Engraving of freed black slaves learning to read in school circa 1860
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Introduction

The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 by Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some 4 million slaves gained their freedom as a result of the Union victory in the war, which left many communities in ruins and destroyed the South’s plantation-based economy. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. However, the bureau was prevented from fully carrying out its programs due to a shortage of funds and personnel, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. In 1872, Congress, in part under pressure from white Southerners, shut the bureau.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, two months before Confederate General Robert Lee (1807-70) surrendered to the Union’s Ulysses Grant (1822-85) at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Intended as a temporary agency to last the duration of the war and one year afterward, the bureau was placed under the authority of the War Department and the majority of its original employees were Civil War soldiers.

Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909), a Union general, was appointed commissioner of the bureau in May 1865. Howard, a Maine native who attended Bowdoin College and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, reportedly had been planning to become a minister when the Civil War broke out. During the war, Howard, nicknamed the “Christian General,” fought in major battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, and lost an arm in the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862.

America’s Reconstruction era (1865-77) was a turbulent time, as the nation struggled with how to rebuild the South and transition the 4 million newly freed blacks from slavery to a free-labor society. “There was no tradition of government responsibility for a huge refugee population and no bureaucracy to administer a large welfare, employment and land reform program,” according to “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction,” edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller. “Congress and the army and the Freedmen’s Bureau were groping in the dark. They created the precedents.”

From the start, the Bureau faced resistance from a variety of sources, including many white Southerners. Another leading opponent was President Andrew Johnson (1808-75), who assumed office in April 1865 following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809-65). When Congress introduced a bill in February 1866 to extend the bureau’s tenure and give it new legal powers, Johnson vetoed the proposed legislation on the grounds that it interfered with states’ rights, gave preference to one group of citizens over another and would impose a huge financial burden on the federal government, among other issues. In July of that same year, Congress overrode the president’s veto and passed a revised version of the bill. However, Johnson became embroiled in a bitter fight with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who viewed the president’s Reconstruction policies as too lenient, and the Freedmen’s Bureau suffered as a result. Johnson’s actions, which included pardoning many former Confederates and restoring their land, as well as removing bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to blacks, served to undermine the bureau’s authority.

The bureau’s mission was further muddled by the fact that even among the agency’s supporters in Congress and its own personnel, there was disagreement over what type of assistance the government should provide and for how long.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was organized into districts covering the 11 former rebel states, the border states of Maryland, Kentucky and West Virginia and Washington, D.C. Each district was headed by an assistant commissioner. The bureau’s achievements varied from one location to another and from one agent to the next. Over its course of existence, the bureau was underfunded and understaffed, with just 900 agents at its peak. Bureau agents, who acted essentially as social workers and were frequently the only federal representatives in Southern communities, were subjected to ridicule and violence from whites (including terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan) who viewed the agents as interfering in local affairs by trying to assist blacks. While some agents were corrupt or incompetent, others were hardworking and brave and made significant contributions.

During its years of operation, the Freedmen’s Bureau fed millions of people, built hospitals and provided medical aid, negotiated labor contracts for ex-slaves and settled labor disputes. It also helped former slaves legalize marriages and locate lost relatives, and assisted black veterans. The bureau also was instrumental in building thousands of schools for blacks, and helped to found such colleges as Howard University in Washington, D.C., Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. The bureau frequently worked in conjunction with the American Missionary Association and other private charity organizations.

Additionally, the bureau tried, with little success, to promote land redistribution. However, most of the confiscated or abandoned Confederate land was eventually restored to the original owners, so there was little opportunity for black land ownership, which was seen as a means to success in society.

In the summer of 1872, Congress, responding in part to pressure from white Southerners, dismantled the Freedmen’s Bureau. Since that time, historians have debated the agency’s effectiveness. A lack of funding, coupled with the politics of race and Reconstruction, meant that the bureau was not able to carry out all of its initiatives, and it failed to provide long-term protection for blacks or ensure any real measure of racial equality. However, the bureau’s efforts did signal the introduction of the federal government into issues of social welfare and labor relations. As noted in “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction,” “The Bureau helped awaken Americans to the promise of freedom, and for a time, the Bureau’s physical presence in the South made palpable to many citizens the abstract principles of equal access to the law and free labor.”