[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1056.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created by an act approved March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). The Congress assigned to the Bureau duties and responsibilities that previously had been assigned to military commanders and special agents of the Treasury Department. The duties of the Bureau included the supervision of all affairs relating to refugees and freedmen and of all abandoned lands. Under the initial act, the Bureau was to have been terminated 1 year after the Civil War. The act creating the Bureau was extended twice, however, by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). An act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), limited the functions of the Bureau to education and assistance in the collection of claims. Bureau activities were terminated June 30, 1872, as required by an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366).
Although the Bureau was part of the War Department, its work was primarily social economic in nature. The Bureau cooperated with aid societies in issuing supplies to destitute persons and in maintaining freedmen's schools; supervised labor contracts between black employees and white employers; helped black soldiers and sailors in the collection of claims, pensions, and backpay; and handled the disposition of confiscated or abandoned lands and other property.
In May 1865, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was appointed Commissioner of the Bureau and established his headquarters in Washington, D. C. Assistant commissioners were appointed to supervise the work of the Bureau in the States in accordance with the act of March 3, 1865. In July 1865, Commissioner Howard instructed the assistant commissioners to appoint an officer in each State to serve as Superintendent of Schools. Superintendents were instructed to supervise the education of refugees and freedmen, secure protection for schools and teachers, aid in maintaining schools, and correspond with benevolent societies in securing teacher to staff schools. The Superintendent also was required to help the Assistant Commissioner in making reports.
In October 1865, 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 was redesignated General Superintendent of Education. Rev. John Kimball was appointed Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia in August 1865 and served until he was replaced by Maj. D. G. Swaim in October 1869. Swaim was replaced in December 1869 by Maj. W. L. Van Derlip, who retained the position through August 1870, as indicated by his signature on letters forwarded from the Superintendent's office. Because the volume ends in 1870, there is no indication who held the position after that date.
The Bureau promoted the establishment of schools for freedmen in the District of Columbia by offering advice, protection, and financial assistance to local citizens interested in establishing them. The Superintendent acted as an intermediary between freedmen and benevolent societies who provided teachers and money for schools. In addition, he corresponded with local citizens, teachers, aid societies, and Bureau agents in the field to obtain information about Bureau-supported schools and the attitudes of local citizens toward them. 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. Schools maintained in these areas and the District of Columbia included day schools, night schools for adults, and Sabbath schools. Instruction included rudimentary courses in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and industrial education. Teachers were recruited from among local white citizens and freedmen and from the North by benevolent societies. The Bureau's responsibility for education in the District of Columbia and surrounding areas included establishing and maintaining schools, appointing teachers, and providing supplies for schools. Bureau funds were primarily for constructing and repairing schools, renting property for educational purposes, and transporting teachers.