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Freedmen's Bureau

former labor agency slaves

The U.S. Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands on March 3, 1865, as part of its plans for reconstructing the post-Civil War South. Better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, this temporary federal agency undertook the formidable and unprecedented responsibility of safeguarding the general welfare of both recently liberated slaves and white refugees in the former Confederacy. In all of its activities, the Bureau sought to teach black and white southerners the meaning of freedom and how to negotiate their seemingly incompatible visions of life and labor in the new order.

In overseeing the transition from slavery to freedom, the Freedmen’s Bureau became “the principal expression and extension of federal authority in the defeated South”(Cimbala and Miller 1999, p. ix). Despite a short existence, the bureau played a critical role in defining the meaning of freedom for some four million former slaves. Charged with exercising “control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from the rebel states,”its activities were myriad. It provided “issues of provisions, clothing and fuel”to refugees, freedmen, “and their wives and children”; it assisted in reuniting black families; it supervised labor agreements between blacks and their former masters; it monitored state and local officials’ treatment of the former slaves; it established informal tribunals to settle disputes between whites and blacks and among African Americans themselves; it instituted clinics and hospitals for the former slaves; and it aided efforts to provide freed people education in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath ( U.S. Statutes at Large 13: 507–509).

Major General Oliver Otis Howard was appointed as commissioner of the Bureau in May 1865, and he served as the agency’s only commissioner until Congress formally dismantled it in 1872. This thirty-four-year-old “Christian Soldier”from Maine was a former commander of the Army of the Tennessee, and he gave the agency its character and course. A wartime convert to emancipation and a firm believer in the ability of humanitarian assistance to uplift the former slaves, he provided a moral purpose, an ideological framework, and a vision for the bureau. The task ahead of him was formidable. Indeed, upon hearing of his friend’s appointment, General William Tecumseh Sherman confided to Howard, “I hardly know whether to congratulate you or not.”He cautioned Howard of the inevitable difficulties that lay ahead. “So far as man can do, I believe you will,”he told the new commissioner, but “though in the kindness of your heart you would alleviate all the ills of humanity it is not in your power, nor is it in your power to fulfill one tenth of the expectations of those who formed the Bureau.”“I fear,”Sherman confessed, “you have Hercules’ task”(Howard 1907, vol. 2, pp. 209–210).

Howard undertook his new commission with great limitations. Congress initially limited the federal agency’s existence to one year following the end of hostilities, and it appropriated no funds for the bureau’s efforts in the postwar South. Given a home in the War Department, the bureau was left to survive off of army funds and personnel, in addition to the resources and compassion of various private relief, missionary, and educational associations of the North. The official statute creating the Bureau permitted, although it did not require, the secretary of war to provide the agency personnel for its staff, as well as surplus food, clothing, and fuel to aid former slaves and refugees. It also gave the agency control of abandoned and confiscated lands held by the government. The Bureau had the authority to divide this land into forty-acre plots to be sold or rented to former slaves and loyal refugees. (In September 1865, President Andrew Johnson effectively ended bureau efforts to distribute lands to black southerners by commanding Howard to issue Circular No. 15, which rescinded earlier land circulars and ordered that the land be returned to its former owners, who were pardoned by the president.) Beyond these provisions, the statute provided little guidance to Howard as to his agency’s role and powers. Thus, while granting the bureau authority over “all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen,”Congress offered little support, direction, or authority for doing so. In 1866, over a presidential veto, and again in 1868, Congress would extend the life and powers of the federal agency. But the bureau was always viewed as a temporary agency, and Congress ended all but its educational activities on January 1, 1869.

In its efforts to reconstruct the South, the Freedmen’s Bureau established a multitude of policies to transform the former Confederacy from a slave society into one in which free labor reigned. Stationed in Washington, D.C., Howard provided the shape and direction for these policies. But it was his assistant commissioners at the state level, and their appointees at the district and county or parish levels, who would be most influential in carrying out the agency’s goals. The assistant commissioners exercised considerable authority. These men determined how Howard’s orders, general as they were, would be applied in individual states, and they issued additional orders and directives applicable to “freedmen’s affairs”there. By 1872, fifty-five men had served the agency as assistant commissioners. Whatever policies and directives were issued, the effectiveness of the bureau rested on some 900 officials who implemented them at the local level. Any achievement of the bureau was measured by the actions of agents in the field. With varying degrees of success and commitment, these men—known in the agency’s bureaucratic language as superintendents, assistant superintendents, subcommissioners, or assistant sub-assistant commissioners—endeavored to aid, advise, promote, and protect the freedpeople’s general welfare on a day-to-day basis. Upon acceptance of a post in the bureau, Commissioner Howard commented, the local agent became at once “a magistrate with extraordinary judicial power—overseer of the poor of all classes in his district, agent to take charge of abandoned lands, and required to settle, in a few days, [the] most intricate questions with reference to labor, political economy, &c., that have puzzled the world for ages”( Washington Chronicle , August 13, 1866). The local agent was, as Eric Foner notes in Reconstruction , a “diplomat, marriage counselor, educator, supervisor of labor contracts, sheriff, judge, and jury”(1988, p. 143).

In attending to the daily business of the bureau, local agents faced formidable obstacles. Their caseloads were staggering, and there never seemed to be enough agents. Historians estimate that 2,441 different men served the bureau throughout its lifetime, but at the height of its strength the agency employed only 900 men, with more than 300 of them serving as clerks rather than agents. By 1869 the bureau’s manpower withered to a mere 158 men across the entire South. If they were lucky, local field agents had a horse and a clerk to help with the responsibilities of the office. And if they were truly fortunate, Union troops were nearby, willing to enforce their orders and dictates and ready to provide protection. More often, however, local agents found themselves unaided in a hostile environment and responsible for several counties or parishes encompassing hundreds of miles and thousands of people. “My satrapy,”complained a South Carolina agent named John William De Forest, “contained two state districts or counties, and eventually three, with a population of about eighty thousand souls and an area at least two thirds as large as the state of Connecticut.”“Consider the absurdity of expecting one man,”he continued, “to patrol three thousand miles and make personal visitations to thirty thousand Negroes”(De Forest 1948, p. 39).

Both the competence and level of dedication varied greatly among bureau officials, for they came to their positions with diverse motives and disparate ideologies. Seemingly fearless and faithful to the old abolitionist quest, some agents braved the opposition, hostilities, and outright violence of white Southerners in an effort to protect the former slaves from fraud and violence. Some even sacrificed their lives. Others were not so noble, however. Desiring acceptance from white Southerners, and possessing similar racist views about former slaves, some agents blatantly chose to become instruments of the planter class and aid in the effort to restore slavery in all but name. More often, however, agents fell somewhere in between. Many operated with a pragmatism that showed an understanding that the bureau was a fleeting agency. Most simply tried to do a job that presented fierce obstacles. At times they came to the aid of freedmen and women, while at other times they supported the defeated rebels. Declaring that bureau agents “varied all the way from unselfish philanthropists to narrow-minded busybodies and thieves,”W.E.B. Du Bois offered a balanced judgment, ultimately concluding that the “average was far better than the worst”(1901, p. 360).

Whatever their level of preparedness or dedication, much was expected of bureau officials. According to Foner, their duties included “introducing a workable system of free labor in the South, establishing schools for freedmen, providing aid to the destitute, aged, ill, and insane, adjudicating disputes among blacks and between the races, and attempting to secure for blacks and white Unionists equal justice from state and local governments”(1988, p. 142). Guiding each of these activities was the desire to “teach”southerners what freedom meant by establishing a free labor society in the South. Thus, enforcing the obligation of contracts was at the heart of all bureau activities. The agency readily supported the cause of free labor and viewed the contract as the governing model for all social relations, including both labor and domestic relations. At every turn, therefore, agency officials underscored the relationship between freedom and contract. “While the freedmen must and will be protected in their rights,”Virginia Assistant Commissioner Orlando Brown exhorted in his November 4, 1865, circular, “they must be required to meet these first and most essential conditions of a state of freedom, avisible means of support, and a fidelity to contracts .”Commissioner Howard certainly agreed. If the freedpeople recognized the sanctity of the contract—whether a labor agreement or the covenant of marriage—they would benefit from both the responsibilities and the privileges of freedom. Freed from the clutches of slavery, Howard trusted that former slaves would achieve independence by becoming self-reliant men and women who could provide for and protect themselves and their families.

In a time of social and political upheaval however, Southerners, both black and white, encountered profound difficulties providing for themselves. Without question, the administration and disbursement of relief was central to every local agent’s job. By August 1865 the bureau was aiding 148,120 people daily. Despite the very real need for relief, Howard nonetheless sought to cut these numbers from his first days in office. His relief policies stressed the importance of labor, self-reliance, and independence, and they provided relief to the “deserving”poor while compelling others to enter the labor market. Met with petitions of every kind, distinguishing between the worthy and unworthy poor was no simple task. Local agents refused assistance only to able-bodied freedmen, however, and continued to support some able-bodied freedwomen and other “deserving”poor, including orphans, the sick and disabled, and the elderly. Due to increasingly restrictive policies and limited resources, the number of people supported by the Bureau shrank to 74,951 in September 1865. Whether viewed as heroic in its compassion and humanity, a movement ahead of its time, or a failure for what it did not accomplish, Bureau relief efforts provided real assistance to Southerners, black and white. By the fall of 1868, the Bureau had furnished more than 20 million rations of food—almost 15 million of which directly aided former slaves—through its “war on dependency”(Foner, p. 152).

With this “war,”the Freedmen’s Bureau became the mediator between former-slaves-turned-laborers and former-masters-turned-employers as they negotiated a new labor system. In the process, the two contending races encountered, turned to, trusted, challenged, and used the bureau in an effort to control one another. White planters sought to regain power and restore slavery in all but name. Freedpeople wanted economic independence and freedom from white supervision. The bureau desired a free labor system in which blacks freely consented to work and whites granted them the benefits possessed by laborers in the North. In so many ways, as in the case of its relief efforts, the Bureau regarded employment as a cure-all for Southern ills. If sufficient work could be provided to former slaves, officials reasoned, the best interests of blacks themselves, their former owners, the South, and the nation as a whole would be served. To the Bureau, unforced labor promised the return of stability and prosperity to the South. As it undertook the task of laying a foundation for a free labor society, it endorsed labor policies aimed at forming labor contracts between former masters and former slaves.

Bureau labor policies were far from perfect, however. Despite stipulations that blacks were now free to choose their own employers, what developed was a seemingly inherent contradiction—a “compulsory”system of “free”labor. At the heart of this labor program were provisions guarding against vagrancy. Bureau labor policies ordered, first, that all freedpeople be urged to find work and make contracts, and second, that those who rejected labor or violated contracts be considered vagrants who would be fined, imprisoned, and hired out to employers until, as Commissioner Howard insisted, they understood the virtue of “honest toil.”

Until Southern courts recognized and protected the rights of freedpeople—most notably, the right to testify in court—informal tribunals operated by the bureau acted as a conduit of justice for Southern blacks. In addition to complaints against employers regarding wages, abuse, and property, freedpeople filed grievances arising from domestic clashes, demands for their children, and violence. The “freedmen’s courts,”as they soon came to be known, sought to ensure, in Howard’s words, “the protection of negroes against small personal persecutions and the hostility of white juries”(Howard 1901, vol. 2, p. 253). Ideally, these courts included three officials—a Bureau agent and two representatives, one chosen by local freedpeople and the other by area whites—and settled only minor cases. The meaning of “minor”varied greatly from state to state and agent to agent, however. More serious offenses, such as felonies or capital crimes, were referred to federal, provost, or—if they assured blacks’ rights—state courts. As Donald Nieman notes in To Set the Law in Motion , federal authorities “were unwilling to permit individual officers and agents, most of whom had no legal training, to try such serious matters as grand larceny, burglary, arson, rape, assault with intent to kill, and murder”(Nieman 1979, p. 9). In the end, bureau officials believed that ensuring equal justice under the law to Southern blacks would, in turn, allow them to protect themselves from unscrupulous whites, and thus end the need for the Freedmen’s Bureau. With or without the bureau’s assistance, however, former slave men and women found justice elusive during and after Reconstruction.

Given its emphasis on instructing southerners as to the meaning of freedom, it is not surprising that perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau resulted from its efforts to promote education. Although it did not open schools itself, the Bureau remained dedicated to systematizing and facilitating education for former slaves throughout its brief life. Under the direction of Reverend John W. Alvord, the Bureau’s Superintendent of Education, the agency provided rations and transportation for teachers, supplies, buildings, encouragement, and oversight to northern benevolent societies and freedpeople themselves, who provided and paid teachers. By July 1870, more than 3,000 schools, with some 3,300 teachers and 149,581 students, reported to the bureau. Moreover, with bureau support, northern benevolent associations established the first black colleges in the South, including Berea in Kentucky, Fisk in Tennessee, Hampton in Virginia, and Tougaloo in Mississippi. Bureau support for education, as Eric Foner points out, “helped lay the foundation for Southern public education.”Indeed, he concludes, it “probably represented the agency’s greatest success in the postwar South”(1988, p. 144).

In the end, it cannot be questioned that the Freed-men’s Bureau fell short in accomplishing all that it promised. The Bureau and its role in the failure of Reconstruction in the South have generated much debate. Historians, as well as the federal agency’s contemporaries, have not been kind, damning the bureau for doing both too little and too much. With the notable exception of W. E. B. Du Bois—who noted more than a century ago that the agency had “accomplished a great deal”—early scholarly works flatly condemned the Bureau. Arguing that the Bureau failed to push hard enough for African Americans, more recent Reconstruction scholarship has denounced the agency for failing to challenge the racial assumptions and racial hostility of the postwar South. The Bureau has also been accused of exercising a racist paternalism that forced former slaves into labor agreements clearly more advantageous to white employers. Since the 1980s, however, historians have offered significant challenges to such interpretations. Presenting a more evenhanded interpretation, these historians view the Freedmen’s Bureau as a limited protector, guardian, and even ally of the freedpeople. Recognizing the complicated landscape in which the Bureau operated, their scholarship goes beyond the agency’s limitations, weaknesses, and failures to underscore the significant role the agency played in former slaves’ lives, particularly at the community level, and what it did for freedpeople. Most historians in the early twenty-first century would agree with Du Bois, who concluded that whatever work the bureau “did not do”was “because it could not”(1901, pp. 364–365).

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