Freedmen's Bureau Act eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Students and teachers at a Freedmens Bureau school in Beaufort, South Carolina. Corbis. Students and teachers at a Freedmen's Bureau school in Beaufort, South Carolina. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis
Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedmens Bureau. Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau. Published by Gale Cengage

Enacted by U.S. Congress, approved March 3, 1865 Reprinted on Freedmen's Bureau Online (Web site)

A government agency assists the recently freed African Americans

"The Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel … for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen.…"

The end of the Civil War (1861–65) brought sudden freedom—and a new kind of hardship—to four million African Americans in the South. The war had ended slavery, but most African Americans faced the overwhelming prospect of starting over without money, the ability to read, or their own plot of farmland. Their former masters had no reason to give them shelter or food, unless they continued to work their old slave jobs. Thousands of African Americans fled the plantations (large estates on which basic crops like cotton, rice, and tobacco were grown) for the cities in search of work. In August 1865, according to Black Voices from Reconstruction, a partly literate African American man described the freed slaves in Kansas and Missouri as "all most Thread less & Shoeless without food & no home to go [to.] sevral of there Masters Run them off & as fur as I can see the hole Race will fall back if the U.S. Government dont pervid [provide] for them Some way or ruther."

During the war, Union troops provided food, supplies, and land to African Americans as they gained control of various pockets of the South. Colonel John Eaton

(1829–1906) provided food for about ten thousand poor African Americans in Tennessee and Arkansas, and leased about seven thousand acres of abandoned farmland to some of the one hundred thousand African Americans in his region, African American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) wrote in Black Reconstruction in America. General Nathaniel Banks (1816–1894) compiled records on ninety thousand African Americans in Louisiana, handled complaints, collected taxes, and created a system of free schools for ex-slaves, Du Bois wrote. Northern groups called "Freedmen's Aid Societies" pitched in by sending money, clothing, books, and teachers to the South.

Some of those groups sent petitions to President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) urging him to create a plan, and perhaps an agency, to help African Americans adjust to their new lives. Often they suggested dividing the Confederate-owned plantations into smaller tracts, then leasing the land to former slaves. After a couple of years, African Americans could raise enough money to buy the land. The freed African Americans, or freedmen, would have the land needed to make their own living, and the government would raise money to administer the transitional programs for African Americans.

That idea became the heart of the "Freedmen's Bureau Bill," a measure passed by Congress in March 1865. The act created a new agency in the War Department (now known as the Department of Defense) to handle "all abandoned lands" and "all subjects relating to [white] refugees and freedmen." That included the ability to provide food, clothing, fuel, and even "temporary shelter" to "destitute [needy] and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children." The agency would also help African Americans negotiate fair contracts with their new employers (often their former masters), and it would handle disputes over wages and working conditions. As noted in Black Voices from Reconstruction, "Never before had a branch of the U.S. government taken on such a social and humanitarian function."

Congress hoped the leasing and sale of land to African Americans would provide the money for the agency's relief efforts. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), the man who inherited the White House after Lincoln's assassination, had other ideas.

Things to remember while reading the Freedmen's Bureau Act:

  • The Civil War freed four million slaves, but many of them had no money, little education, and no land from which to make a living on their own. As soon as they left their former masters, they lost their source of food and shelter.
  • As they took control of some parts of the South, Union troops provided food, supplies, and land to African Americans in the area. In some cases, they started schools and settled disputes involving African Americans, functions that would later be handled by the Freedmen's Bureau.
  • Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau in March 1865, a month before the war ended, to provide emergency food and shelter to freed slaves. The bureau would lease, and eventually sell, former Confederate land to African Americans. That would give African Americans a way to make their own living, and the money raised from selling the land would pay for running the bureau.

An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby established in the War Department, to continue during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter, a bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands, to which shall be committed, as hereinafter provided, the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel states, or from any district of country within the territory embraced in the operations of the army, under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the head of the bureau and approved by the President. The said bureau shall be under the management and control of a commissioner to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, whose compensation shall be three thousand dollars per annum, and such number of clerks as may be assigned to him by the Secretary of War, not exceeding one chief clerk, two of the fourth class, two of the third class, and five of the first class. And the commissioner and all persons appointed under this act, shall, before entering upon their duties, take the oath of office prescribed in an act entitled "An act to prescribe an oath of office, and for other purposes," approved July second, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and the commissioner and the chief clerk shall, before entering upon their duties, give bonds to the treasurer of the United States, the former in the sum of fifty thousand dollars, and the latter in the sum of ten thousand dollars, conditioned for the faithful discharge of their duties respectively, with securities to be approved as sufficient by the Attorney-General, which bonds shall be filed in the office of the first comptroller of the treasury, to be by him put in suit for the benefit of any injured party upon any breach of the conditions thereof.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children, under such rules and regulations as he may direct.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the President may, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoint an assistant commissioner for each of the states declared to be in insurrection, not exceeding ten in number, who shall, under the direction of the commissioner, aid in the execution of the provisions of this act; and he shall give a bond to the Treasurer of the United States, in the sum of twenty thousand dollars, in the form and manner prescribed in the first section of this act. Each of said commissioners shall receive an annual salary of two thousand five hundred dollars in full compensation for all his services. And any military officer may be detailed and assigned to duty under this act without increase of pay or allowances. The commissioner shall, before the commencement of each regular session of congress, make full report of his proceedings with exhibits of the state of his accounts to the President, who shall communicate the same to congress, and shall also make special reports whenever required to do so by the President or either house of congress; and the assistant commissioners shall make quarterly reports of their proceedings to the commissioner, and also such other special reports as from time to time may be required.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the commissioner, under the direction of the President, shall have authority to set apart, for the use of loyal refugees and freedmen, such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise, and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid, there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land, and the person to whom it was so assigned shall be protected in the use and enjoyment of the land for the term of three years at an annual rent not exceeding six per centum upon the value of such land, as it was appraised by the state authorities in the year eighteen hundred and sixty, for the purpose of taxation, and in case no such appraisal can be found, then the rental shall be based upon the estimated value of the land in said year, to be ascertained

Freed slaves leaving the South. The Library of Congress. Freed slaves leaving the South. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress
in such manner as the commissioner may by regulation prescribe. At the end of said term, or at any time during said term, the occupants of any parcels so assigned may purchase the land and receive such title thereto as the United States can convey, upon paying therefor the value of the land, as ascertained and fixed for the purpose of determining the annual rent aforesaid.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That all acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed.

A PPROVED, March 3, 1865.

What happened next …

Major General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909), a Union officer from Maine who fought in Gettysburg and joined in the famed march to the sea led by General William T. Sherman (1820–1891), was appointed head of the Freedmen's Bureau. His agents, mostly former soldiers, distributed food, supplies, and land. From 1865 to 1869, the agents distributed about twenty-one million rations worth more than four million dollars to black and white refugees alike, according to Black Reconstruction in America. The agents also drafted hundreds of thousands of contracts between black workers and white employers, setting the hours, wages, and working conditions. When a dispute arose between two African Americans, or an African American and a white, the Freedmen's Bureau usually intervened.

The promise of land for African Americans quickly melted away, however. President Johnson announced that ex-Confederates who took a loyalty oath and received a pardon could reclaim the land they owned before the war. The land that had been set aside for African Americans—some 800,000 acres under the Freedmen's Bureau—was returned to whites. Once again landless, many African Americans returned to plantations as employees who had few more rights than slaves. Under their contracts through the Freedmen's Bureau, African Americans had to be paid and could not be beaten, but they still worked from dawn-to-dusk, six days a week, with only a handful of holidays. Many could not leave the plantation or bring a guest home without their employer's permission.

Some Freedmen's Bureau agents worked hard to help African Americans. For example, when a white farmer fired his African American workers to avoid paying them for the season, the bureau would force the farmer to pay what he owed. Oscar J. Dunn (1820–1871), African American lieutenant governor of Louisiana, quoted in Black Voices from Reconstruction, told Congress, "The Freedmen's Bureau is a great eyesore to the planters; they do not like it at all."

But other agents used their position to fill their own pockets or further their own goals. Some took the meats and other supplies set aside for African Americans and sold them for profit instead. Others grew sympathetic with the white plantation owners who invited them to dinner and showered them with gifts. Such agents allowed their judgment to be clouded by "the aristocratic Rebel's flattering attentions and the smiles of his fair daughters," Northern journalist John Townsend Trowbridge wrote in his 1866 book, The South: A Tour of Its Battle-fields and Ruined Cities. Sidney Andrews, author of the 1866 book The South Since the War, was even less impressed with the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner he met in South Carolina:

He doesn't really intend to outrage the rights of the negroes, but he has very little idea that they have any rights except such as the planters choose to give them. His position, of course, is a difficult one; and he brings to it a head more or less muddled with liquor, a rough and coarse [crude] manner, a dictatorial [bossy] and impatient temper, a most remarkable ability for cursing, and a hearty contempt for [African Americans].

The bureau was unpopular among many whites, in the North and South alike. Southerners saw the bureau as another arm of the Union occupation. Many resented the bureau's efforts to help African Americans, particularly as the agency set up schools to educate African Americans—a step toward racial equality (see box). Teachers and bureau agents were treated as outcasts—or worse, they were attacked. Three bureau agents in Texas were killed.

Some Northerners resented the Freedmen's Bureau as well. They supported ending slavery. But they thought the bureau was simply providing handouts to African Americans instead of expecting them to work. And because the bureau could not be funded through the sale of abandoned Confederate lands—which had been reclaimed by their pre-war owners—people had to pay higher taxes on everyday items to fund the agency. A flier circulated in Pennsylvania, on file at the Library of Congress, described how Congress set aside $7 million in 1866 for the Freedmen's Bureau, a cost of $1.50 per Pennsylvania voter. The flier read: "You are MADE TO PAY to keep up the FREEDMAN'S BUREAU, by your Coffee, Tea and Sugar … and your children must go barefooted, and your wife have fewer dresses, so that THE NEGRO MAY BE KEPT IN HIS IDLENESS."

Congress created the bureau to last for a year after the Civil War, but to many members, it became clear the agency needed more time and broader powers. For one thing, African Americans were not treated equally in courts: They could not sit on juries, and they could only be witnesses in cases involving African Americans. U.S. senator Lyman Trumbull (1813–1896) of Illinois drafted a bill in 1866 extending the bureau's life and allowing agents to take over court cases in which African Americans were being treated unfairly. The president vetoed the bill (although Congress eventually overturned Johnson's veto), arguing African Americans could fare just fine without such an agency:

His [the African American man's] condition is not so exposed [vulnerable] as may at first be imagined. He is in a portion of the country where his labor cannot well be spared. Competition for his services from planters, from those who are constructing or repairing railroads, and from capitalists [investors] in his vicinage [area] or from other states will enable him to command almost his own terms. He also possesses a perfect right to change his place of abode [home], and if, therefore, he does not find in one community or state a mode of life suited to his desires or proper remuneration [payment] for his labor, he can move to another where that labor is more esteemed [valued] and better rewarded.

Political support for the Freedmen's Bureau faded within a couple of years after the war. Without lands to lease and sell to ex-slaves, the bureau was left without one of its main functions. Congress began decreasing the bureau's funding in 1868, and in June 1872, the agency was officially disbanded.

Did you know …

  • Except in a few regions, the South did not have a public school system before the Civil War. The Freedmen's Bureau helped create more than forty-two hundred schools for ex-slaves, and the Southern states included plans for public school systems in their new state constitutions written after the war.
  • Howard University, a college founded in 1866 in Washington, D.C., for African American students, was named for Oliver O. Howard, the first and only director of the Freedmen's Bureau. The college also received funding from the Freedmen's Bureau.
  • At the same time Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act, it created the Freedman's Savings Bank so that ex-slaves could save their earnings. As noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, "African Americans by the thousands came to the bank with tiny deposits—the majority of accounts were under fifty dollars and some amounted only to a few pennies." But the people who managed the bank made some poor investments, and the bank closed in 1874 with only $31,000 to repay its 61,000 account holders, Foner wrote.

Consider the following …

  • Why did Congress create the Freedmen's Bureau?
  • How was the Freedmen's Bureau supposed to provide land to ex-slaves? Why didn't this happen?
  • Why was the bureau unpopular with some people in the North and South alike?

For More Information

Andrews, Sidney. The South Since the War. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Also available at Making of America Books.;idno=AAW... (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Bergeron, Paul H., ed. "Freedmen's Bureau Veto Message." The Papers of Andrew Johnson, vol. 10. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Available online at Instructional Technology Workshop at the University of the South. (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1935. Multiple reprints.

"Economise and Pay Your Debt! Restore the South and Increase Your Resources." 1866. Library of Congress: American Memory. (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.

"The Freedmen's Bureau Act: Chapter XC: An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees." University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities. (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Freedmen's Bureau Online. (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. The South: A Tour of Its Battle-fields and Ruined Cities. Hartford, CT: L. Stebbins, 1866. Also available at Making of America Books.;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 16, 2004).

Wallace, John. Carpet-Bag Rule in Florida. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964 [a facsimile reproduction of the 1888 edition].