Freedmen's Bureau

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The Freedmen's Bureau (officially the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands), 1865–68, was a controversial federal agency created by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln in March 1865 to help aid distressed refugees of the American Civil War. During Reconstruction it became primarily an agency to help the Freedmen (freed slaves) in the South. It was part of the Department of War, and headed by General Oliver O. Howard. Fully operational from June 1865 through December 1868, it was denounced by Democrats and was disbanded by President Andrew Johnson, who was strongly against any attempt to help the freed slaves.


In 1865, the Bureau's main role was providing emergency food, housing and medical aid to refugees in the war-ravaged South, both black and white. It also helped reunite families divided by slave sales. By late 1865, it focused its work on helping the Freedmen adjust to new conditions. Its main job became setting up work opportunities and supervising labor contracts. It soon became, in effect, a military court that handled legal issues regarding the Freedmen. By 1866, it was providing a base for political mobilization; many officials became carpetbaggers and as republican activists entered southern politics. Conservative whites resented the Bureau, which became a major issue in the election of 1866. The Radical Republicans won that election and blocked efforts of President Johnson to abolish the agency.

Most agents were northern white army veterans. George T. Ruby, a northerner who served first with the Army in Louisiana and moved to Texas in 1866, was one of only a handful of African-American agents. His organizational experience and travels throughout Texas gave him the necessary skills to later become one of only two blacks to serve in the Texas legislature during Reconstruction.[1]

Regarding the overall administration, one historian concluded that, Howard had a "loose way of interpreting the law to fit his needs....He frequently was too ready to follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law."[2] Howard's loose interpretation of the legislation creating the Bureau allowed it to help blacks in many creative ways. For example, in spending $5 million for schools between 1865 and 1871, he used money that was supposed to go for repairs toward construction of new school buildings; money allocated for rent was used to pay teachers. Bureau agents sometimes falsely suggested to Freedmen that the plantation lands of their former owners would be divided up and given to them if they voted Republican.

At the state level, Bureau officials tried to be fair to both freedmen and 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 anti-black elements, the lack of a military presence to enforce their authority, and an excessive amount of paperwork.[3]


Day-to-day duties

The Bureau helped solve everyday problems of the refugees, who had no money, no land and no jobs. It provided clothing, food, medicine, communication with family members, and arranged for farm jobs with white landowners. The Bureau gave out about 15 million rations of food to blacks.[4]

With the threat of epidemics a serious matter in the refugee camps. the Bureau emphasized the importance of its medical facilities. It gave medical care to over one million people, but that was only a fraction of the need.[5]

Gender roles

Freedmen's Bureau agents at first complained that freedwomen were not working in the fields as they had during slavery. They attempted to make freedwomen work by insisting that their husbands sign contracts obligating the whole family to work on cotton. The Bureau did allow some exceptions such as certain 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 especially prostitutes, were the ones usually subjected to punishment for vagrancy.[6]

Under slavery, marriages were informal; slavery disrupted many families as did wartime chaos. Many Freedmen attempted to find their spouses and children, and the Bureau agents became a reference bureau, allowing illiterate Freedmen to contact each other. 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 freedwomen turned to the Bureau for assistance in resolving issues of abandonment and divorce.


The Bureau stressed the long-term goal of building schools and promoting illiteracy. (It had been illegal to teach slaves to read, but some could do so.) 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. His efforts met with enthusiasm for education on the part of blacks and bitter opposition, including physical violence, from many planters and other whites. The Ku Klux Klan often threatened the northern white women who were teaching in these schools, trying to coerce them to go back to the North.[7] Overall the Bureau spent $5 million 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 rose to 80% by 1868. A leading educator was Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong; as an agent of the Bureau he created and led Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.

By 1870, there were more than 1,000 schools for freedmen in the South. 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, both children and adults indulged in this new opportunity to learn. After the Bureau was abolished, its achievements collapsed under the weight of white violence against schools and teachers and the gutting of funds for all schools by Redeemer legislatures devoted to limited government.[8]

Church activity

The Freedmen sought the Bureau's aid in establishing churches. After the war, control over existing churches was a highly contentious issue; Northern Methodists seized control of Southern Methodist buildings in some cities. Whereas whites and blacks had worshiped together before the war, now they mutually agreed to separate. The Bureau, with close ties to Northern Methodist and Congregational churches, facilitated new buildings, though it did not spend any government money on churches. Northern mission societies collected of funds for land, buildings, teachers' salaries, and basic necessities such as books and furniture.[9]


When the Bureau began operating its own court system for cases involving blacks, some whites objected loudly and said this violated the state constitutions. 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.[10]

Perhaps the most difficult region was Louisiana's Caddo-Bossier district. It had not experience 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 generally went unprosecuted. Bureau agents did manage to negotiate labor contracts, build schools and hospitals, and provide the freedmen a sense of their own humanity through the agents' willingness to help.[11]



  • 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
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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 online at JSTOR
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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 online at JSTOR
  • 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.
  • 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 online at JSTOR
  • 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'. (1953)
  • Richter, William L. Overreached on All Sides: The Freedmen's Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868 1991.
  • Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule. Louisiana State University Press. 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 online at JSTOR
  • 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.
  • Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Primary sources

See also

External links


  1. Crouch 1992
  2. Carpenter 154
  3. Cimbala 1992
  4. Goldhaber 1992
  5. Pearson 2002
  6. Farmer-Kaiser, 2004
  7. Crouch 1997
  8. Goldhaber 1992
  9. Morrow 1954
  10. Foner 1988
  11. Smith 2000