1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Freedmen's Bureau

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FREEDMEN’S BUREAU (officially the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands), a bureau created in the United States war department by an act of Congress, 3rd of March 1865, to last one year, but continued until 1872 by later acts passed over the president’s veto. Its establishment was due partly to the fear entertained by the North that the Southerners if left to deal with the blacks would attempt to re-establish some form of slavery, partly to the necessity for extending relief to needy negroes and whites in the lately conquered South, and partly to the need of creating some commission or bureau to take charge of lands confiscated in the South. During the Civil War a million negroes fell into the hands of the Federals and had to be cared for. Able-bodied blacks were enlisted in the army, and the women, children and old men were settled in large camps on confiscated Southern property, where they were cared for alternately by the war department and by the treasury department until the organization of the Freedmen’s Bureau. At the head of the bureau was a commissioner, General O. O. Howard, and under him in each Southern state was an assistant commissioner with a corps of local superintendents, agents and inspectors. The officials had the broadest possible authority in all matters that concerned the blacks. The work of the bureau may be classified as follows: (1) distributing rations and medical supplies among the blacks; (2) establishing schools for them and aiding benevolent societies to establish schools and churches; (3) regulating labour and contracts; (4) taking charge of confiscated lands; and (5) administering justice in cases in which blacks were concerned. For several years the ex-slaves were under the almost absolute control of the bureau. Whether this control had a good or bad effect is still disputed, the Southern whites and many Northerners holding that the results of the bureau’s work were distinctly bad, while others hold that much good resulted from its work. There is now no doubt, however, that while most of the higher officials of the bureau were good men, the subordinate agents were generally without character or judgment and that their interference between the races caused permanent discord. Much necessary relief work was done, but demoralization was also caused by it, and later the institution was used by its officials as a means of securing negro votes. In educating the blacks the bureau made some progress, but the instruction imparted by the missionary teachers resulted in giving the ex-slaves notions of liberty and racial equality that led to much trouble, finally resulting in the hostility of the whites to negro education. The secession of the blacks from the white churches was aided and encouraged by the bureau. The whole field of labour and contracts was covered by minute regulations, which, good in theory, were absurd in practice, and which failed altogether, but not until labour had been disorganized for several years. The administration of justice by the bureau agents amounted simply to a ceaseless persecution of the whites who had dealings with the blacks, and bloody conflicts sometimes resulted. The law creating the bureau provided for the division of the confiscated property among the negroes, and though carried out only in parts of South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, it caused the negroes to believe that they were to be cared for at the expense of their former masters. This belief made them subject to swindling schemes perpetrated by certain bureau agents and others who promised to secure lands for them. When negro suffrage was imposed by Congress upon the Southern States, the bureau aided the Union League (q.v.) in organizing the blacks into a political party opposed to the whites. A large majority of the bureau officials secured office through their control of the blacks. The failure of the bureau system and its discontinuance in the midst of reconstruction without harm to the blacks, and the intense hostility of the Southern whites to the institution caused by the irritating conduct of bureau officials, are indications that the institution was not well conceived nor wisely administered.

See P. S. Pierce, The Freedmen’s Bureau (Iowa City, 1904); Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction (Washington, 1866); W. L. Fleming (ed.), Documents relating to Reconstruction (Cleveland, O., 1906); W. L. Fleming, Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (New York, 1905); and James W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York, 1901).  (W. L. F.)