[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1902.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on 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). The Bureau was responsible for the supervision and management of all matters relating to refugees and freedmen, and of lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner of the Bureau, and served in that position until June 30, 1872, when activities of the Bureau were terminated in accordance with an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366). While a major part of the Bureau's early activities involved the supervision of abandoned and confiscated property, its mission was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient. Bureau officials issued rations and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, and supervised labor contracts. In addition, the Bureau managed apprenticeship disputes and complaints, assisted benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, helped freedmen in legalizing marriages entered into during slavery, and provided transportation to refugees and freedmen who were attempting to reunite with their family or relocate to other parts of the country. The Bureau also helped black soldiers, sailors, and their heirs collect bounty claims, pensions, and back pay.
The act of March 3, 1865, authorized the appointment of Assistant Commissioners to aid the Commissioner in supervising the work of the Bureau in the former Confederate states, the border states, and the District of Columbia. In the District of Columbia, field office operations began in June 1865, when Col. John Eaton, Jr., was appointed Assistant Commissioner with headquarters in the city of Washington. Brig. Gen. J. C. Fullerton succeeded Eaton in December 1865 and served until February 7, 1866. Brig. Gen. Charles H. Howard, brother of Commissioner Howard, then served as the Assistant Commissioner until the position was discontinued in December 1868. Bvt. Maj. David G. Swaim then supervised operations until October 1869, when virtually all Bureau functions, except education, were terminated.
The Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia was responsible for Bureau affairs in the District, the Freedmen's Village in Virginia and the farms south of the Potomac, and the Government farms in St. Mary's County, Maryland. In September 1865, Alexandria, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties, Virginia, were added to his jurisdiction. In August 1866, Loudoun was transferred to the Assistant Commissioner for Virginia, and Alexandria and Fairfax Counties were transferred similarly in March 1867. In the same month, West Virginia was placed under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia. He was also responsible for Bureau affairs in Montgomery, Prince Georges, Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary's Counties in Maryland. In January 1868, Washington and Allegheny Counties, Maryland, were added, and in August 1868, the remaining counties of Maryland and the State of Delaware were added to his jurisdiction. Although the officers in the neighboring Maryland and Virginia counties reported to the Assistant Commissioner of the District of Columbia, their records are among those of the subordinate officers for Maryland or Virginia.
While the work performed by Assistant Commissioners in each state and the District of Columbia was similar, the organizational structure of staff officers varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In the District of Columbia, the Assistant Commissioner's staff consisted of a superintendent of education, an assistant inspector general (from time to time he served as the assistant adjutant general), an assistant quartermaster and disbursing officer, a superintendent of marriages, and a surgeon in chief. Subordinate to these officers were the assistant superintendents, or subassistant commissioners as they later became known, who commanded the subdistricts. For administrative purposes, agents were assigned to the various counties of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Within the District of Columbia, a subassistant commissioner was appointed to supervise Bureau activities for the communities of Georgetown and Washington. In 1868 Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties were added to his jurisdiction. A subassistant commissioner was also assigned to Alexandria County in January 1866; he reported to the Assistant Commissioner until responsibility for the supervision of the county was transferred to Virginia authorities. In addition to county agents and subassistant commissioners, local superintendents were appointed to supervise such Government projects as Barry Farm, located south of the Anacostia River, and the Sothron Farm in St. Mary's County, Maryland. These farms were purchased with Bureau funds to aid freedmen in buying farmland. Other local superintendents were assigned to administer Freedmen's Village and schools and hospitals. Occasionally, the Bureau retained military officers in a civilian capacity after the termination of their military service. For a list of known District of Columbia subordinate field office personnel and their dates of service, see the Appendix.
The Assistant Commissioner corresponded extensively with both his superior in the Washington Bureau headquarters and his subordinate officers in the subdistricts. Based upon reports submitted to him by the subassistant commissioners and other subordinate staff officers, he prepared reports that he sent to the Commissioner concerning Bureau activities in areas under his jurisdiction. The Assistant Commissioner also received letters from freedmen, local white citizens, state officials, and other non–Bureau personnel. These letters varied in nature from complaints to applications for jobs in the Bureau. Because the assistant adjutant general handled much of the mail for the Assistant Commissioner's office, it was often addressed to him instead of to the Assistant Commissioner.
In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard in July 1865, the Assistant Commissioners were instructed to designate one officer in each state to serve as "General Superintendents of Schools." These officials were to "take cognizance of all that is being done to educate refugees and freedmen, secure proper protection to schools and teachers, promote method and efficiency, correspond with the benevolent agencies which are supplying his field, and aid the Assistant Commissioner in making his required reports." In October 1865, a degree of centralized control was established over Bureau educational activities in the states when Rev. John W. Alvord was appointed Inspector of Finances and Schools. In January 1867, Alvord was divested of his financial responsibilities, and he was appointed General Superintendent of Education. In August 1865, Rev. John Kimball was appointed superintendent of education for the District of Columbia and served until replaced by Maj. D. G. Swaim in October 1869. Maj. W. L. VanDerlip succeeded Swaim in December 1869 and remained in the position until August 1870, when educational activities in the District of Columbia were discontinued.
Because the jurisdiction of the superintendent of education for the District of Columbia included areas other than the District itself, his records include reports and correspondence relating to schools in Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, and parts of Virginia.
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 withdrawn 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 and the District of Columbia.
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.
Constrained by limited resources, Southern opposition, and the politics of Reconstruction, the Bureau faced an enormous challenge in its efforts to assist the freedmen and refugees. Its relief efforts, without question, saved thousands of southerners from starvation. Its attempts to assist freedmen to become self–sufficient, to provide public education, administer justice, and, to a lesser degree, to provide land, all worked with varying degrees of success to lessen the difficulties during the transition from slavery to freedom. One of the Bureau's greatest legacies is the body of records it created and received during the course of its operations. These records are arguably some of the most important documents available for the study of the Federal Government's policies, efforts to reconstruct the South, and Southern social history and genealogy.
THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau field office in the District of Columbia generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau provided relief from poverty and destitution, provided transportation and employment for needy freedmen, worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, provided assistance in legalizing slave marriages and various legal matters, and worked with black soldiers and sailors in obtaining back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.
To relieve problems of destitution and poverty and to aid the aged, orphans, and infirm in the District of Columbia and Virginia, the Bureau offered various forms of assistance. The Bureau established an asylum at the Freedmen's Village in Arlington, Virginia, for destitute men, women, and children. It was located across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, on the estate formerly owned by Robert E. Lee. It originated with the War Department in 1863 as a "Model Community" for the freedmen in the Washington area and was continued by the Freedmen's Bureau for destitute freedmen. Also, under the auspices of a women's campaign, "National Appreciation of the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children," the Bureau constructed a building for the Colored Orphans Home of Washington, DC. In addition, the Brooklyn Home for Children of Freedmen, under the direction of the African Civilization Society, received aid from the Bureau to allow temporary relief for freedwomen to look for employment. When "The Farm School for Colored Boys" in the District of Columbia ceased its operations on June 14, 1867, the Bureau provided homes for inmates, and assisted others who returned to their parents.
As a part of its ongoing relief efforts, the Bureau also issued rations to both the Freedmen's Hospital in the District of Columbia and Abbott Hospital at Freedmen's Village. Up to a 3–day supply of rations was given to freedmen who sought employment outside the city, and rations were given to those destitute refugees and freedmen who weren't considered permanent residents of Washington. In 1866 Congress authorized a special relief appropriation of $25,000 for the poor in the District of Columbia, and an additional expenditure of $15,000 in 1867. A Special Relief Commission headed by Robert Reyburn, surgeon in chief of the District of Columbia, was established by Assistant Commissioner Howard to administer the appropriations. The Commission provided food, clothing, and other essentials to both blacks and whites in the city. The Commission maintained registers of applicants who applied for relief and forwarded weekly reports of its operations to the Assistant Commissioner. The Assistant Commissioner also received additional reports relating to rations, clothing, and medicine issued by other Bureau officials.
One of the major challenges facing Freedmen's Bureau officials in the Washington, DC, field office was to reduce the number of freedmen in the city who depended on the Bureau for assistance. When the Civil War began, thousands of freedmen flocked to the capital city from the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia. After Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862, thousands more migrated to the city, causing overcrowding, destitution, and significant increases in unemployment. A census taken by the Bureau in the winter and spring of 1866 revealed a black population of more than 31,000 in Washington and Georgetown, many of whom were unable to find work. To relieve the Government of the burden of providing support for these individuals and to encourage independence, Assistant Commissioner Charles Howard solicited the help of Northern aid societies in Philadelphia, PA; Boston, MA; New York; and Providence, RI. Howard believed that if large numbers of freedmen in the District of Columbia could secure employment in other parts of country, conditions would improve for those who remained. To carry out his plan, Howard established employment offices in both the District of Columbia and Northern cities and provided rations and free transportation for interested freedmen to prospective employers. Employment offices (A. K. A., "Intelligence Offices") were established in various parts of the capital, and the Bureau hired several employment agents and paid the rent of employment offices in New Jersey; Providence, RI; Hartford, CT; and Boston, MA. In many instances, employment agents traveled with freedmen to the North and took them to the employment office or the employer. Officials in charge of employment offices in Washington; Alexandria, VA; and northern employment offices forwarded trimonthly and monthly reports of their operations to the Assistant Commissioner. The Assistant Commissioner also received reports from local agents regarding destitute freedmen.
By October 1867, the Bureau had provided resettlement transportation for more than 9,000 freedmen from the District of Columbia. Many others received help finding homes in Maryland and Virginia, to where transportation was not required. However, in spite of the Bureau's claims of reducing the dependency of the black population in the District of Columbia, poverty and unemployment remained an issue. In a circular issued October 5, 1867 (Circular Number 6), Howard, probably realizing the shortcomings of the employment program, limited transportation to orphans and women with small children, thus gradually closing employment offices in and around the city.
To further deal with the continued problem of poverty and unemployment, and to remove freedmen from some of the most deplorable living conditions in the District of Columbia and Alexandria, Virginia, the Bureau set aside certain buildings under its control as tenements. Several barracks in and around Washington were provided for some 350 families, and in Alexandria accommodations were made for more than 100 families. Families were charged a moderate rent, amounting to nearly a third of what they had paid to their former landlords for filthy shanties and huts. For those who could not find work at an adequate wage to support their families, Assistant Commissioner Howard ordered Bvt. Col. S. P. Lee, superintendent of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties, to rent some 550 acres of land at Camp Distribution (near Alexandria) for tenements. Land was sub–rented to heads of families in lots from 5 to 40 acres, at a cost to the Government of $800 per year. Small lots were also rented to freedmen in Arlington and St. Mary's County, Maryland.
Superintendents of the barracks forwarded monthly reports of occupying tenants to the Assistant Commissioner. The reports provided the name and occupation of the head of the family, the number in the family, the number of rooms occupied, the rate of rent per month, the amount(s) of rent paid, and the amount of rent in arrears.
In an effort to assist freedmen in securing land, the Bureau provided funds for the purchase of 375 acres of property south of the Anacostia River known as the "Barry Farm." Portions of the land were sold to freedmen in 1–acre lots. Freedmen were required to make monthly payments for 2 years before they received full ownership of the property. The Bureau cleared the roads leading to the lots and provided lumber and assistance in the construction of houses. By the fall of 1867, the Bureau reported that at least 180 lots had been sold and some 90 houses were either complete or under construction. With the help of the Bureau, freedmen at the "Barry Farm" project built a school on one of the lots.
The educational efforts of the District of Columbia field office were similar to Bureau operations in other states. The Bureau, by and large, assisted with construction, rental, and repair of school buildings, while benevolent societies provided teachers and paid their salaries. The Bureau also provided free transportation for teachers and assisted them in getting government rations at cost. The superintendent of education, Rev. John Kimball, forwarded monthly school reports to Bureau headquarters and received monthly school reports from subordinate officers and from superintendents of schools sponsored by benevolent societies. In the District of Columbia, the Bureau worked closely with the board of trustees appointed by an act of Congress on May 21, 1862 (12 Stat. 407), to "aid in the support of the colored race." The Trustees provided lots upon which the Bureau erected several school buildings. In 1866 the Assistant Commissioner reported that in his district there were more than 70 schools and over 6,000 students being taught by 132 teachers. There were 15 night schools and 20 Sabbath schools with slightly more than 3,000 students. There were 45 day schools (including industrial schools) conducted in buildings provided and furnished by the Bureau.
The educational efforts of the Bureau's field office in its Maryland areas of jurisdiction were hampered by a system of illegal apprenticeship of school–age children. In direct conflict with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (14 Stat. 27), black children were being bound to their former owners for indefinite periods of time with the help of Maryland government officials. An estimated 10,000 black children were bound out as apprentices between 1864 and 1867. The Bureau, however, through writs of habeas corpus and other court actions, fought vigorously to have these children released. By 1868, the intense efforts of the Bureau had largely ended the apprenticeship system in Maryland.
Although the illegal apprenticeship system hindered the Bureau's educational activities in Maryland, the agency still managed to provide assistance with the construction and repair of school buildings and protection of and transportation for teachers. To increase the Bureau's visibility and to gauge the interest of freedmen in the establishment of schools, Superintendent Kimball traveled to various counties in Maryland, holding meetings on the benefits of education and the Bureau's intention to provide aid for schools. In addition, the Bureau worked hand in hand with private benevolent societies, such as the Baltimore Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Freedmen's Union Association, to sustain freedmen schools during a period when white opposition to black schools in Maryland was intense and support for such schools was nonexistent. From October 1867 to October 1868, the Bureau provided aid and assistance to 80 schools in Maryland.
West Virginia maintained a system of free education, but whites controlled funds for schools and the employment of teachers, and schools for blacks and whites were required by law to be separate. Bureau officials worked closely with the West Virginia superintendent of free schools in the establishment of schools for freedmen. As in Maryland, Bureau officials traveled throughout West Virginia counties, advising freedmen of its support and plans for building freedmen schools. Similar to other areas under its jurisdiction, the Bureau supplied funds for buildings, and teachers were generally paid from public funds, contributions from blacks, and aid from benevolent societies. By 1868, with cooperation mostly from freedmen themselves, the Bureau was able to establish 9 schools in West Virginia. Although there were no laws in Delaware by October 1868 for the support of black schools, the Delaware Association, with assistance from Northern societies, sustained some 23 schools in various parts of the state. The Freedmen's Bureau provided assistance in the construction of 12 of the school buildings.
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was of paramount concern to the Freedmen's Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states enacted a series of laws commonly known as "Black Codes," which restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. Freedmen were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and in some instances were unable to get their cases heard in state courts. In a circular issued by Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard on May 30, 1865, Assistant Commissioners were authorized, in places where civil law had been interrupted and blacks' rights to justice were being denied, to adjudicate cases between blacks themselves and between blacks and whites. In the District of Columbia and Maryland, the civil process of law had not been interrupted, and unlike many areas of the South under the Bureau's jurisdiction, no freedmen's or provost courts were in operation. The Bureau did however, provide legal assistance to freedmen in civil and criminal cases in the both the District of Columbia and Maryland. This was done especially in instances where freedmen lacked counsel and in cases where Bureau officials felt that freedmen were wrongly convicted or imprisoned. Court cases involving freedmen in Alexandria, VA, were handled by provost courts until June 10, 1866, when the Virginia legislature abolished laws that did not allow blacks to sue or be a party to a suit, or testify in cases in which they were involved. In 1868, the Assistant Commissioner reported that nearly 900 cases had been attended to by the Bureau. A large percentage of the cases involved incidents in Maryland.
The Freedmen Bureau's field office in the District of Columbia made a special effort to assist freed men and women in legalizing marriages that they had entered into during their enslavement. Continuing a practice that had been started by Northern missionaries and Army clergy, Rev. 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), relating to slave marriages. The act 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 to the Office of the Commissioner. During the year, Kimball issued more than 1,000 marriage certificates. Nearly half of the couples who received certificates had lived in slavery without any form of marriage ceremony. Kimball also registered couples and forwarded ministers' reports of marriages that were retained by the Assistant Commissioner. In addition to the reports received from Kimball, the Assistant Commissioner also received reports from other officers regarding laws relating to marriage in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. A March 22, 1867, act of the Maryland General Assembly validated freedmen marriages in Maryland. In Virginia, two February 27, 1866, acts of the Virginia General Assembly made provisions for issuing marriage licenses and the registration and legalization of marriage relations entered into by former slave couples.
In addition to assisting freedmen in solemnizing slave marriages, the Bureau helped discharged soldiers and their heirs in claims for back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. In accordance with a law passed by Congress on March 29, 1867 (15 Stat. 26), making the Freedmen's Bureau the sole agent for payment of claims of black veterans, Bureau disbursing officers assisted veterans in the preparation and settlement of claims. While many of the subdistricts under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia field office were involved in veterans' claims, most of the activities of the Bureau were centered in Baltimore, MD, where two full–time disbursing officers were assigned to settle and pay veterans claims. In 1868 Bureau agents disbursed more than $100,000 for military claims.
1 These Bureau relief projects are explained in Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 27 – 30], Records of the Commissioner, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105, National Archives Building (NAB).
2 Ibid., [pp. 30 – 31]. See also Register of Ration Requests and Weekly Reports of Operations of the Special Relief Commission, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1055, Roll 16).
3 Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, p. 39; Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 23 – 26]; William H. Williams, The Negro in the District of Columbia during Reconstruction, Howard University Studies in History, No. 5 (Washington, DC: 1924), pp. 33 – 37.
4 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 25 – 26].
5 Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, pp. 36, 37. See also Monthly Reports of Bureau Tenants, M1055, Rolls 20 and 21.
6 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 19 – 21].
7 Monthly Reports of the superintendent of education, superintendents of aid society sponsored schools, and subassistant commissioners or agents in Maryland and West Virginia, Records of the Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1056, Rolls 12 and 13), RG 105; Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, p. 38. See also William H. Williams, The Negro in the District of Columbia during Reconstruction, especially pp. 25 – 30.
8 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 3 – 9]; W. A. Low, "The Freedmen's Bureau in the Border States," in Radicalism, Racism, and Party Realignment: The Border States during Reconstruction, ed. Richard O. Curry, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1969), p. 247.
9 W. A. Low, "The Freedmen's Bureau in the Border States," pp. 247 – 49. Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1868, [pp. 11 – 13, 15 – 24].
10 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1868, [pp. 26 – 30]. See also W. A. Low, "The Freedmen's Bureau in the Border States," p. 257.
11 Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, p. 34; Annual Reports, Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [p. 3], and October 10, 1868, [pp. 5 – 11].
12 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 11 – 13]; Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861–1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1875, Roll 1), RG 105. See also Miscellaneous Reports and Lists, M1055, Roll 21.
13 Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, District of Columbia, October 10, 1867, [pp. 10 – 11], and October 10, 1868, [pp. 13 – 15].