Freedmen’s Bureau: Exercising Citizenship
President Abraham Lincoln signed The Freedmen’s Bureau Act on March 3, 1865. That Act created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as part of the War Department. It provided one-year of funding, and made Bureau officials responsible for providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary shelter to destitute and suffering refugees behind Union lines and to freedmen, their wives, and children in areas of insurrection (in other words, within the Confederate States). The legislation specified the Bureau’s administrative structure and salaries of appointees. It also directed the Bureau to put abandoned or confiscated land back into production by allotting not more than 40 acres to each loyal refugee or freedman for their use for not more than three years, at a rent equal to six percent of its 1860 assessed value, and with an option to purchase. The Bureau assumed additional duties in response to freed people’s goals, namely building schools, negotiating labor contracts, and mediating conflicts.
Lincoln supported the Bureau because it fit his plan to hasten peace and reconstruct the nation, but after Lincoln’s assassination, support wavered. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 provided two years of funding. During 1868, increasing violence and for a return to state authority undermined the goals of freed people and the Bureau that worked for them. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1868 authorized only the educational department and veteran services to continue. All other operations ceased effective January 1, 1869.
Collections at The Henry Ford help document public perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as actions taken by Bureau advocates. Letters, labor contracts, and newspapers indicate the contests that played out as the Bureau tried to introduce a new model of economic and social justice and civil rights into places where absolute inequality based on human enslavement previously existed. The Bureau did not win the post-war battle for freedmen’s rights. Congress did not reauthorize the Bureau, and it ceased operations in mid-1872.
Bureau appointees went to work at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to serve the interests of four-million newly freed people intent on exercising some self-evident truths itemized in the Declaration of Independence:
That all men are created equal
That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Engraved Copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Commissioned by John Quincy Adams, Printed 1823.
With freedom came responsibility to sustain the system of government that “We the People” constituted in 1787, and that the Union victory over secession reaffirmed in 1865. Little agreement over the best course of action existed. The national government extended the blessings of liberty by abolishing slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865. It established the Freedmen’s Bureau which advocated for the general welfare of newly freed people.
Book, "The Constitutions of the United States, According to the Latest Amendments," 1800. THF 155864
Joint Resolution of the United States Congress, Proposing the 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery, 1865. THF118475
Expanding liberty and justice came at a price, both economic and human. Every time freed people exercised new-found liberty and justice, others resisted, perceiving the expansion of another person’s liberty as a threat to their own. The Bureau operated between these factions, as an 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicted. The newspaper claimed that the Bureau was “the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties, and saying to them, with irresistible authority, ‘Peace!’.”
“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868, pg. 473. 2018.0.4.38. THF 290299
Building a new southern economy went hand in hand with expanding social justice and civil rights. Concerned citizens and commanding officers knew that African Americans serving in the U.S. Colored Troops had money to save. They started private banks to meet the need. The U.S. Congress responded with "An Act to Incorporate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company." Lincoln signed the legislation on March 3, 1865, the same day he signed “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Agents of the public Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with staff at the private Freedman’s Bank because freed people needed the economic stability the bank theoretically provided.
At least 400,000 people, one tenth of the freed population, had an association with a person who opened a savings account in the 37 branches of the savings bank that operated between 1865 and 1874. This included Amos H. Morrell, whose daughter’s heirs resided in the Mattox House. Soldiers listed on the Muster Roll of Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, also appear in records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Charles Maho, a private in Company E, 46th USCT, opened an account on August 13, 1868. He worked in a tobacco factory at the time. His brother in arms, James Parvison/Parkinson, also a private, opened an account on December 1, 1869 and his estranged wife, Julia Parkerson opened an account on May 14, 1870.
Mattox Family Home, circa 1880
"Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 30-June 30, 1865" - Unknown - Rank 2 THF 96529
Freedmen’s Bureau officials encouraged deposits into the Freedmen’s Bank. This helped freed people become accustomed to saving the coins they earned, literally the coins that symbolized their independence as wage earners. Sadly, Bureau officials often assured account holders that their investments were safe. The deposits were not protected by the national government, however, and when the bank closed in 1874 it left depositors penniless and petitioning for return of their investments.
One-cent piece. Minted in 1868. THF 173625 (front) and THF 173624 (back)
Three-cent piece (made of nickel). Minted in 1865. THF 173623 (front) and THF 173622 (back).
The U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau to collect and pay out money due soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs. Osco Ricio, a private in Company E, 46th U.S. Colored Infantry, who enlisted for three years in 1864, but was mustered out in 1866, made use of this service in his effort to secure $187 due him.
Freedmen’s Bureau staff mediated between freed people and employers, negotiating contracts that specified work required, money earned, and protection afforded if employers reneged on the agreement. A blank form, printed in Virginia in 1865, included language common to an indenture – that the employer would provide “a sufficiency of sound, wholesome food and comfortable lodging, to treat him humanely, and to pay him the sum of _____ Dollars, in equal monthly instalments of ____ Dollars, good and lawful money in Virginia.”
Freedman's Work Agreement Form, Virginia, 1865 Object ID 2001.48.18. THF 290704
Another pre-printed form reinforced terms of enslavement, that the work should be performed “in the manner customary on a plantation,” even as it confirmed the role of Freedmen’s Bureau agents as adjudicator. Freedman Henry Mathew, and landowner R. J. Hart, in Schley County, Georgia, completed this contract which legally bound Hart to furnish Mathew “quarters, food, 1 mule, and 35 acres of land” and to “give. . . one-third of what he [Mathew] makes.” This type of arrangement became the standard wage-labor contract between landowners and sharecroppers, paid for their labor with a share of the crops grown on the land.
Freedman's Contract for a Mule and Land, Dated January 1, 1868. THF 8564
Many criticized sharecropping as another form of unfree labor rather than as a fair labor contract. Close reading confirms the inequity which often took the form of additional work that laborers performed but that benefitted owners. In the case of Hart and Mathew, Mathew had to repair Hart’s fencing which meant that Mathew realized only one-third return on his labor investment in the form of a crop perhaps more plentiful because of the fence. Hart claimed the other two-thirds of the crop plus all of the increased value of fencing.
Isaac Yarbro/Yarbrough, private in Company E, 46th USCT, negotiated a contract with A. H. Elliott of Ouachita County, Arkansas, on January 1, 1867. Elliott furnished land, stock, and farming tools. Yarbrough furnished labor and his own rations. After marketing the cotton crop, the contract stipulated that Yarbrough would receive one third “of the cotton made by him as compensation in full for his labor and rations furnished by him.” Furthermore, Yarbrough, when not occupied making the cotton crop, would “do any other work that A. H. Elliott may see proper to have done on his plantation and without farther compensation.”
Freed people wanted access to education to learn what they needed to make decisions as informed and productive citizens.
Harper’s Weekly, a New York magazine, often featured freedmen’s schools that resulted from a cooperative agreement between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association (AMA), based in New York. A reporter informed readers on June 23, 1866 that “the prejudice of the Southern people against the education of the ‘negroes’ is almost universal.” Regardless, freed people needed schools, teachers, and institutes to train teachers. The Freedmen’s Bureau and its partners committed their resources in support of this cause.
Commentary accompanying an illustration of the “Primary School for Freedmen” indicated that the school building was dilapidated and owned by someone who wanted rid of the school, but the students were eager to learn and as capable as other students of their age in New York public schools.
“Primary School for Freedmen, in Charge of Mrs. Green, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866, pg. 392 (bottom), story on pg. 398. THF 290712
School curriculum often emphasized agricultural and technical training. The “Freedmen’s Farm School,” located near Washington, D.C., also known as the National Farm-School, taught orphans and children of U.S. Colored Troops reading, writing and arithmetic, standard primary school subjects. Students also cultivated a one-hundred-acre farm. The combination compared to a new effort launched with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to create a system of colleges, federally funded but operated at the state level to train students in agricultural and mechanical subjects. The combination could help students realize the American dream – owning and operating their own farm. While the system of land-grant colleges grew steadily during Reconstruction, the freedmen’s schools faced opposition locally and at the state level. Increasingly educators turned to philanthropists to fund education for freed people.
Cover, “Schools for Freedmen,” Harper's Weekly 1867 bound volume (Vol. 11) -- March 30, 1867 issue (“Freedmen’s Farm School, upper right image, page 193) THF 290709
The individuals appointed to direct the Freedmen’s Bureau often had military experience. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard served in the Union Army and gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist if not a strong officer. President Andrew Johnson appointed him the first Commission of the Bureau, and he remained in that position until the Bureau closed in 1872. Two years later Howard lamented lost opportunities: “I believe there are many battles yet to be fought in the interest of human rights”….“There are wrongs that must be righted. Noble deeds that must be done.”
O.O. Howard calling card and letter, in 2007.0.1.1 - Autograph album - "Ada Dewey Autograph Album, 1874-1875". THF 228573
Many shared Howard’s frustrations with the lack of public support for freed people’s goals. They also resented the obstructions that thwarted those goals. Newspaper reporting, such as the regular features in Harper’s Weekly, emphasized the good work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but reporting also threatened projects aimed at sustaining the momentum.
Henry Wilson, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, sought equality for African Americans. He took a correspondent to the Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, to task for publishing misinformation about the extent of congressional fundraising for political purposes, and for downplaying the need for sharing facts with voters, especially the 700,000 Southerners newly enfranchised after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wilson explained that hundreds of thousands of documents, possible through the congressional fundraising, could educate voters about issues and prepare them for the upcoming election. Without donations from U.S. congressmen, Wilson believed such efforts would fail.
Letter from Henry Wilson to Sanborn [probably Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, then a correspondent with the Springfield [Massachusetts] Republican newspaper], October 6, 1870
The short life but complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau leaves much to ponder. The Bureau, as a part of the War Department, and then an independent national agency, mediated local conflict and supported local education. This occurred at an exceptional time as the Union began rebuilding the nation in 1865. Then, the Republican party interpreted the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for the national government to protect civil rights broadly defined. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, incorporated newly freed people as full citizens. Most believed that the Bureau had no more work to do, and Congress did not reauthorize it after July 1872. Those who favored the Bureau lamented its abrupt end and believed that much remained to be done to open the American experiment in equal rights to all.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Sources and Further Reading
- African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau, National Archives and Records Administration
- Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1999)
- Cimbala, Paul A. The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South after the Civil War (2005)
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988).
- Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979).
- McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen (1994).
- Osthaus, Carl R. Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman's Savings Bank (1976)
- Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (2012).
- Washington, Reginald. “The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research,” Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)
1870s, 1860s, 19th century, Civil War, by Debra A. Reid, African American history