Freedmen’s Bureau: The Government Tries To Take An Active Role

In 1865, the fighting on Civil War battlefields ended, but the questions were far from over. And new questions had been created during the war. One of the most exciting and most explosive questions of the era was: what did freedom look like and how would full freedom be attained by/for the former slaves?

Attempting to answer that question and solve innumerable problems, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established – originally to provide temporary aid and later re-imagined to a role that this agency never had the power successfully fill. Though the Bureau had good intentions, mixed signals from the government, lack of power/manpower, and an over-arching racism problem throughout the country limited its effectiveness.

Last August a blog reader emailed me and asked me to write specifically about the Freedman’s Bureau and its role in the Reconstruction Era. Thanks for pushing me to dig deeper into this interesting part of the era; hopefully, it will be insightful to you as well.

Freedmen’s Aid Movement

During the Civil War years, the Freedmen’s Aid Movement began, helping to provide food, clothing, medical care, and educational opportunities to newly freed slaves who came to Union lines or were in occupied Union territory. The movement was privately (not governmentally) organized and was well-supported by abolitionist activist throughout the north.

A rather famous social experiment took place on the islands off Port Royal, Louisiana, and some have argued that it set the stage for Reconstruction. However, experiences like these where whites helped establish schools and made suggestions/provided means for free settlements to survive were removed from hostile former owners and unfriendly whites, giving a false idea of how smoothly freedom and transition could happen.

Freed slaves and Union soldiers

In March 1865 – before the Confederate surrenders – the Freedmen’s Bureau was officially established by congress, with provision that it would be a temporary agency for one year to meet an immediate need. Former Union General Oliver O. Howard – known for his abolitionist support and Christian values – was appointed to oversee the Bureau.

“Our Freedom”

One of the challenges the Bureau faced was a clashing idea of freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom, the 13th Amendment guaranteed it, but what did freedom mean to these former slaves?

The idea and expression of freedom took a variety of forms and included many things that were not allowed or not fully allowed during slavery years:

  • Self-employment and self-reliance – often expressed in the desire for land to cultivate food for consumption and sale
  • Formalizing education
  • Religious organizations and churches
  • Families reunited or finally established
  • Simply doing whatever, whenever, without anybody’s orders

Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond – School Classes

Many freedmen successfully organized themselves into communities, worked tireless, and transitioned to freedom in an orderly and successful way, founding schools, orphanages, and soup kitchens without aid. Others struggled to find a place and steady work.

The celebration of freedom and “personal expression” was reflected in dress, mannerisms, and achievements. Unfortunately, these expressions of freedom tended to irritate and anger white Southerners, and many had little patience and little praise. And it’s further unfortunate, that some history books only focus on less-than-positive examples of freedmen from this era. When really, there are some fine examples of celebrations and transitions to self-responsible freedom that should be celebrated!

“Their Idea Of Freedom”

While freedmen explored and defined their freedom in truly orderly or truly disorderly ways, white American looked on…with their own ideas of “freedom” for blacks. White Southerners – on the whole – weren’t happy with the societal changes and tried to find ways to “keep them in their place” with laws and endless litigation that looked very much like original slavery.

Contributing to this problem, white Northerners had the idea that former slaves would simply stay on their plantations and do the agricultural work…for pay, of course. When land division and loans didn’t work out (see below), the process of “labor contracts” basically reduced the options and opportunities for many freedmen.

With two ideas of freedom – one based in individualism, the other based in a metamorphosis of slavery – problems were on the way. And where did the Freedmen’s Bureau fit into the picture?

The Successes & Failures Of The Freedmen’s Bureau

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established to meet immediate needs, and it came into being based on the Radical Republican idea that the government must do something to help the freedmen. Since the Civil War had given the army and government a moral purpose – free the slaves – it seemed logical to some to continue that social purpose.

Aside from providing food, clothing, and relative safety, for the freedmen, the Bureau and government came up with the idea of dividing Southern confiscated lands into 40 acres for rental and eventual sale to the former slaves. Initially, it seemed like a good idea – “giving” land and opportunity, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough land to go around and not enough organization to make it really happen. Eventually this plan – commonly called “forty acres and a mule” fell by the wayside.

An 1866 images of the Freedmen’s Bureau. May hint at corrupted agents doing little to help.

By January 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau was about to end, and Congress prepared the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill (in conjunction with the Civil Rights Bill), hoping to extend and expand the agency. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress managed to salvage it and the bureau continued. Adding to the escalating conflict between the president and Congress, Johnson didn’t favor the expansion of aid for the freedmen, arguing that the government didn’t have the money to fund the program and it was an unprecedented step hardly allowed the the Constitution. (Andrew Johnson leaned strict Constitutionalist and stuck to his beliefs, without really acknowledging the possibility for changes.)

When “forty acres and a mule” fell through, the Freedmen’s Bureau tried to help the freedmen seek contract jobs on the former plantations, trying to help them stay safe in an increasingly hostile atmosphere, and provided continuing aid – particularly in the city communities. The bureau and agents were often accused of influencing inexperienced voters, adding a political aspect – intentionally or unintentionally – to the difficulties.

Was the Freedman Bureau successful? (What is success?) That’s challenging to define absolutely since the bureau and its leadership wasn’t even completely clear or unified on objectives and goals. However, it did provide aid some freedmen who needed assistance and had varying successes in different regions. It becomes a story of states, regions, and even individuals. Education and schools probably rank highest among the successes!

The Bureau’s success were hard-won. President Johnson regularly undermined the agency by removing leaders and agents. Leadership couldn’t agree on the type and quantity of aid that should be available. With only 900 agents at its peak time, the Bureau often had too limited manpower and resources; some of the agents were genuine, others were corrupt and simply using the position for their own purposes.

In the end, the Freedmen’s Bureau was dissolved in the summer of 1872, after a lot of pressure from the white South. Understandably, the dissolution created frustration, need, and additional problems for those freedmen who used the bureau’s aid.

Concluding Thoughts

“Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” Frederick Douglass wrote. And these historical facts barely scratch the surface of the Freedmen’s Bureau history and the history of new freedom.

The Freedmen’s Bureau is the first example of social welfare and active advocacy in labor issues by the U.S. government. Looking at individual examples, it probably relieved much suffering and helped some freedmen transition successfully to freedom and self-reliance. However, for other individual’s, the bureau’s aid fostered a leaning toward dependence which created trouble and needs when the bureau ended. The bureau work for advocacy and justice was credible, and at it’s humanitarian core, it had some successes.

Having accepted a moral cause during the Civil War, some leaders felt the government must continue to take an active role in social welfare. And there lies a debate of government programs and principles that lasts to modern times.

As I review my notes, I have my opinions and many questions. For example, I wonder what could have happened if private organizations – like the huge U.S. Sanitary Commission – had taken on the role of providing temporary aid for the freedmen, rather than the government taking the role? Thinking farther though, I’m not sure that would have been “possible” in this era of American history – the North was very racist too. Personally, I think the Freedmen’s Bureau had good intentions and I don’t fault them for that; though the corruption and bureaucracy that didn’t get help or things done in a timely manner is frustrating to read about. However, they met immediate needs in a social and humanitarian way, and that is exemplary. Furthermore, one of the tragedies about the Freedmen’s Bureau is that it was ended at the insistence of the South, at the insistence of racism.

Delving into this history uncovers more questions, more complexity, more difficulties, more struggles – then and now. In many ways, what we conclude about the Reconstruction Era influences our beliefs and values in the modern era.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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