Freedom Cried Out
Origins of the Freedmen's Bureau
Editorial calls for a Freedmens Bureau. December 26, 1863
Editorial calls for passage of Freedmens Bureau Bill.April 16, 1864
The Freedmen's Bureau Act, March 3, 1865
A Bill To amend an act entitled ''An act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees.'' January 8, 1866 ~ January 18, 1866
An Act To enlarge the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau. February 7, 1866
Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction December 13,1866
Joint Resolution [Authorizing the President of the United States] to prevent the infliction of corporal punishment in the States lately in rebellion.December 20, 1866 ~ February 7, 1867
General Ulysses S. Grant
An Act To continue the Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees, and for other purposes. March 19, 1868 ~ April 8, 1868
A Bill To facilitate the settlement of the public lands by freedmen. December 13, 1869
A Bill To abolish the Freedmen's Bureau, and provide for the Bureau of Education. January 21, 1870 ~ February 21, 1870
A Bill To incorporate the Freedmen's Homestead Company. February 6, 1871
Edwin McMasters Stanton Secretary of War
The Freedmen's Bureau was established just as the war was closing and arose out of the various attempts to meet the Negro problems that arose during the war. The Bureau had always a dual nature, due in part to its inheritance of regulations, precedents, and traditions from the various attempts made during war time to handle the many thousands of Negroes who came under Federal control, and in part to the humanitarian impulses of 1865, born of a belief in the capacity of the Negro for freedom and a suspicion that the Southern whites intended to keep as much of slavery as they could. The officials of the Bureau likewise were of two classes: those in control were for the most part army officers, standing as arbiters between white and black, usually just and seldom the victims of their sympathies but the mass of less responsible officials were men of inferior ability and character, either blind partisans of the Negro or corrupt and subject to purchase by the whites.
In view of the fact that the Freedmen's Bureau was considered a new institution in 1865, it is rather remarkable how closely it followed in organization, purpose, and methods the precedents set during the war by the officers of the army and the Treasury. In Virginia, General Butler, in 1861, declared escaped slaves to be "contraband" and proceeded to organize them into communities for discipline, work, food, and care. His successors in Virginia and North Carolina, and others in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, extended his plan and arranged a labor system with fixed wages, hours, and methods of work, and everywhere made use of the captured or abandoned property of the Confederates. In Tennessee and Arkansas, Chaplain John Eaton of Grant's army employed thousands in a modified free labor system; and further down in Mississippi and Louisiana Generals Grant, Butler, and Banks also put large numbers of captured slaves to work for themselves and for the Government. Everywhere, as the numbers of Negroes increased, the army commanders divided the occupied Negro regions into districts under superintendents and other officials, framed labor laws, cooperated with benevolent societies which gave schooling and medical care to the blacks, and developed systems of government for them.
The United States Treasury Department, attempting to execute the confiscation laws for the benefit of the Treasury, appears now and then as an employer of Negro labor on abandoned plantations. Either alone or in cooperation with the army and charitable associations, it even supervised Negro colonies, and sometimes it assumed practically complete control of the economic welfare of the Negro. This Department introduced in 1864 an elaborate lessee and trade system. The Negro was regarded as "the ward of the nation," but he was told impressively that "labor is a public duty and idleness and vagrancy a crime." All wanted him to work: the Treasury wanted cotton and other crops to sell; the lessees and speculators wanted to make fortunes by his labor; and the army wanted to be free from the burden of the idle blacks. In spite of all these ministrations, the Negroes suffered much from harsh treatment, neglect, and unsanitary conditions.
During 1863 and 1864, several influences were urging the establishment of a national bureau or department to take charge of matters relating to the African race. Some wished to establish on the borders of the South a paid labor system, which might later be extended over the entire region, to get more slaves out of the Confederacy into this free labor territory, and to prevent immigration of Negroes into the North, which, after the Emancipation Proclamation, was apprehensive of this danger. Others wished to relieve the army and the treasury officials of the burden of caring for the blacks and to protect the latter from the "northern harpies and bloodhounds" who had fastened upon them the lessee system.
The discussion lasted for two years. The Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, after a survey of the field in 1863, recommended a consolidation of all efforts under an organization which should perpetuate the best features of the old system. But there was much opposition to this plan in Congress. The Negroes would be exploited, objected some; the scheme gave too much power to the proposed organization, said others; another objection was urged against the employment of a horde of incompetent and unscrupulous officeholders, for "the men who go down there and become your overseers and Negro drivers will be your broken-down politicians and your dilapidated preachers, that description of men who are too lazy to work and just a little too honest to steal."
As the war drew to a close, the advocates of a policy of consolidation in Negro affairs prevailed, and on March 3, 1865, an act was approved creating in the War Department a Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This Bureau was to continue for one year after the close of the war, and it was to control all matters relating to freedmen and refugees, that is, Unionists who had been driven out of the South. Food, shelter, and clothing were to be given to the needy, and abandoned or confiscated property was to be used for or leased to freedmen. At the head of the Bureau was to be a commissioner with an assistant commissioner for each of the Southern States. These officials and other employees must take the "ironclad" oath.
It was planned that the Bureau should have a brief existence, but the institution and its wards became such important factors in politics that on July 16, 1866, after a struggle with the President, Congress passed an act over his veto amplifying the powers of the Bureau and extending it for two years longer. This continuation of the Bureau was due to many things: to a belief that former slaveholders were not to be trusted in dealing with the Negroes; to the baneful effect of the "Black Laws" upon Northern public opinion; to the struggle between the President and Congress over reconstruction; and to the foresight of radical politicians who saw in the institution an instrument for the political instruction of the blacks in the proper doctrines.