Freedom Cried Out
The Homestead Act of 1862
A Bill To facilitate the settlement of the public lands by freedmen. December 13, 1869
A Bill To incorporate the Freedmen's Homestead Company. February 6, 1871
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by Congress in March 1865 as a branch of the United States Army. It was to be a temporary agency. Its functions were to provide relief to the thousands of refugees, black and white, who had been left homeless by the Civil War;qv to supervise affairs related to newly freed slaves in the southern states; and to administer all land abandoned by Confederates or confiscated from them during the war. Since the profits from administering the lands were to provide funds for the operation of the bureau, the bill establishing the agency did not appropriate money for it. President Andrew Johnson, however, returned most of the confiscated property to its owners, and Congress was forced to appropriate funds for the bureau's operations after the first year.
The Texas freedmen's hope that the Federal government would grant them small plots of their own land -- the legendary "forty acres and a mule"-was never-to-be realized. In the beginning this land was available in much of the South where the havoc of war had caused the abandonment of large acreages by their original landowners. In Texas, however, the Freedmen's Bureau found little abandoned land, making the dream of black property ownership more elusive than ever. On Sep 31, 1865, General Edgar M. Gregory, the assistant commissioner for the state of Texas. wrote to Major General O O Howard,
"I called upon the Agent of the Treasury for Lands Houses and Parts of Houses and Lands was answered he had none got the same reply from Maj Gen Wright Comdg the Dept I cannot learn that property of this kind has been taken possession by any of the Govt Officials in portions of the State heard from." 1
But blacks persisted in believing that some land would be granted them around Christmas, 1865. On Sep 31, 1865, General Edgar M. Gregory, the assistant commissioner for the state of Texas. wrote to Major General O O Howard,
"There had been vague rumors circulated among them that they were to be free on Christmas day, and that on New Years there was to be a grand division of the property; that one-half was to be given to the black people. The report circulated so extensively among the freedmen with regard to a division of the property on or about the holidays, and which was believed by many of them, was taught them by the citizens during the war. Public speakers in different portions of the State declared and insisted that the only object the Yankees had in continuing the war was to free the negroes, and that if the southern people were beaten, all the lands and property would be taken from them and given to the blacks, and that the poor white and rich people alike would be enslaved. It is not strange that the freedmen, hearing this matter talked of publicly for four years by men of influence and standing, should finally believe there was some truth in it." 2
The Freedmen's Bureau with the assistance of Hamilton and General Wright, did its best to counteract the land distribution myth.
Once Johnson began returning most of the confiscated property to its owners, the best hope for land reform in the South lay with the implementation of the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. Prior to this act, blacks and white alike were having trouble buying land. This act attempted to solve this by selling land at low prices so that southerners could buy it. Oliver O. Howard, the national commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, hoped to make use of this federal legislation. Bureau agents were torn between a desire to help the freedmen acquire land and a commitment to maintain existing labor contracts through the 1866 agricultural season.
Many people, however, still could not participate because the low prices were still too high. The Homestead Act was amended many times over the years. It was repealed on October 21, 1976, except that the effective date for public lands in Alaska was extended ten years to October 21, 1986. In the end the Southern Homestead Act could not make landowners of most freedmen, The promise of land for the freedmen proved to be illusory.