[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1909.]
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 Howard 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. While the work performed by Assistant Commissioners in each state was similar, the organizational structure of staff officers varied from state to state. At various times, the staff could consist of a superintendent of education, an assistant adjutant general, an assistant inspector general, a disbursing officer, a chief medical officer, a chief quartermaster, and a commissary of subsistence. Subordinate to these officers were the assistant superintendents or subassistant commissioners as they later became known, who commanded the subdistricts.
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.
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.
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 IN NORTH CAROLINA
Col. Eliphalet Whittlesey, the first Assistant Commissioner of North Carolina, established his headquarters at Raleigh in June 1865. Whittlesey divided the state into four districts and thereunder into subdistricts. The districts included Newberne, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Goldsboro. The officers in charge of districts were designated superintendents, and those in charge of subdistricts were given the title of assistant superintendents. On July 1, 1867, the basic unit of organization for North Carolina was changed to the subdistrict. Eleven subdistricts were established, each containing from two to four subdivisions. The officers in charge of the subdistricts were designated subassistant commissioners, and those who administered smaller segments of the subdistrict were titled assistant subassistant commissioners. Each of the subassistant commissioners reported directly to the Assistant Commissioner.
March 1, 1868, marked the last change in the organization of the North Carolina Bureau. The state was divided into the four subdistricts of Morganton, Wilmington, Raleigh, and Goldsboro, but there were provisions for smaller subdivisions in each subdistrict. This new subdivision of the state resembled the first organizational structure, although titles for the various officers remained the same as those of the second. By May 1869 all of the Bureau offices and functions except education, were phased out in North Carolina, and the Assistant Commissioner closed his office the first week of that month.
The following officers succeeded Col. Eliphalet Whittlesey as Assistant Commissioner of North Carolina: Bvt. Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger, May–June 1866; Bvt. Maj. Gen. John C. Robinson, June–November 1866; Col. James V. Bomford, November 1866–April 1867 (acting assistant commissioner); Bvt. Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, April 1867–October 1868; Bvt. Lt. Col. Jacob F. Chur, October 1868–January 1869; and Bvt. Lt. Col. Charles E. Compton, April–May 1869.
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations and provided medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools.
When Col. E. Whittlesey assumed office as Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina in June 1865, he found large numbers of both freedmen and white refugees in desperate need of relief. To prevent widespread starvation and destitution in the state, the Freedmen's Bureau issued more than 500,000 rations from July through September. A large percentage of rations were issued to the families of white Confederate soldiers who died during military service. Despite a population of more than 300,000 by September 1865, only 5,000 freedpeople had received aid from the Bureau, mostly women and children. By January 1866, with aid being refused to those persons able to work, the number of rations issued to white refugees and freedmen diminished. However, because of crop failures and other emergencies, the Bureau at various periods between 1867 and 1868 issued food and clothing to those in dire need.
To further aid and provide medical relief to the nearly 14,000 freedmen scattered in camps, settlements, and large towns, the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina provided physicians and medical supplies, and opened hospitals. The Bureau established hospitals at Raleigh, Newberne, Beaufort, Roanoke Island, Kinston, Wilmington, Salisbury, and Charlotte. To protect against the spread of smallpox throughout the state, special hospitals were opened at Beaufort, Newberne, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Wilmington. Thousands of freedmen were vaccinated, and the vaccine was distributed to plantation owners. Also, routine inspections were made at freedmen camps and settlements by assistant superintendents and medical officers, and Bureau subdistrict officers were instructed to work closely with civil authorities in matters concerning public health and safety.
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Bureau in North Carolina. In a circular issued July 5, 1865 (Circular Number 2), Assistant Commissioner Whittlesey told his subordinates that freedmen should be free to bargain with their prospective employers, and both parties should sign written agreements in the presence of a Bureau official. Freedmen who failed to adhere to signed agreements were subject to forfeit all or part of their wages. Employers who dismissed employees without just cause and failed to pay them were required to either make payment or provisions for laborers and their families for the remainder of the contract. If necessary, requirements were to be enforced by military authorities. The average wage for employees was $10 per month for men and $6 per month for women. Although the less restrictive system of crop sharing was popular among freedmen, it was the subject of numerous complaints, and the Bureau advised against it because of such abuses as high costs for provisions charged by employers during the season.
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was also a priority of the Bureau in North Carolina. Following the Civil War, several Southern states, including North Carolina, 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 Howard on May 30, 1865 (Circular Number 5), 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.
On July 13, 1866, after receiving notice from the Governor of North Carolina that "there now exists under the laws of this State no discrimination in the administration of justice to the prejudice of free persons of color," then–Assistant Commissioner John C. Robinson issued General Orders Number 3. The orders directed Bureau officers and agents to refer all cases involving freedmen, with the exception of those concerning labor agreements witnessed or approved by Bureau officials, to the appropriate state or county court. Bureau officers were further ordered (General Orders Number 5, August 3, 1866) to attend trials held by state authorities involving labor contracts not approved by the Bureau, to insure fair treatment of freedmen. Cases determined to be unjust could be resumed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau. If civil authorities failed or neglected to arrest persons who committed crimes, regardless of color, Bureau officers were authorized to make arrests and hold such individuals for the appropriate court.
Discriminatory clauses in the laws regarding the apprenticing of black children by North Carolina courts seriously hindered the Freedmen's Bureau's efforts to obtain justice for freedmen. Under North Carolina law, as part of the black codes, thousands of black children were bound out to their former owners without their parents' consent. Also, unlike white females who were apprenticed until the age of 18, black females were bound until age 21. Those black children whose parents were not considered by county courts to be regularly employed in "some honest, industrious occupation" could be bound out. The Bureau saw the North Carolina laws as a subtle attempt to re-enslave freedmen. In November 1866, with pressure from the Bureau, the clauses in the laws were removed and many of the apprenticeship agreements were cancelled. However, the practice of illegally apprenticing black children remained a major problem in many counties in North Carolina. Not until the North Carolina Supreme Court in January 1867 ruled "null and void" any apprenticeship contracts, whether the child was black or white, were black parents able to get significant relief regarding the illegal apprenticeship of their children.
The Freedmen's Bureau's educational activities in North Carolina officially began with the appointment of F. A. Fiske as superintendent of schools on August 9, 1865 (Special Orders Number 21). The Bureau, for the most part, offered advice, protection, and financial assistance to local citizens interested in starting schools. Fiske frequently acted as an intermediary between freedmen and members of the benevolent societies that offered to provide teachers and aid for schools. He corresponded routinely with state and local authorities, members of benevolent societies, and with Bureau officers stationed in the subdistricts. In addition, he collected information about the schools and about the attitudes of the white populace toward the education of freedmen and reported his findings to Bureau headquarters at Washington. In November 1865, Fiske reported that there were some 61 schools and 97 teachers providing instruction for over 5,000 students. At the end of February 1866, there were 115 schools and 151 teachers providing education for more than 11,000 pupils. While the bulk of the aid for freedmen schools came largely from northern benevolent societies, freedmen themselves contributed significantly in the establishment and maintenance of their own schools.
On July 31, 1868, Fiske resigned and H. C. Vogell succeeded him. The office of the Assistant Commissioner was terminated in the first week of May 1869, but the superintendent of education remained, and it was not until August 31, 1870 that Vogell's appointment was withdrawn.
1 House Ex. Doc. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1255, p. 25; Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, North Carolina, October 9, 1867, pp. 3 – 4, October 20, 1868 [pp. 2 – 3], Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Record Group (RG) 105, NARA.
2 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, pp. 107 – 108.
3 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1256, p. 4; Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, p. 104; For a discussion of wage and share contracts relating to the Freedmen's Bureau's activities in North Carolina, see Roberta Sue Alexander, North Carolina Faces the Freedmen; Race Relations During Presidential Reconstruction, 1865–67 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), pp. 96 – 112.
4 House Ex. Doc. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess. Serial Vol. 1255, p. 45.
5 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, pp. 101 – 102.
6 Alexander, North Carolina Faces the Freedmen, pp.112 – 119; See also, Rebecca Scott, "The Battle Over the Child: Child Apprenticeship and the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina," Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives 10, No. 2 ( Summer 1978): 101 – 113.
7 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, pp. 104 – 105.