Freedmen's Bureau

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The Freedmen's Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was established on March 3, 1865. The agency, a part of the War Department, owed its very being to the Union's Civil War victory. Absent the war's consequences, particularly emancipation, the federal government would have had no reason to establish such an extraordinary organization that had the potential to insert itself into state, local, and individual affairs as it tried to guide white and black Southerners in their transition from a slave society to a free society. Because the agency was a departure from past experience, it was the product of compromise. Political restraint meant that the Freedmen's Bureau never had the resources or the power to accomplish what Congress demanded of it or what the freedpeople expected of it.

labor, land, and education

Circumstances shaped the Bureau into an organization that was part labor regulator, part social service agency, part peacekeeper, and part civil rights advocate for the freed slaves. Bureau commander Major General Oliver Otis Howard supervised officers, agents, education officials, and medical men who carried the Bureau's presence down to the local level. Not all were ideal missionaries of Northern ideals, but the majority of these men were committed to securing the fruits of Union victory, including the economic rights and civil rights of the former slaves. Approximately 2,441 men served as officers and agents of the Bureau during its lifetime, but at any given time there were never sufficient numbers on duty to blanket the South with their presence. At the end of 1865, there were only 799 Bureau men, including clerks; by the end of 1868, Bureau personnel rosters carried a total of 901, with over a third being clerks.

Bureau officials brought relief to white and black Southerners left destitute by the war and subsequent poor harvests. The Bureau never considered itself a charitable organization; most of its personnel, reflecting ideas of the time, believed that prolonged charity damaged the character of its recipients. Bureau men were primarily missionaries for a Northern-style free labor system based on written contracts that would allow the agency to supervise the fledgling work arrangements. Former slaves were disappointed the Bureau did not act as an agent of land redistribution, and some freedpeople felt betrayed when the agency returned property, on which they had settled, to white claimants. The majority of freedpeople, however, accepted the need to work and appreciated the Bureau's assistance especially when their employers mistreated them. While many Southern white employers considered the process to be no more than Yankee meddling in their personal affairs, others believed the work documents might impose some degree of labor discipline on their former slaves. White employers eventually used labor arrangements to oppress black workers, but that was not the Bureau's intention.

Complementary to a free labor system that taught the freedpeople the virtues of hard work by experience was an educational system that would instill similar virtues in the classroom. The Bureau acted as a coordinator of the efforts of freedpeople and Northern charitable associations to found schools, but also provided some funding to assist them in securing buildings, books, and teachers. The Bureau also attempted to protect schools and teachers from white violence, a problem that also troubled Bureau personnel. Officers and agents found themselves ostracized, threatened, and attacked by whites; a few officers and agents were murdered.

From the outset, white Southerners knew the Bureau was a temporary organization authorized by law to exist for only one year from the end of the Civil War. While Congress voted to continue the agency on July 16,

1866, it did so over President Andrew Johnson's objections, which confirmed in the minds of many white Southerners that the agency lacked the support of its commander in chief. Such circumstances did not nurture respect for the agency among white Southerners, who constantly tested its power and, more often than not, found it wanting. Ultimately, the Bureau never had sufficient power to protect the freedpeople from whites who feared black education, economic independence, and political activity.

Overworked agents and officers relied primarily on arbitration to settle difficulties between whites and blacks, acted as the freedpeople's "next friend" when they had to take their cases to civil or criminal court, and interceded with the military authorities when situations required the use of military force. In 1868 the Bureau began to reduce its presence in the South and in January 1869 restricted itself to education and assisting black veterans in obtaining their bounties. Congress terminated the Bureau at the end of June 1872. Its termination, along with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, greatly slowed the social revolution in the South begun during the Civil War. The black struggle for economic advancement and educational equality would continue, however, as black demands for civil rights rose after World War I and World War II.


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

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

Cimbala, Paul. Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865–1870. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Cimbala, Paul. The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South After the Civil War. Melbourne, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2004.

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

Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen's Bureau in Arkansas, 1865–1869. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.

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

Nieman, Donald G. To Set the Law in Motion: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Legal Rights of Blacks, 1865–1868. Millwood, NY: KTO Press, 1979.

Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Landownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Paul A. Cimbala

See also:African Americans (Freed People); Education; Johnson, Andrew; Occupation of the South; Reconstruction.

Freedmen's Bureau

views updated Jun 11 2018


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


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.

Freedmen's Bureau

views updated May 14 2018


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.


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 .

Freedmen's Bureau

views updated May 29 2018


Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March 1865, assigning it the disposition of rebels' lands and distribution of emergency relief to freed blacks and refugees of both races uprooted by the civil war. Though the Freedmen's Bureau was the first federal human-services organization, its establishment reflected Congress's resistance to constitutional innovation, combined with the pervasive nineteenth-century belief that relief and welfare were beyond the constitutional authority of the federal government. Hence the Bureau was a public-private hybrid, drawing its personnel from the army, assisted by volunteers from the various private relief and welfare organizations working with blacks and soldiers in the South.

The 1865 Act provided that the agency would expire a year after cessation of hostilities. In February 1866, Congress enacted a bill to extend the Bureau's life indefinitely. The bill permitted the President "to extend military protection and jurisdiction over all cases" in which blacks were denied civil rights enjoyed by whites or were punished in ways whites were not. This provision reflected Republicans' resentment at the de jure and de facto discrimination against blacks in the South, especially that authorized by the black codes. Democrats and other conservatives denounced trials before military commissions or "courts" composed of Freedmen's Bureau agents, citing the absence of guarantees of indictment or presentment as violative of the prohibition against military trials of civilians implied in the Fifth Amendment. Republicans countered that the bill was authorized by the enforcement clause (section 2) of the recently ratified thirteenth amendment. The bill thus provided the first opportunity to explore the meaning and extent of this new provision. President andrew johnson vetoed the bill, charging its Republican sponsors with racial favoritism and a disregard of federalism. Congress narrowly sustained the veto, but a similar bill became law four months later over his veto.

In existence until 1874, the Bureau helped blacks to adjust to freedom in the turbulent conditions of the post-war South.

William M. Wiecek


Nieman, Donald G. 1979 To Set the Law in Motion: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Legal Rights of Blacks, 1865–1868. Milwood, N.Y.: KTO Press.

Freedmen's Bureau

views updated May 18 2018

Freedmen's Bureau

U.S. Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also called the Freedmen's Bureau) in 1865 and gave the bureau the job of aiding and protecting the four million slaves who became free through the American Civil War (1861–65).

Under the direction of General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909), the Freedmen's Bureau divided the former slave states into ten districts. Relief work in those districts focused on five tasks: relief for all citizens, black and white alike, in war-torn areas; regulation of black labor; management of abandoned and confiscated property; administration of justice for blacks; and education of former slaves. (See Slavery .)

The Freedmen's Bureau had poor funding and inadequate staffing, but it still managed to offer much-needed assistance. Working through its programs, the bureau distributed more than twenty-two million rations of food to impoverished black and white southerners. It provided medical assistance to more than one million freedmen. By 1871, the bureau had created sixty-one schools and eleven colleges and universities.

The Freedmen's Bureau was less successful in its effort to create courts for protecting the civil rights of African Americans. It also failed to make land ownership a reality for freed slaves. Congress had intended to transfer large amounts of confiscated southern lands to former slaves, but this was thwarted by the Proclamation of Pardon and Amnesty by President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) in 1865. The proclamation provided for much of the confiscated land to be returned to white southerners who were willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. The Freedmen's Bureau was forced instead to oversee the creation of sharecropping arrangements for farming these lands.

The original charter of the Freedmen's Bureau was for just one year, but Congress extended that period for most of the bureau's work until 1869. Its educational component lasted until 1872.

Freedmens Bureau

views updated May 29 2018

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.

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