Freedmen's Bureau

The agency was controversial yet essential

Engraved portrait of General Oliver Otis Howard

Kean Collection / Getty Images

The Freedmen's Bureau was created by the U.S. Congress near the end of the Civil War as an agency to deal with the enormous humanitarian crisis brought about by the war.

Throughout the South, where most of the fighting had taken place, cities and towns were devastated. The economic system was virtually nonexistent, railroads had been destroyed, and farms had been neglected or destroyed.

And 4 million recently freed enslaved people were faced with new realities of life.

On March 3, 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, its original charter was for one year, though it was reorganized within the war department in July 1866.

The Goals of the Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau was envisioned as an agency wielding enormous power over the South. An editorial in The New York Times published on February 9, 1865, when the original bill for the creation of the bureau was being introduced in Congress, said the proposed agency would be:

"... a separate department, responsible alone to the President, and supported by military power from him, to take charge of the abandoned and forfeited lands of the rebels, settle them with freedmen, guard the interests of these latter, aid in adjusting wages, in enforcing contracts, and in protecting these unfortunate people from injustice, and securing them their liberty."

The task before such an agency would be immense. The 4 million newly freed Black people in the South were mostly uneducated and illiterate (as a result of laws regulating enslavement), and a major focus of the Freedmen's Bureau would be setting up schools to educate formerly enslaved people.

An emergency system of feeding the population was also an immediate problem, and food rations would be distributed to the starving. It has been estimated that the Freedmen's Bureau distributed 21 million food rations, with 5 million being given to White southerners.

The program of redistributing land, which was an original goal for the Freedmen's Bureau was thwarted by presidential orders. The promise of Forty Acres and a Mule, which many freedmen believed they would receive from the U.S. government, went unfulfilled.

General Oliver Otis Howard Was Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau

The man chose to head the Freemen's Bureau, Union General Oliver Otis Howard, was a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine as well as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Howard had served throughout the Civil War, and lost his right arm in combat at the Battle of Fair Oaks, in Virginia, in 1862.

While serving under Gen. Sherman during the famous March to the Sea in late 1864, Gen. Howard witnessed the many thousands of formerly enslaved people who followed Sherman's troops on the advance through Georgia. Knowing of his concern for the freed enslaved people, President Lincoln had chosen him to be the first commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau (though Lincoln was assassinated before the job was officially offered).

General Howard, who was 34 years old when he accepted the position at the Freedmen's Bureau, got to work in the summer of 1865. He quickly organized the Freedmen's Bureau into geographical divisions to oversee the various states. A U.S. Army officer of high rank was usually placed in charge of each division, and Howard was able to request personnel from the Army as needed.

In that respect, the Freedmen's Bureau was a powerful entity, as its actions could be enforced by the U.S. Army, which still had a considerable presence in the South.

The Freedmen's Bureau Was Essentially the Government in the Defeated Confederacy

When the Freedmen's Bureau began operations, Howard and his officers had to essentially set up a new government in the states that had made up the Confederacy. At the time, there were no courts and virtually no law.

With the backing of the U.S. Army, the Freedmen's Bureau was generally successful in establishing order. However, in the late 1860s there were eruptions of lawlessness, with organized gangs, including the Ku Klux Klan, attacking Black and White people who were affiliated with the Freedmen's Bureau. In Gen. Howard's autobiography, which he published in 1908, he devoted a chapter to the struggle against the Ku Klux Klan.

Land Redistribution Did Not Happen as Intended

One area in which the Freedmen's Bureau did not live up to its mandate was in the area of distributing land to formerly enslaved people. Despite the rumors that families of freedmen would receive 40 acres of land to farm, the lands that would have been distributed were instead returned to those who had owned the land before the Civil War by order of President Andrew Johnson.

In Gen. Howard's autobiography he described how he personally attended a meeting in Georgia in late 1865 at which he had to inform formerly enslaved people who had been settled onto farms that the land was being taken away from them. The failure to set up formerly enslaved people on their own farms condemned many of them to lives as impoverished sharecroppers.

The Educational Programs of the Freedmen's Bureau Were a Success

A major focus of the Freedmen's Bureau was the education of formerly enslaved people, and in that area, it was generally considered a success. As many enslaved people had been forbidden to learn to read and write, there was a widespread need for literacy education.

A number of charitable organizations set up schools, and the Freedmen's Bureau even arranged for textbooks to be published. Despite incidents in which teachers were attacked and schools burned in the South, hundreds of schools were opened in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

General Howard had a great interest in education, and in the late 1860s, he helped to found Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black college that was named in his honor.

Legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau

Most of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau ended in 1869, except for its educational work, which continued until 1872.

During its existence, the Freedmen's Bureau was criticized for being an enforcement arm of the Radical Republicans in Congress. Virulent critics in the South condemned it constantly. And employees of the Freedmen's Bureau were at times physically attacked and even murdered.

Despite the criticism, the work the Freedmen's Bureau accomplished, especially in its educational endeavors, was necessary, especially considering the dire situation of the South at the end of the war.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Freedmen's Bureau." ThoughtCo, Jan. 11, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 11). Freedmen's Bureau. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Freedmen's Bureau." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).