[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1904.]
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 KENTUCKY
From July 1865 until June 1866, Maj. Gen. C. B. Fisk served as Assistant Commissioner for both Kentucky and Tennessee. Fisk appointed Bvt. Brig. Gen. John Ely to serve as chief superintendent for the Bureau at Kentucky (from March to June 1866). Ely established his headquarters at Louisville, Kentucky, and divided his operations into five subdistricts: Lexington, Louisville, Northwestern, Southern, and Central. Records relating to Kentucky created prior to Ely's tenure may be included among the files of the Assistant Commissioner for Tennessee.
In June 1866, Maj. Gen. Jeff C. Davis was appointed as the first Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky. Superintendents (or subassistant commissioners) employed under Davis were generally responsible for from 3 to 11 counties, and agents (civilian and military) from 1 to 3 counties. Agents received their orders directly from superintendents, and all superintendents were required to submit monthly reports of their activities to the Assistant Commissioner. Brig. Gen. Sidney Burbank succeeded Davis in March 1867 and was replaced by Maj. Benjamin Runkle, who served from January 1869 to May 1869 as Assistant Commissioner and superintendent of education. In August 1870, when superintendents of education were withdrawn from the states, Runkle served as claims agent for Kentucky until July 1871. H. H. Ray succeeded Runkle as claims agent, and served in this capacity until December 1871. P. J. Overley became the claims agent in January 1872 and remained in this position until the Bureau's operations in Kentucky were discontinued in April. The major subordinate field offices for the Bureau at Kentucky included those with headquarters at Bowling Green, Lebanon, Lexington, Louisville, and Paducah. For a list of known Kentucky subordinate field office personnel and their dates of service, see the Appendix.
While the Freedmen's Bureau did not begin full operations in Kentucky until June 1866, its activities in the state generally resembled those conducted in other Southern states. The Bureau supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, assisted freedmen in the establishment of schools, helped freedmen legalize marriages, and worked with black soldiers and their heirs in processing claims relating to military service.
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen's Bureau. In a circular issued on July 24, 1865 (Circular Number 2), Assistant Commissioner Fisk told his subordinates that for both Kentucky and Tennessee freedmen must be free to choose their own employers and that wages were to be based on supply and demand rather than a fixed rate. Bureau officials were to negotiate and approve labor contracts and enforce violations by either party. Compulsory unpaid labor was strictly prohibited. In some areas of Kentucky, planters refused to enter into written agreements with freedmen, and freedmen themselves were reluctant to enter into annual agreements for fear of being reduced to slavery. However, with strong reservations, Bureau officers negotiated monthly agreements for them but encouraged freedmen to sign annual contracts that offered yearlong employment. Wages for monthly contracts ranged from $8 to $10 a month for adult male field hands, well below the state's average wage of $15 a month for men. However by the summer of 1866, with the Bureau's insistence, adult laborers in the tobacco region of the state received $25 per month and laborers in the farm belt areas earned $12 per month. In some Kentucky counties, freedmen received a third of the crops rather than wages. However, because of the shortage of laborers in the state, freedmen were able to demand higher wages, and thus over time the sharecropping system became less attractive.1
The Bureau worked to protect the rights and legal status of freedmen, which, despite the ending of slavery by the 13th Amendment, were still endangered by the persistence of the old slave codes. On May 30, 1865, Commissioner Howard issued Circular Number 5, authorizing Assistant Commissioners to establish courts in states where the old codes existed and the right of blacks to testify against whites was prohibited. Gen. Fisk subsequently announced to the citizens of Kentucky that freedmen courts would operate in the state as long as freedmen weren't given the same rights as whites. By 1867, as a result of several Federal court rulings, Bureau courts ceased to operate in Kentucky. When state courts denied black testimony, the agency, under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, took cases involving freedmen to the U. S. District Court of Kentucky. In instances where freedmen lacked resources to pursue their cases in Federal court, the Bureau provided transportation for witnesses and other forms of assistance. Despite the Bureau's efforts to safeguard rights and secure justice for freedmen in Kentucky, admitting the testimony of blacks against whites still remained an issue in 1869 when Bureau Assistant Commissioners and their subordinates were withdrawn from the states. However, in January 1872, with a change in public opinion and pressure from the courts, the Kentucky State Legislature amended state law and allowed blacks to testify.
When Gen. John Ely began his duties as chief superintendent for Kentucky under Gen. Fisk's supervision, there were 30 freedmen schools and more than 2,000 students. The schools were organized and maintained by black churches, with black clergy as instructors. Freedmen schools faced widespread violence and white opposition, and in many cases, teachers and students were forced to abandon efforts to maintain school buildings. Ely and his subordinate assisted freedmen in reopening schools that had been forced to close.2 Under Maj. Gen. Jeff C. Davis, who replaced Ely in the summer of 1866, the number of freedmen schools increased to 54, with some 67 teachers and more than 3,200 students. Excluding the schools established at Lexington and Covington under the auspices of the Cincinnati Branch of the Western Freedmen's Aid Society and the Cincinnati Branch of the American Missionary Association, the freedmen schools were taught by black teachers who were supported by subscriptions from parents and black religious institutions. The Bureau, however, rented the building for the school at Lexington. Under Brig. Gen. Sidney Burbank, who succeeded Davis in March 1867, the number of freedmen schools increased to 96, accommodating about 5,000 students aged 6 – 18. By September 1868, in spite of continued violence and opposition, the Bureau had provided support for 135 day schools and 1 night school, serving more than 6,000 students.3
On February 14, 1866, the Kentucky State Legislature passed an act legalizing marriages freedmen had entered into during slavery and authorizing black ministers to solemnize such marriages. Nearly 2 weeks later, on February 26, 1866, Assistant Commissioner Fisk issued Circular Number 5, in accordance with the Kentucky law, directing those freedmen who sought to solemnize a marriage to the county clerk for a marriage license. If the county clerk refused to issue a license, Bureau officials in the subdistricts were authorized to solemnize marriages and issue marriage certificates. Local Bureau officers were required to maintain a register of freedmen marriages and forward a report of such marriages to the Assistant Commissioner at the end of each month. Subordinate Bureau officers were also told to notify persons living as man and wife who had not legalized their marriage, to report to the Bureau to take the necessary steps to do so. Persons who failed to comply were guilty of a misdemeanor and were to be punished by a fine and imprisonment.4 This publication reproduces marriage licenses, certificates, and registers of marriages for the Kentucky subdistricts at Augusta, Bowling Green, Columbus, Cynthiana, Owensboro, Paducah, Mt. Sterling, and Winchester. A single freedmen marriage license and a marriage certificate from Kentucky, filed in the Bureau's headquarters records, has been reproduced on roll 1 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M1875, Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861–1869.
In addition to assisting freedmen in solemnizing slave marriages and efforts to sustain the black family, the Bureau helped discharged soldiers, sailors, marines, and their heirs in claims for back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. In accordance with a law passed by Congress on March 29, 1867 (15 Stat. 26), making the Bureau the sole agent for payment of claims relating to black veterans, Bureau disbursing officers assisted freedmen in the preparation and settlement of military claims. In November 1866, in spite of the difficulties in locating veterans who fled the state for fear of violence, Assistant Commissioner Davis reported that he had forwarded more than 260 black soldiers' claims for back pay and bounty payments to Commissioner Howard's office in Washington, DC. In the following year, Assistant Commissioner Burbank reported that his office had assisted nearly 500 veterans with military claims, and in the fall of 1868, for the year ending October 10, 1868, that more than 1,100 received bounty payments through his office.5
1 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1256, p. 48. See also Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862–1884 (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 96 – 97.
2 See report of Maj. J. C. Davis, August 23, 1866, "Synopses of Letters and Reports Relating to Conditions of Freedmen and Bureau Activities in the States, January 1866–March 1869," Vol. 135, Records of the Commissioner, Record Group 105, NARA, pp. 294 – 395.
3 Ross A. Webb, "The Past Is Never Dead, It's Not Even Past: Benjamin P. Runkle and the Freedmen's Bureau in Kentucky, 1866–1870," The Register of Kentucky Historical Society Vol. 84, No. 4 (Autumn 1986), pp. 348 – 350.
4 See Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky, pp. 121 – 125.
5 Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, p. 67; See also Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Kentucky, 1867 and 1868, Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Record Group 105, NARA.