At Abraham Lincoln's instigation, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, informally known as the Freedmen's Bureau, on March 3, 1865. This was just two months before Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia, the event which effectively ended the Civil War. The bureau's purpose was to assist millions of recently emancipated blacks and poor whites to recover from the war by providing them with food, clothing, and housing, as well as seeing to their medical, educational, and legal needs.
Although the bureau was hindered by a lack of funds and personnel, it managed to feed millions of impoverished African Americans and whites, construct hospitals, and provide medical care. It also helped blacks locate missing relatives, legalize their marriages, learn to read and write, and negotiate labor contracts with plantation owners. The Freedmen's bureau played an integral part in establishing many schools for African Americans, including institutions of higher learning such as Howard University, Hampton University, and Fisk University.
The bureau was originally meant to last for only one year after the close of the war, but Congress renewed its tenure in 1866 despite President Andrew Johnson's attempted veto. Due to ongoing controversies over the bureau's effectiveness, expense, interference with states' rights, and other issues, the Freedmen's Bureau was dismantled in 1872.