Freedmen’s Bureau – Bringing Freedpeople to Full Citizenship
By Donna K. Keesling
On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the United States and expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending four years of war within the country. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the country, was ratified on December 18, 1965. More than four million formerly enslaved people now needed to find a way to live as free people. They needed basic necessities such as shelter, food, and clothing – and they needed education and jobs. What did the United States government do to help these people transition to a world of freedom?
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established by Congress on March 3, 1865 to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom for formerly enslaved people. According to author Mary Farmer-Kaiser, “the bureau stood at the center of Reconstruction and played a critical role in shaping how more than four million men, women, and children defined and enjoyed their lives and labors as freedpeople.”
Massachusetts Representative T. D. Eliot first proposed a bill to establish a bureau of emancipation within the Department of War in 1863. This bureau would provide protection and support to formerly enslaved people. After debate in the Senate as to which executive department should run the bureau and a revised bill, the legislation was passed and signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865.
The Act establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau limited the bureau’s operation to only one year after the end of the Civil War. Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull introduced a bill to extend the provisions of the Act in January of 1866. The bill was approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and sent to President Andrew Johnson in February. Johnson vetoed the bill. In general, Johnson “resisted all congressionally driven reconstruction programs” and thought that the bureau “infringed on states’ rights.” A more moderate bill was proposed in May of 1866. Johnson also vetoed this bill, but the Senate and House were able to override the veto extending the bureau’s work for an additional two years.
Major General Oliver Otis Howard was appointed as Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in May of 1865 by President Andrew Johnson. Howard served in this capacity until the Bureau was disbanded. The headquarters of the Bureau was established in Washington, D.C. Field offices were set up in major cities in the former Confederate states, border states (Maryland, Kentucky, and West Virginia), and in Washington, D.C., and were staffed by assistant commissioners, sub-assistant commissioners, and agents. Many of the assistant commissioners were men who had served in the army with Howard.
The Civil War had destroyed many Southern cities and towns, and the plantation-based economy. Formerly enslaved people, and many whites, were left dislocated from their homes, facing starvation, and owning only the clothes they wore. The Freedmen’s Bureau was tasked with providing assistance to the formerly enslaved people and impoverished whites in the Southern States and the District of Columbia.
The activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau included: assisting in uniting formerly enslaved families that had been separated during slavery or as a result of war, supervising labor agreements between enslaved people and their former masters, monitoring state and local officials’ treatment of freedpeople, establishing informal tribunals to settle disputes between people, instituting clinics and hospitals for freedpeople, aiding efforts to provide education to freedpeople, and temporarily providing provisions, clothing, and fuel to refugees and freedpeople.
Because the Freedmen’s Bureau had limited money and staff to devote to building schools, it worked with benevolent organizations such as the American Missionary Society and the American Freedmen’s Union Commission to place Northern teachers in schools for freedpeople in the Southern and border states. These benevolent organizations recruited and paid the teachers, and then the Freedmen’s Bureau assigned the teachers to schools and provided them with transportation. The local community typically provided a building for the school, and room and board for the teacher. The Freedmen’s Bureau ended its support for schools in 1870.
On Roanoke Island in North Carolina, the Bureau established the Freedmen’s Colony to train and educate formerly enslaved people in May of 1863. The first community of its kind in North Carolina, the Colony was home to 3,500 men, women, and children. For the first time in their lives, residents of the Freedmen’s Colony had access to farmland, schools to obtain higher education, places of worship, and opportunities to develop trades and skills necessary to earn a living. The Colony was disbanded in 1867.
In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau took over administration of the Freedmen’s Village in Arlington, Virginia. To house people who were freed when Congress passed legislation freeing all enslaved people in the District of Columbia in April 1862, the Freedmen’s Village was built on the Arlington estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and was intended to be a model community for freedpeople. The Freedmen’s Bureau was charged with enforcing strict policies and collecting rent from the tenants. The Freedmen’s Village became a semi-permanent settlement for thousands of residents and finally closed in 1900.
In July 1868, Congress voted to again extend the Freedmen’s Bureau. A few weeks later decided to limit the Bureau’s functions to processing claims and supporting education. When Congress failed to approve renewal legislation for the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872, it was dismantled. An article on the National Archives website states that “funding limitations and deeply held racist attitudes forced the Bureau to close in 1872.”
Following the War Department’s war-inspired record-keeping system, the Freedmen’s Bureau kept detailed handwritten records including letters, labor contracts, lists of food rations issued, indentures of apprenticeship, marriage and hospital registers, and census lists. The original Freedmen’s Bureau records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration. A brochure about the records describes the Bureau’s work as follows: “Emancipation left freed men, women, and children in desperate need of relief, medicine, housing, family, education, employment, and protection. The Freedmen’s Bureau’s field office records hold stories of their struggle and the unprecedented efforts to secure those needs.” The Freedmen’s Bureau Search Portal (https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/freedmens-bureau), a portal provided by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, includes indexed data created by FamilySearch volunteers and transcribed data created by Smithsonian volunteers. Transcription is ongoing via the Smithsonian Transcription Center (https://transcription.si.edu/) and is added to the Freedmen’s Bureau Search Portal as transcriptions are updated or completed.
 “The Emancipation Proclamation,” National Archives, accessed April 3, 2023, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation.
 Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Freedwomen and the Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, & Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 1.
 “Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866,” United States Senate, accessed April 7, 2023, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/FreedmensBureau.htm.
 Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records (National Archives Trust Fund Board, n.d.), 2.
 Farmer-Kaiser, 2.
 “African Americans and Education During Reconstruction: The Tolson’s Chapel Schools,” National Park Service, last updated June 22, 2021, accessed April 13, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/african-americans-and-education-during-reconstruction-the-tolson-s-chapel-schools.htm.
 “Honoring the 154th Anniversary of the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony,” Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, last updated December 5, 2018, accessed April 13, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/fora/learn/news/17_018.htm.
 “Freedmen’s Village,” Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, last updated July 23, 2021, accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/emancipation.htm.
 “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” National Archives Educator Resources, accessed April 7, 2023, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/freedmen.
 “The Freedmen’s Bureau of Records,” National Museum of African American History & Culture, accessed April 7, 2023, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/freedmens-bureau-records.
 Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records (National Archives Trust Fund Board, n.d.), 1.