[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1875.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). The life of the Bureau was extended twice by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). Congress assigned to the Bureau responsibilities previously shared by military commanders and by agents of the Treasury Department. They included supervision of all affairs relating to refugees (indigent whites) and freedmen and the custody of all abandoned or confiscated lands and property. The Act also provided that a Commissioner head the Bureau, appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner. Howard, who served until the Bureau was discontinued in 1872, established his headquarters at Washington, DC. The size and organization of the Bureau headquarters varied from over time. Howard's staff consisted primarily of an assistant adjutant general, an assistant inspector general, a chief medical officer, a chief quartermaster, a chief disbursing officer, and officers in charge of the Claims Division, the Education Division, and the Land Division.
The Bureau's operations were confined principally to the former Confederate States, the Border States, and the District of Columbia. The 1865 Act authorized the appointment of Assistant Commissioners to aid the Commissioner in supervising the work of the Bureau in the states. Generally, the organization of the Bureau in the states was similar to that of Bureau headquarters in Washington. Subassistant commissioners, subordinate to the staff officers in each state, were responsible for administering Bureau policies in the subdistricts into which the states were divided. Civilian and military Superintendents, assistant subassistant commissioners, and agents were under the supervision of the subassistant commissioners.
During the years of its greatest activity, the operations of the Freedmen's Bureau resembled, in many ways, the work of later Federal social agencies. In addition to supervising the disposition of abandoned or confiscated lands and property, Bureau officers issued rations, clothing, and medicine to destitute refugees and freedmen. They established hospitals and dispensaries and supervised tenements and camps for the homeless. Bureau officers and members of benevolent organizations cooperated in establishing schools, operating employment offices, and dispensing relief. In addition, Bureau officers supervised the writing of labor contracts and terms of indenture, issued marriage licenses and certificates and registered marriages, listened to complaints, and generally were concerned with improving almost all aspects of the freedman's life. In March 1866, the Bureau assumed the function of helping black soldiers and sailors and their heirs to file and collect claims for bounties, pensions, and pay arrearages.
An act of Congress, approved July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), ordered that the Commissioner of the Bureau "shall, on the first day of January next, cause the said bureau to be with drawn from the several States within which said bureau has acted and its operation shall be discontinued." Consequently, in early 1869, with the exception of the superintendents of education and the claims agents, the Assistant Commissioners and their subordinate officers were withdrawn from the states.
For the next year and a half the Bureau continued to pursue its education work and to process claims. In the summer of 1870, the superintendents of education were withdrawn from the states, and the headquarters staff was greatly reduced. From that time until the Bureau was abolished by an act of Congress approved June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366), effective June 30, 1872, the Bureau's functions related almost exclusively to the disposition of claims. The Bureau's records and remaining functions were then transferred to the Freedmen's Branch in the office of the Adjutant General. The records of this branch are among the Bureau's files.
THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU AND MARRIAGE RECORDS
While the primary focus of the Freedmen's Bureau was to provide relief and assist freedmen in becoming self–sufficient, the Bureau was also interested solemnizing marriages that freedmen had entered into during slavery. Slave marriages had no legal foundation or protection. Slave husbands and wives, without legal recourse, could be separated or sold as their owners saw fit. Couples who resided on different plantations were only allowed to visit with the consent of their masters. Oftentimes without the benefit of clergy, "the marriage ceremony in most cases consisted of the slaves' simply getting the master's permission and moving into a cabin together."
When freedom came, many sought to "remarry" and solidify long–standing relations, while others attempted to marry for the first time.
They all sought help from Union Army clergy, Northern missionaries, and the Freedmen's Bureau.
On May 30, 1865, Commissioner Howard issued Circular Number 5, which told his subordinates that "in places where the local statutes make no provisions for the marriage of persons of color, the Assistant Commissioners are authorized to designate officers who shall keep a record of marriages, which may be solemnized by any ordained minister of the gospel." Howard's order was less a policy of the Bureau than a continuation of a practice begun by military officers and civilians who supervised "contraband camps" that freedmen flocked to during the Civil War. For instance, in the Department of Tennessee and Arkansas, John Eaton, the superintendent of contrabands, issued Special Order 15 (March 28, 1864) ordering Union Army clergy to "solemnize the rite of marriage among Freedmen." Special Order 176, issued by the Department of the Gulf (July 4, 1864), ordered clergy in that Department "to unite in marriage, free of charge, such colored soldiers as may be recommended to them . . . with the women whom such soldiers may select to be their wives." The earliest record of "contraband" marriages that appear in Freedmen's Bureau files, and reproduced in this microfilm publication, is an October 11, 1861, report of marriages of Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood at Camp Hamilton, Virginia. Lockwood, who represented the American Missionary Society at Fortress Monroe, listed in his report the names of 32 couples whom he married during the month of September 1861.
While Howard's order was explicit in regards to freedmen's marriages, Assistant Commissioners and lower-level Bureau officials did not by any means execute his order in a consistent manner. This is quite evident in the kind of information collected and the considerable variation in the number of marriage records that exist for each state. In Alabama, for instance, Assistant Commissioner Wager Swayne, who favored remarriage of individuals who lived together without licenses, ordered his officers "to solemnize no marriage unless the probate judge of the county where the female lived had denied application." After the Alabama state convention adopted a measure validating the unions of former slaves who had lived as man and wife, Swayne advised freedmen of the new rules and offered no additional instructions about freedmen marriages.
With the exception of one marriage license/certificate found among the files of the Office of the Commissioner, there is no evidence in Bureau records that indicates officers in Alabama registered or issued licenses and certificates in the state.
On June 24, 1865, John W. Sprague, Assistant Commissioner for Arkansas, whose jurisdiction covered both the States of Arkansas and Missouri (June 1865 until January 1866), issued Circular Number 3 instructing his subordinates "to keep and preserve a record of marriages of freed people, and by whom the ceremony was performed." Less than a month after his order, Sprague and his subordinates began forwarding monthly reports of marriages for both Arkansas and Missouri to the Office of the Commissioner in Washington, DC. Reports for Missouri, however, contain less information than those for Arkansas. The Missouri reports generally provide the names and ages of the couple, dates of marriage, where married and by whom, and the number of male and female children. On the other hand, Arkansas reports included such additional information as the couple's color and place of residence, the color of the couple's parents, the number of years the couple lived with another person, how separated, number of children by previous marriage, and names of witnesses and minister or official who performed the marriage. While Arkansas officers registered marriages for both Arkansas and Missouri, there is only one register of marriages in the records of the Missouri office of the disbursing officer (Cape Girardeau). For the Arkansas subdistrict field offices, however, there are marriage registers and certificates for the subdistricts at Arkadelphia, Dardanelle, Fort Smith, Hamburg, Jacksonport, Little Rock, Madison, Osceola, Pine Bluff, and Washington. There is no evidence in Bureau files that the Assistant Commissioner for Arkansas or his subordinate field officers issued marriage certificates to freedmen in Missouri.
Reverend John Kimball, who served as the superintendent of marriages for the District of Columbia, advised freedmen of the Act of Congress of July 25, 1866 (14 Stat. 236), which stipulated that all persons who recognized each other as man and wife prior to the act were now legally married. Superintendent Kimball and his assistants issued marriage licenses and certificates and forwarded them along with marriage reports through the District of Columbia Office of the Assistant Commissioner to the Office of the Commissioner. Kimball also registered couples and forwarded ministers' reports of marriages that remained with the Assistant Commissioner. In addition to the reports received from Kimball, the Assistant Commissioner also received reports from other officers regarding marriage laws in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. In the records of the District of Columbia subassistant commissioner is a register of freedmen at Camp Barker — a "contraband" camp operated by the Military District of Washington during the Civil War—that includes a register of arrivals, deaths, and marriages for the camp. Like other "pre–Bureau" records, the register was probably given to the Bureau by the War Department when it took over duties formerly assigned to wartime superintendents of freedmen.
As in Alabama, Bureau officials in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas informed freedmen about the laws relating to marriage for each respective state.
However, with the exception of an undated report of marriages and marriage licenses and certificates found in the records of the Office of the Commissioner for Florida, there is no evidence among Bureau files that indicate officials in Florida registered freedmen marriages. Neither is there evidence in the Bureau's records indicating officers in Georgia and Texas registered marriages or issued licenses and certificates. The records of the North Carolina Office of the Assistant Commissioner however, contain reports of marriages (National Archives Microfilm Publication M843, Roll 38), and in the files of the Subdistrict Field Office at Fayetteville there are two lists of births, marriages, and deaths. (These records have not been filmed yet.) There is no evidence of other North Carolina marriage records among Bureau files.
Bureau officials in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee were ordered to follow the laws for each state in regard to freedmen marriages. They were also told to issue licenses if local officials refused to do so. In Kentucky, Bureau officers were instructed to license black preachers to solemnize marriages. Freedmen couples were encouraged to submit their cases to the Bureau for examination, and a decision concerning the issuing of a marriage certificate would be decided upon on a case–by–case basis.
Bureau officers in each state, however, issued marriage licenses and certificates and registered freedmen marriages. For Kentucky, there is a single marriage license and a marriage certificate in the records of the Office of the Commissioner. However, in the records of the Kentucky Subdistrict Field Office there are marriage licenses and certificates and registers for the subdistricts of Augusta, Bowling Green, Columbus, Cynthiana, Saint Sterling, Owensboro, Paduchah, and Winchester. There is a relatively large quantity of marriage certificates containing similar information for both Louisiana and Tennessee in the records of the Office of the Commissioner. The records include the names and ages of couples, their color and the color of their parents, the number of years both the husband and wife lived with another person, the reason for separation, the number of children together and from previous marriages, and other marriage–related data. In the Louisiana Subdistrict Field Office there are registers of marriages for the subdistricts at the Gragg Home Colony, Donaldsonville, Mansfield, and Shreveport. At the Tennessee Office of the Assistant Commissioner are marriage licenses, and for the Tennessee Subdistrict Field Office there are marriage registers for the subdistricts at Lebanon, Memphis, and Trenton.
Although a March 22, 1867, act of the Maryland General Assembly validated freedmen marriages, there is no evidence in Bureau files that the Assistant Commissioner for Maryland advised freedmen of the law. Neither is there evidence that the Assistant Commissioner acted upon Commissioner Howard's May 1865 order regarding freedmen marriages. There were no subordinate officers responsible to the Assistant Commissioner except those officers in the Shenandoah Division. This division consisted of six counties in Virginia and two in West Virginia (May–September 1866). At various times, Maryland was under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia. Most of the registrants that appear in the marriage registers for the superintendent of marriages for the District of Columbia (November 1866–July 1867) had moved to the District of Columbia from Maryland and Virginia. In January 1867, Maryland's jurisdiction was expanded to include Delaware. The marriage records found in the files of the Office of the Commissioner for Delaware, all appear to relate to proof of marriage in claims filed with the claims division of the Freedmen's Bureau. One affidavit among the Delaware files concerns a marriage that was performed in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. There is no evidence in Maryland Bureau files that indicated officials there issued marriage license and certificates or reported marriages for Delaware.
In Mississippi, Bureau officials were very active in documenting and solemnizing the marriages of freedmen. In a circular issued July 3, 1865 (Circular Number 1), Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi Samuel Thomas authorized his officers to keep a record of marriages of persons of color and gave instructions on how to maintain marriage registers. Like those for Louisiana and Tennessee, the marriage certificates for Mississippi forwarded to the Office of the Commissioner provide such information as the color of persons marrying and the complexion of parents. Also included is data about the number of years the couple lived with another person, how they were separated, and the number of children by a previous connection. There are four marriage registers for the Mississippi Office of the Assistant Commissioner that provide similar information. The registers for Davis Bend, Vicksburg, and Natchez, Mississippi, document the registration of more than 4,600 freedmen from Mississippi and northern Louisiana. Over half of the soldiers registering marriages for Natchez were members of the 6th Mississippi Heavy Artillery of the U. S. Colored Troops. Nearly all of the soldiers registering marriages for Davis Bend served with the 64th Colored Infantry.
The Mississippi subdistrict field office also registered freedmen marriages and issued licenses and certificates in the subdistricts of Brookhaven, Columbus, Davis Bend, Goodman, Grenada, Jackson, and Pass Christian.
In South Carolina, Assistant Commissioner Rufus Saxton issued "marriage rules" under General Order Number 8 (August 11, 1865). Declaring that "the sacred institution of Marriage lies at the very foundation of all civil society," Saxton outlined the duties of married couples and who was eligible to marry and to perform the ceremonies. These marriage rules also applied to Florida and Georgia, which were under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina at the time they were issued. Bvt. Gen. Robert K. Scott, who, in January 1866, succeeded Saxton as Assistant Commissioner, appointed a superintendent to provide guidance to freedmen on the responsibilities of marriage.
However, with the exception of a single marriage certificate found in the records of the Office of the Commissioner, and the marriage rules in the files of the South Carolina Office of the Assistant Commissioner, there is no evidence that South Carolina Bureau officials actively registered or issued marriage licenses or certificates to freedmen.
In a circular dated March 19, 1866 (Circular Number 11), Assistant Commissioner for Virginia, Col. Orlando Brown, ordered his subordinates to register the names of freedmen who were "cohabiting together as man and wife" and to "take pains to explain to colored persons . . . that they are firmly married by the operation of the law." As the basis for his order, Brown cited two February 27, 1866, acts of the Virginia General Assembly that made provisions for issuing marriage licenses and the registration and legalization of marriage relations entered into by freedmen during slavery. Brown forwarded reports of marriages to Office of the Commissioner that contained the names and ages of couples, place of residence and birth, names of parents, and occupation. Most of the couples named in the reports were either born or resided in Gloucester County, Virginia. In response to Brown's order, officers in the Virginia Subdistrict Field Office registered marriages for the subdistricts of Goochland, Lexington, Louisa Courthouse, and Lovington. The information found in the files for these five subdistricts, for the most part, reveals that a significant number of the registrants were farm laborers and field hands and many had lived in long–standing marriages.
While the issuing of marriage licenses and certificates and registering freedmen marriages represented a small fraction of the Freedmen's Bureau's efforts to assist former slaves, the surviving marriage records of the Bureau—although fragmented—document freedmen's desire to legalize monogamous relations that for some spanned several decades. They reveal the Federal Government's efforts to help freedmen validate the bonds of matrimony, a process denied to them as slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau marriage records, despite their shortcomings, are some of the most important records for the study of black family marital relations before and after the Civil War.
1 John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979), p. 165. See pages 149 – 191 for discussion of the slave family.
2 For a discussion of slave marriages and freedom, see Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African–American Kinship in the Civil War Era (1997), especially pages 155 – 192.
3 See Microfilm Roll 5 in this series, Office of the Commissioner, Virginia, Reports of Marriages.
4 Elaine C. Everly, "Marriage Registers of Freedmen," Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives (Fall 1973): 150, 152; Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for Alabama, Circular 1, September 7, 1865, Vol. 16 (Alabama), Record Group (RG) 105, NARA.
5 See "Laws of Southern States, In relation to freedmen, 1865–66," Entry 49, Miscellaneous Records, 1865–71, Records of the Commissioners, RG 105, NARA.
6 Everly, "Marriage Registers of Freedmen," p. 153.
7 For a discussion of Mississippi marriage registers, see Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1790–1925 (1976), pp. 18 – 24. The Mississippi marriage registers are reproduced on NARA Microfilm Publication M826, Roll 42. Compiled service records for the 6th Mississippi Heavy Artillery, USCT, have been reproduced on M1818, Rolls 109 – 133.
8 Everly, "Marriage Registers of Freedmen," pp. 152 – 153; Headquarters, Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, General Orders Number 8, August 11, 1865, RG 105, NARA. The "Marriage Rules," filed with Unbound Miscellaneous Records, 1865–68, have been reproduced in M869, Roll 44.