By the spring of 1865, there was little doubt about the eventual outcome of the American Civil War. Struggling with how to help millions of liberated slaves adapt to their newly earned freedom Congress approved “An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees” on March 3, 1865. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln on the same day, the bill established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The original Freedmen’s Bureau was “established in the War Department, to continue during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter.” The legislation granted the agency “supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel states.”
Commissioner Oliver O. Howard
To accomplish the Bureau’s goals, Congress authorized the President to appoint a commissioner to manage the agency. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson selected Major General Oliver O. Howard as the Bureau’s first (and only) commissioner. Under Howard’s leadership, the Bureau initially focused its efforts on redistributing captured and abandoned lands in the South to freedmen. President Johnson soon undermined redistribution aims, however, when he began issuing pardons to white Southern landowners, which entitled them to reclaim confiscated land.
As the one-year deadline for the termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau approached, Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull proposed legislation to extend the life and the scope of the agency. Trumbull’s measure did not set an expiration date for the renewed Bureau. Instead, he proposed that it exist “until otherwise provided by law.” The first Freedmen’s Bureau Act stipulated that “the Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful . . . .” In its final form, Trumbull’s proposal stated that “the Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, fuel, and other supplies, including medical stores and transportation, and afford such aid, medical or otherwise, as he may deem needful . . . .” The final bill also stipulated, “That the Commissioner shall . . . provide or cause to be erected suitable buildings for asylums and schools.”
President Johnson’s Objections
After several weeks of debate in both houses, Congress passed the Second Freedmen’s Bureau Act, formally titled “AN ACT to amend an act entitled ‘An act to establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees,’ and for other purposes,” on February 6, 1866. On February 19, President Johnson vetoed the legislation. In his veto message, Johnson objected to the act for a variety of reasons, including:
- the act was unnecessary because the original bill had not yet expired,
- the legislation was an unwarranted and unconstitutional extension of war powers in peacetime,
- the military tribunals the act established were arbitrary and unconstitutional,
- the Constitution never contemplated a system of support for the poor,
- the Bureau’s cost under the new bill was excessive, and
- the unconstitutionality of legislation affecting Southern states enacted while those states were not represented in Congress.
Congress responded by passing a slightly different version of the bill over the President’s veto on July 16, 1866.
Commissioner Howard tackled his duties with great enthusiasm, but over the course of the Bureau’s existence, it was understaffed and underfunded. Still, the Bureau provided a plethora of services to freedmen and some poor whites in the South. With varying levels of success, the Freedmen’s Bureau:
- settled freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands,
- provided food and clothing to displaced and unemployed people in need,
- operated hospitals and provided medical care,
- established refugee camps,
- helped locate family members,
- provided transportation to refugees attempting to reunite with their families,
- helped freedmen legalize marriages,
- provided transportation to refugees attempting to move to other parts of the country,
- oversaw labor negotiations and contracts,
- helped black soldiers, sailors, and their heirs collect bounty claims, pensions, and back pay,
- provided legal services in local and national courts, and
- acquired land and assisted benevolent societies to establish schools for freedmen in the South.
It was in the last category on this list that the Freedmen’s Bureau had, perhaps, its most profound effect. Prior to the Civil War, no Southern state had a system of universal, state-supported public education, and slaves were not educated at all. Working with missionary and aid societies, the Bureau bought land and provided teachers to educate former slaves. By 1870, over 90,000 freedmen were enrolled in over 1,000 public schools in the South. Many of them studied from a textbook published by the Bureau. Overall, the Bureau spent five million dollars in its quest to empower former slaves through education.
Closing Down Operations
As the 1868 elections approached, Congress began to lose enthusiasm for an expensive initiative unpopular with some Northern voters. On July 6, 1868, Congress approved a bill entitled “An Act to continue the Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, and for other Purposes.” Not reflective of its title, the measure actually mandated an end to the Bureau’s activities (other than those related to schools and education) after a period of one year in all states that Congress considered reconstructed. Thus, by 1869, the Freedmen’s Bureau began closing down operations.
In March 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant temporarily reassigned General Howard as Special Indian Commissioner to the hostile Apaches of New Mexico and Arizona. During Howard’s absence, on June 10, 1872, Congress declared “That the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands shall be discontinued . . .” effective June 30, 1872 (with the exception of the payment of wartime claims of black soldiers and sailors, and the administration of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC). Howard stayed on as commissioner until July 1874, when the army placed him in command of the Department of Columbia.
Over the brief course of its existence, the Freedmen’s Bureau had a powerful impact on Reconstruction. Defenders praise the aid that the Bureau provided to millions of uneducated, destitute, and displaced people throughout the South in their time of need following the Civil War. Critics point to corrupt agents, “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” who they claim used the system to benefit themselves and the Republican Party at the expense of Southern whites and Democrats.
Beyond its effect on Reconstruction, however, the Freedmen’s Bureau had a more profound impact on American life. The Freedmen’s Bureau Acts represented a shift in the traditional relationship between the federal government, the separate states, and United States citizens. The Freedmen’s Bureau became emblematic of the federal government’s authority to intervene in the relationships between individual states and their citizens, when necessary, to advance the personal welfare of Americans.