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). Congress assigned to the Bureau responsibilities that previously had been shared by military commanders and by agents of the Treasury Department. The duties included supervision of all affairs relating to refugees, freedmen, and the custody of abandoned lands and property. Under provisions of the initial legislation, the Bureau was to have been terminated 1 year after the close of the Civil War. It was twice extended by laws of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), effective January 1869. Remaining Bureau functions were terminated following the discontinuance of the Bureau in 1872, in accordance with a law of June 10 of that year (17 Stat. 366).
In May 1865 the President appointed by Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard Commissioner of the Bureau. Howard, who served until the Bureau was discontinued, maintained his headquarters at Washington, D.C. Assistant commissioners supervised the work of the Bureau in the States.
Col. Eliphalet Whittlesey, the first Assistant Commissioner of North Carolina, established his headquarters at Raleigh in June 1865. Although the size and organization of the staff of the Assistant Commissioner varied from time to time, it usually included an Assistant Adjutant General, an Assistant Inspector General, a Surgeon in Chief, a Superintendent of Education, and a Disbursing Officer.
The policies and programs of the Freedmen’s Bureau in North Carolina were established by the Assistant Commissioner and administered through his subordinate officers. Bureau officials, often in cooperation with benevolent societies, established schools for freedmen and issued food, clothing, and medical supplies to refugees and freedmen. They also approved or disapproved freedmen’s labor contracts and indentures, investigated freedmen’s complaints, and helped black soldiers and sailors to file and collect claims for bounties, pensions, and pay arrearages. The Assistant Commissioner maintained several freedmen’s hospitals and colonies for the destitute, and provided transportation to return refugees to their homes or to convey freedmen to distant jobs.
During 1865 and 1866 much of the work of the Assistant Commissioner related to the custody of abandoned property of former supporters of the Confederacy. Officers of the Bureau leased much of the abandoned property and used the proceeds to finance Bureau activities. Sometimes buildings were utilized as Bureau offices and several abandoned plantations were used by the Assistant Commissioner as freedmen’s camps or colonies. However, the Assistant Commissioner restored most of the property, as the Commissioner directed, to former owners who signed loyalty oaths or received Presidential pardons.
The first Assistant Commissioner divided North Carolina into four districts—with headquarters located at Newbern, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Goldsboro—and thereunder into subdistricts. The officers in charge of districts were designated superintendents and those in charge of subdistricts, assistant superintendents. On July 1, 1867, the basic unit of organization for the State was changed to the subdistrict. Eleven subdistricts were established, each containing from two to four further 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 was provision for smaller subdivisions in each subdistrict. This new subdivision of the State resembled the first in organizational structure, although titles for the various officers remained the same as those of the second organizational structure. 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 succeed 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; Bvt. Maj. Gen. Nelson A Miles, February – March 1869; Bvt. Lt. Col. Charles E. Compton, April – May 1869.
When the Freedmen’s Bureau was abolished, its records were sent to the Office of the Adjutant General. Clerks in the Adjutant General’s Office numbered the volumes or book records and prepared “indexes” or lists of these books. In this microfilm publication the number assigned to the volume by the clerks in the Adjutant General’s Office appears in parenthesis. This number is useful only as a more precise method of identifying the volume.