[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1869.]
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. In June 1865, Bvt. Maj. Gen. Rufus Saxton was appointed Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Several months after Saxton assumed his duties, however, Howard appointed Bvt. Col. T. W. Osborn as the first Assistant Commissioner of Florida. Osborn established his headquarters at Tallahassee in September 1865. In May 1867, the headquarters moved to Jacksonville, where it remained until it was relocated to St. Augustine in August 1868. It moved back to Jacksonville in November 1868, and remained there until July 1870. Records relating to Florida that were created during Saxton's tenure may be included among the files of the Assistant Commissioner of South Carolina.
Several military officers succeeded Osborn as either Assistant Commissioner or Acting Assistant Commissioner for the State of Florida. Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster served as Assistant Commissioner and Commander of the Department of Florida from June through December 1866. He was replaced in December by Bvt. Brig. Gen. John T. Sprague, who served as both Assistant Commissioner and Commander of the District of Florida until November 1868, when he was replaced by Bvt. Lt. Col. George W. Gile. Beginning in January 1869, Gile served as both Assistant Commissioner and superintendent of education.
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 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 major subordinate field offices for the Bureau at Florida, for example, included those with headquarters at Barancas, Fernandina, Jacksonville, Key West, Monticello, Ocala, Pensacola, Quincy, and Tallahassee. Under the direct supervision of the subassistant commissioners were the civilian and military agents. Occasionally, the Bureau retained military officers in a civilian capacity after the termination of their military service. For a list of known Florida 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.
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.
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 FLORIDA
The Freedmen's Bureau activities in Florida generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, and assisted freedmen in locating land. This last service contributed to an important, distinctive success in the Florida Bureau's program: more freedmen secured homesteads there than in any other Southern public–land state.
The Florida Bureau regularly assessed the need for services in the state. The resulting reports appear in these records and are valuable for learning about social conditions. In November 1865, for example, Asst. Comm. Osborn sent Capt. George Thompson on an inspection tour of southern Florida. During the following 4 months, Thompson toured the lower part of the state. His 47–page report includes living conditions of the populace, agricultural possibilities, and geographical information. He discusses how the Bureau can assist freedmen in education and land ownership.1
To prevent widespread starvation and destitution, the Florida Bureau issued more than 25,000 rations in its first year to some 22,000 blacks and nearly 4,000 whites.2 By December 1868, the Bureau had issued more than 760,000 rations, at a cost of $102,669.45.3 In addition to its general distribution of rations to those in dire need, the Florida Bureau also utilized a relief system similar to one in use in Louisiana and South Carolina that provided planters with food for their laborers. Under this system, blacks who rented and cultivated at least 10 acres of land on a crop–sharing basis were issued rations. This allowed planters to produce a crop without having to feed their workers during growing season.
Of genealogical interest are the applications of freedmen for rations. These printed documents give the number of acres of rented land. They list the first and last name and age of the freedman renting the property, of family members, and of any others who will live and work the named property. Included in the information are the location of the property and the name of the owner. In some cases the relationship of those living with the freedman is given (e.g., stepson or nephew).4
The regulation of written labor contracts between planters and freedmen was a major part of the Bureau's operation in Florida. Between 1865 and 1868 thousands of freedmen entered into contract agreements for either wages or a share of the crops in virtually every part of the state. Contracts generally stipulated the hours and days of work, types of rations to be provided, and the amount of wage or crop to be paid. Nearly half of the freedmen on plantations in Florida worked for a third of the crop plus rations. Those who worked for wages also received rations and were paid at a rate of $12 per month for men, $9 for women, and $5 for children. Bureau officials generally witnessed the contracts and were paid a small fee by the planter.
Safeguarding the rights and securing justice for freedmen was of great concern to the Freedmen's Bureau as well. 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 Howard in May 1865, Assistant Commissioners were directed to adjudicate all difficulties occurring between blacks and whites in places where the civil courts were interrupted or where blacks were not allowed to testify.5 On November 15, 1865, in response to Howard's order, Florida Assistant Commissioner Osborn issued a circular ordering that freedmen be allowed to testify in court and that corporal punishment be restricted and personal violence be reported to military commanders.6 In Florida, Bureau officials, for the most part, supervised state courts until a new government was established under the military reconstruction act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 428).
Bureau educational activity in Florida officially began with the appointment of E. B. Duncan as inspector and superintendent of schools in November 1866. Duncan served until June 1867, when he was replaced by C. T. Chase. Chase, who served from June 1867 to March 1868, was succeeded by Charles Foster, formerly Assistant Commissioner, who served from March through December 1868. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in Florida, as in other states, were terminated except for the educational functions and the collection of claims. George W. Gile, who was the Assistant Commissioner at the time, became the superintendent of education and served in that capacity until August 1870, when the remaining Bureau activities in Florida were also terminated.
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Florida included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath schools. Rudimentary education including reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography received primary emphasis in most Bureau schools. Teachers were recruited from the local white population, from among the freedmen themselves, and from the North by freedmen's aid societies. No single policy of assigning responsibilities in the maintenance of the schools was followed consistently. The Bureau generally supplied buildings for schools and transportation for teachers and relied on the aid societies and freedmen to pay for textbooks and teachers' salaries, although at times teachers were paid from Bureau funds.
The Freedmen's Bureau in Florida sought, with a mixed degree of success, to secure land for African Americans. The Southern Homestead Act, approved by Congress on June 21, 1866, made available for public settlement 46 million acres of public lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nineteen million acres of this Federal land was located in Florida. Because the Act specified that persons who applied could not be discriminated against because of race, it offered an opportunity for many Florida freedmen to become landowners. The land office opened on August 25, 1866. The Freedmen's Bureau, through "locating agents," assisted interested freedmen in finding plots, and provided them with 1–month subsistence, free transportation to their prospective tracts of land, and seeds for the initial planting.7 By October 1866, in spite of the poor quality of much of the land, the absence of basic necessities, and white opposition, freedmen had made land entry transactions ("entered") for 32,000 acres of public land. One year later, they had secured more than 2,000 homesteads, totaling 160,960 acres, and by 1868 freedmen entered over 3,000 homesteads, more than in any other Southern public land state.8
1 See Microfilm Roll 15, Subordinate Field Offices, Tallahassee, Letters Received, Apr. 1866–Feb. 1868.
2 House Ex. Doc. 1, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 740.
3 Joe M. Richardson, "An Evaluation of the Freedmen's Bureau in Florida," The Florida Historical Quarterly XLI, No. 3 (January 1963): 224.
4 See Microfilm Rolls 11 and 12, Office of Assistant Commissioner, Other Records, "Applications of Freedmen for Rations."
5 Richardson, "An Evaluation of the Freedmen's Bureau in Florida," pp. 228 – 229; House Ex. Doc. No. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 45.
6 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 87; Richardson, "An Evaluation of the Freedmen's Bureau in Florida," p. 228.
7 Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations (1999), pp. 67 – 83.
8 Richardson, "An Evaluation of the Freedmen's Bureau in Florida," pp. 230 – 231. In spite of these entries, only 1,073 freedmen are listed on the 1870 Federal census as landowners.