000 of those to white refugees. During the life of the Bureau, more than 22 million rations were given out.

The lack of success in setting up former slaves as landowners came as a result of President Andrew Johnson's (18651869) May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Pardon and Amnesty to all southern citizens who would take an oath of allegiance. It applied to everyone except military officers and government officials. The amnesty restored property rights, excluding slaves, to all those owning property worth less than $20,000 and, thus, reduced the land pool preserved for distribution to freed slaves. General Howard at first refused to give back property to whites, but on August 16, 1865, President Johnson ordered him specifically to do so. Regardless of the Radical Republicans' intentions, which were to transfer massive amounts of land from former slave owners to freedmen, their efforts were largely a failure.

Finally, the Bureau operated as a patronage machine for the Republican Party. They traded favors to freedmen in the South in exchange for votes. This, along with the fact that the Bureau was instrumental in helping former slaves get elected to political office, helped to create political hatreds that lasted well into the twentieth century. The Freedmen's Bureau was also the focus of political troubles in places outside the South. Congress passed a bill in 1866 to increase the powers of the Bureau and extend its life indefinitely. President Johnson vetoed the bill on February 19, 1866, on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional continuation of the war and that it was too soon to extend the full rights of citizenship to blacks. The veto escalated Johnson's long and ultimately futile battle with the Republican Congress over Reconstruction policy. Congress passed another bill extending the Freedmen's Bureau for three years, overriding Johnson's veto on July 16, 1866. The majority of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau was discontinued on July 1, 1869, though the educational activities continued until 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant (18691877) was elected president.


See also: Civil War (Economic Impact of), Reconstruction, Slavery

FURTHER READING


Foner, Eric. America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.


McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Freedmen's Bureau." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Freedmen's Bureau." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau

"Freedmen's Bureau." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau

Freedmen's Bureau

FREEDMEN'S BUREAU

FREEDMEN'S BUREAU. On 3 March 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or the Freedmen's Bureau, to assist black Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom at the end of the Civil War. The bureau provided emergency food, shelter, and medical care to people dislocated by the war; established schools; conducted military courts to hear complaints of both former slaves and former masters; put freedmen to work on abandoned or confiscated lands; and supervised the postemancipation work arrangements made by the freedmen.

Congress assigned the Bureau to the War Department; President Johnson named Major General O. O. Howard commissioner. He also appointed assistant commissioners in the seceded states to direct the work of the Freedmen's Bureau agents, who were sent into the field. Congress did not appropriate any money for agent salaries, so army commanders detailed young officers for Bureau duty as agents. A few of them were black officers, but resentment by some powerful white people caused most of these agents to be either discharged or moved into relatively uncontroversial posts in the education division. In 1868 bureau officials numbered nine hundred.

Howard, known to some as the "Christian General," had a charitable attitute toward the freedmen. He had commanded an army in General William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea and had visited the South Carolina coastal islands seized in 1861 from fleeing planters. Plantations there had been divided into small holdings and farmed successfully by former slaves. With this example in mind, Congress directed the bureau to divide similarly abandoned lands across the South into forty-acre units and award them to the freedmen. Shortly thereafter President Andrew Johnson abrogated this important precedent for land redistribution by using presidential pardons to return to white former owners nearly all the land that was to have been divided.

With the restoration of the lands to white owners, bureau agents tried to convince the freedmen to support themselves and their families by entering into contracts, either for labor to work in field gangs or for land to farm as tenants or sharecroppers. In addition to encouraging and supervising these work arrangements, the bureau, during its seven years of existence, also appropriated more than $15 million for food and other aid to the freedmen. Agents distributed these funds throughout the southern and border states in which most of the nation's four million black citizens lived.

The most important continuing contribution of the Freedmen's Bureau was in the area of education. Private freedmen's aid societies supplied teachers and their salaries; the bureau supplied buildings and transportation. Howard participated enthusiastically in fundraising for the schools, particularly after the early efforts at land re-form had been aborted. By 1871 eleven colleges and universities and sixty-one normal schools had been founded. Among the most important were Hampton Institute, Atlanta University, Talladega College, Straight College (later Dillard University), Fisk University, and Howard University. The bureau spent over $6 million for its schools and educational work.

Congress never intended that the Freedmen's Bureau would be a permanent agency. The original authorization was for one year. In 1866, over President Johnson's veto, Congress extended the life of the agency and enhanced its powers. The Freedmen's Bureau was closed in 1872. Its legacies were the colleges begun under its auspices and the aspirations engendered among African Americans.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller, eds. The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Cox, LaWanda, "From Emancipation to Segregation: National Policy and Southern Blacks." In Interpreting Southern History: Historiographical Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham. Edited by John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Crouch, Barry A. The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968.

Nieman, Donald G., ed. The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Freedom. Vol. 2: African American Life in the Post-Emancipation South, 1861–1900. New York: Garland, 1994.

William S.McFeely/c. p.

See alsoCarpetbaggers ; Education ; Education, African American ; Education, Higher: African American Colleges ; Philanthropy ; Radical Republicans ; Reconstruction .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Freedmen's Bureau." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Freedmen's Bureau." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/freedmens-bureau

"Freedmen's Bureau." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/freedmens-bureau

Freedmen's Bureau

Freedmen's Bureau, in U.S. history, a federal agency, formed to aid and protect the newly freed blacks in the South after the Civil War. Established by an act of Mar. 3, 1865, under the name "bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands," it was to function for one year after the close of the war. A bill extending its life indefinitely and greatly increasing its powers was vetoed (Feb. 19, 1866) by President Andrew Johnson, who viewed the legislation as an unwarranted (and unconstitutional) continuation of war powers in peacetime. The veto marked the beginning of the President's long and unsuccessful fight with the radical Republican Congress over Reconstruction. In slightly different form, the bill was passed over Johnson's veto on July 16, 1866. Organized under the War Dept., with Gen. Oliver O. Howard as its commissioner, and thus backed by military force, the bureau was one of the most powerful instruments of Reconstruction. 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—relief work for both blacks and whites in war-stricken areas, regulation of black labor under the new conditions, administration of justice in cases concerning the blacks, management of abandoned and confiscated property, and support of education for blacks. In its relief and educational activities the bureau compiled an excellent record, which, however, was too often marred by unprincipled agents, both military and civilian, in the local offices. Its efforts toward establishing the freed blacks as landowners were nil. To a great degree the bureau operated as a political machine, organizing the black vote for the Republican party; its political activities made it thoroughly hated in the South. When, under the congressional plan of Reconstruction, new state governments based on black suffrage were organized in the South (with many agents holding various offices), the work of the Freedmen's Bureau was discontinued (July 1, 1869). Its educational activities, however, were carried on for another three years.

See P. S. Peirce, The Freedmen's Bureau (1904); L. J. Webster, The Operation of the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina (1916, repr. 1970); G. R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955, repr. 1970); M. Abbott, The Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina (1967).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Freedmen's Bureau." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Freedmen's Bureau." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau

"Freedmen's Bureau." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau

Freedmens Bureau

Freedmen's Bureau US government agency established in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, to aid newly freed African-Americans. Administered by the War Department, the agency provided relief work and educational services, as well as legal protection for African-Americans in the South. It was a powerful instrument of Reconstruction. The Bureau also acted as a political machine, recruiting voters for the Republican Party.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Freedmens Bureau." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Freedmens Bureau." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau

"Freedmens Bureau." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/freedmens-bureau