Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

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Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the federal agency that oversaw Emancipation in the former slave states after the Civil War, is commonly known as the "Freedmen's Bureau." Officially designed to protect the rights of ex-slaves against intrusion by their former masters, it is now seen by many historians as paternalistic. In this view, the Freedmen's Bureau pursued "social control" of the freedpeople, encouraging them to return to work as plantation wage laborers.

The Freedmen's Bureau developed out of wartime private relief efforts directed at the "contrabands" who had fled to Union lines. At the suggestion of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, a body set up by the War Department to investigate issues relating to the freedpeople, Congress established the bureau on March 3, 1865, as a military agency. Intended as a temporary organization to exist for one year after the official end of the rebellion, the bureau had "control of all subjects relating to freedmen from rebel States." In addition, it would undertake white refugee relief and manage confiscated Confederate property. The commissioner of the bureau, Oliver Otis Howard (18301909), was known as the "Christian general" for his philanthropic interests and Congregationalist religious enthusiasm. Howard eventually presided over a network of almost one thousand local military and civilian agents scattered across the South, nearly all of them white.

Initially, Howard and his subordinates hoped to provide the rumored "forty acres and a mule" to at least some freedpeople from plantations seized by the government during the war. The legislation creating the bureau had authorized some land redistribution, and Howard's office drafted Circular 13, which would have implemented the distribution of land in bureau possession. However, President Andrew Johnson countermanded the proposal, and his policy of widespread pardons for ex-Confederates restored most property to its former owners. Stymied, Howard then felt obliged to evict the freedpeople from the lands given them during the war under the "Sherman grant." These were located on the Sea Islands and coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Thus, by the late summer of 1865, Howard abandoned land redistribution and turned his attention to more attainable goals.

The bureau's remaining areas of activity were broad. It assumed the responsibility for aiding the destitutewhite and blackand for the care of ill, aged, and insane freedpeople. It also subsidized and sponsored educational efforts directed at the African-American community, developed both by the freedpeople themselves and by the various northern missionary societies. The postwar years witnessed an explosive growth in black education, and the bureau encouraged this development in the face of white southern opposition. The bureau's agents also assumed the duty of securing minimal legal rights for the freedpeople, especially the right to testify in court.

Perhaps the bureau's most enduring, and controversial, aspect was its role in overseeing the emergence of free labor. While it attempted to protect freedpeople from impositions by their former masters, freedpeople were also enjoined to labor diligently. The favored bureau device for adjusting plantation agriculture was the annual labor contract, as approved by the local bureau agent. Tens of thousands of standardized contracts were written and enforced by the bureau in 1865 and 1866. The contracts it approved generally provided for wage labor under circumstances reminiscent of slavery: gang labor, tight supervision, women and children in the workforce, and provisions restricting the physical mobility and deportment of the freedmen

In practice, bureau agents spent much of their time encouraging diligent labor by freedmen; quashing rumors of impending land redistribution, and even punishing the freedmen for refractory behavior. In some cases, agents issued and enforced vagrancy codes directed at the freedpeople. Despite encouraging the freedpeople to act as disciplined wage laborers, the bureau soon incurred the enmity of the planters. It insisted that corporal punishment be abandoned, and it backed this policy up with frequent arrests. It also established a dual legal structure, with local agents acting as judges in those instances where the civilian courts refused to hear blacks' testimony or committed flagrant injustice. Finally, the bureau and the military opposed the efforts of the conservative presidential Reconstruction governments to reimpose harsh vagrancy laws through the Black Codes and similar legislation. President Andrew Johnson heeded the complaints of the planters, and in February 1866 he vetoed legislation providing for the extension of bureau activities.

The Freedmen's Bureau became a focus of the emerging political struggle between Johnson and Congress for the control of Reconstruction. With the increasing power of the Republican party, especially the Radical faction, the bureau secured powerful political sponsorship. Its functions were extended over Johnson's veto in July 1866. With the enactment of congressional Reconstruction in March 1867, Freedmen's Bureau personnel tended to become involved with the political mobilization then sweeping the black community. For example, in South Carolina, Assistant Commissioner Robert K. Scott was elected the state's first Republican governor, and in Alabama four of the six Republican congressmen elected in February 1868 were bureau officials. Though they were widely denounced as "carpetbaggers," bureau officials exercised an important role in the politicization of the freedpeople through Republican groups such as the Union League.

The restoration of most of the southern states under the military Reconstruction acts furnished the immediate cause of the bureau's demise. With southern governments now granting freedpeople equal legal rights, there no longer appeared any need for interference in local legal functions. The expansive powers of the Freedmen's Bureau had long violated states' rights taboos, and, moreover, the expense of the bureau's programs proved unpopular with the northern public. The renewal bill of July 1866 provided for the organization's essential termination in two years' time. Later legislation changed that date to the end of 1868, and after that time only the bureau's Education Division and efforts to secure bounties owed to black veterans continued. On June 30, 1872, these operations ended, and the Freedmen's Bureau ceased to exist.

Many of the bureau's aims were certainly laudable, and its accomplishments in promoting black legal rights and education substantial, but the overall record is mixed. In abandoning land redistribution, and in promoting the return of ex-slaves to plantation agriculture as hired labor under the contract system, the bureau also assisted in the survival of the plantation economy.

See also Black Codes; Civil War, U.S.; Slavery; Union League of America


Bently, George R. A History of the Freedmen's Bureau. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 186377. New York: Harper & Row, 1988; reprint, New York: Perennial Classics, 2002.

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

michael w. fitzgerald (1996)
Updated bibliography