[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1900.]
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 Alabama, operations began in July 1865 when Brig. Gen. Wager Swayne took command as Assistant Commissioner. Bvt. Brig. Julius Hayden succeeded Swayne and served from January to March 1868. Col. Oliver L. Shepherd served from March to August 1868, and Col. T. H. Ruger held the position of Assistant Commissioner for only a few days in August before the arrival of Bvt. Lt. Col. Edwin Beecher later in that month. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in Alabama were terminated except for the educational functions and the collection of claims. Colonel Beecher remained in Alabama as superintendent of education and held that position until the office was closed in July 1870. The majority of Bureau officers and agents in Alabama were active duty military officers, and for the first two years of the Bureau's existence in Alabama, the agency doubled as the military command for the district. Brig. Gen. Swayne, for example, served as Assistant Commissioner and District Military Commander for Alabama from 1866 to 1868. As a consequence of the wide use of military officers to staff the Bureau, the agency constantly struggled with issues of continuity as well as a lack of personnel to staff the various field offices. At one point at the end of 1866, the Bureau could only staff eight stations in Alabama due to a critical shortage of qualified personnel.
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 major subordinate field offices for the Bureau at Alabama included headquarters at Demopolis, Eufaula, Garland, Greenville, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Opelika, Selma, Talladega, Tuscaloosa, and Tuskegee. 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 Alabama 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 ALABAMA
The Freedmen's Bureau's major activities in Alabama 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.
Shortly after accepting the position of Assistant Commissioner in Alabama, Brig. Gen. Swayne requested permission from the Freedmen's Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC, to set aside 1,225 acres of land on the Broward Plantation near Montgomery for freedmen. The plantation had been abandoned shortly before the end of the war and was confiscated by Federal authorities. Montgomery Home Colony, established on some of this land, became the largest of several "home colonies" set aside to provide services for the freedmen. Home colonies were also established at Talladega, Mobile, Garland, Butler County, Montgomery, Selma, Demopolis, and Huntsville. The colonies were not self–sufficient communities of freedmen like those found in South Carolina or Louisiana. Instead, the colonies were distribution centers where the Bureau disseminated rations, clothes, seeds, and tools; processed claims; provided medical care; and organized services for the infirm, orphans, and the elderly. The central functions of these colonies were organized around a freedmen's hospital. The freedmen's hospital at Montgomery offered services to all races. From November 1866 to August 1867, it treated 168 refugees (whites), five of whom died. During the same period, the hospital treated 6,058 freedmen, of whom 162 died.
From 1865 to 1867, Alabama suffered repeated and massive crop failures due to drought or frost conditions. During the same period, the state was swept by a series of epidemics, with smallpox proving the most deadly disease affecting the freedmen. In addition to medical care, one of the most important duties for the Bureau in Alabama was the issuance of rations to refugees and freedmen to stave off malnutrition and starvation.
The Alabama Bureau also expended great resources and energy mitigating contract disputes between freedmen and white landowners as well as attempting to overturn draconian "black codes" enacted by the Alabama State Legislature and signed by the Governor. In his 1866 annual report to the Washington, DC, headquarters of the Bureau, Swayne complained that white landowners rampantly defrauded freedmen of benefits spelled out in their labor contracts.1 However, Swayne complained most extensively in this report about a particular set of "black codes" passed by the Legislature late in 1865 as vagrancy laws. These codes were passed shortly before Christmas after widespread complaints by white landowners that freedmen refused to work during the Christmas week. Apparently, freedmen expected to continue the tradition of time off from work at Christmas dating back to the antebellum years. Brig. Gen. Swayne charged that these laws returned freedmen to a state of slavery. First, he pointed to the authorized use of chain gangs in which freedmen worked with no compensation for even the most minor offenses. Second, the newly established probate courts often worked against freedmen. They were responsible for settling contract disputes between freedmen and white landowners. However, one component of the law passed by the Legislature stipulated that freedmen were not allowed to testify against whites or serve on juries. In cases where the courts found in favor of the white landowners, the presiding judge had the option of forcing freedmen into uncompensated labor for the white landowners or impressing freedmen's children as free laborers for the litigant. The black codes also authorized county officials to impress orphaned children as laborers on local plantations. Swayne was able to convince the Alabama Legislature to eventually overturn most of these codes. In districts where he could not force the probate courts to fairly enforce the law, he set up special freedmen's courts to hear complaints.
However, Swayne was unable to convince the Legislature to overturn provisions of the vagrancy laws that allowed widespread arrests of freedmen. The code authorized local and state law enforcement officials to summarily arrest those freedmen without contract papers who were allegedly causing "disturbances" in public places and roads. The normal punishment under this penal code was forced labor on nearby plantations. Finally, in March 1867, the Bureau saw this law overturned through the Military Reconstruction Bill for the District of Alabama (14 Stat. 429).
The Freedmen's Bureau in Alabama had a major impact in providing education for freedmen from 1866 to 1869. Due to its limited budget and resources, the Bureau was unable to directly establish and operate the great number of freedmen schools needed. However, the successive Assistant Commissioners proved very adept at finding other means for establishing these schools. They successfully implemented a three–way partnership program in which a wide variety of Northern relief societies flooded the state with resources to build schools, money for books and teachers, or volunteer members who instructed the freedmen for no fee. The freedmen were often responsible for actual maintenance of facilities as well as contributions of money and resources for upkeep of the local schools. Bureau agents oversaw the education program and provided land and protection for the schools. The results of this program were impressive. At the beginning of the school year in October 1866, there were 3,100 freedmen in classes taught by 68 teachers. By June 1867, these figures had grown to just under 10,000 students instructed by 150 teachers.
1 Annual Report of the Assistant Commissioner, Montgomery, AL, October 31, 1866, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Alabama, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1870 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M809, Roll 2), Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.