[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1905.]
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 LOUISIANA
On June 13, 1865, Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard appointed Chaplain Thomas W. Conway as the Assistant Commissioner for Louisiana. At the time of his appointment, Conway headed the military's Louisiana Bureau of Free Labor, which managed the affairs of freedmen employed on "Abandoned" plantations. Conway transferred the Bureau of Free Labor to the newly established Freedmen's Bureau Louisiana headquarters at New Orleans. The parishes of Madison, Carroll, Concordia, and Tenasas in northeastern Louisiana were reassigned in January 1866 from the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi to that of the Assistant Commissioner for Louisiana. The other Assistant Commissioners or Acting Assistant Commissioners in Louisiana and their terms of office were Gen. James S. Fullerton, October 4 – 18, 1865; Gen. Absalom Baird, October 19, 1865–September 1866; Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, October 5–November 27, 1866; Gen. Joseph A. Mower, November 28, 1866–December 4, 1867; Lt. Col. William H. Wood, December 5, 1867–January 2, 1868; Gen. R. C. Buchanan, January 3–August 24, 1868; and Gen. Edward Hatch, August 25, 1868–January 1, 1869.
When Conway took over as Assistant Commissioner, the state was divided into districts that were composed of one to three parishes and commanded by either an agent or superintendent. In April 1867, the state was reorganized into seven subdistricts headed by subassistant commissioners. Subassistant commissioners were required to file monthly inspection reports of their respective jurisdictions with the Assistant Commissioner. Agents or assistant subassistant commissioners, who were responsible for one to two parishes, received their instructions from and reported to subassistant commissioners. The major subordinate field offices for the Bureau in Louisiana included those with headquarters at Baton Rouge, Franklin, Monroe, Natchitoches, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Vidalia. For a list of known Louisiana subordinate field office personnel and their dates of service, see the appendix.
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau field office in Louisiana generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau provided various forms of relief to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts, assisted freedmen in the establishment of schools, administered justice, helped freedmen locate land, and assisted blacks with military claims for back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.
Between June and September 1865, the Bureau in Louisiana issued some 455,290 rations to destitute freedmen and 157,691 to white refugees. With no appropriated funds from Congress, the Bureau relied on several sources to carry out these activities: income from confiscated property, requisitioned supplies from the army, aid from benevolent societies, and a three–dollar tax on black adult laborers. Despite the Bureau's efforts, however, tens of thousands of freedmen and refugees remained in dire straits throughout the state. The lack of available funds, continuous flooding, crop failures, and disease severely hampered the Bureau's relief programs. On March 30, 1867, Congress appropriated monies for a "Special Relief Fund" (15 Stat. 28). The fund authorized the Secretary of War, through the Freedmen's Bureau, to issue provisions and rations to destitute persons in Southern states, including Louisiana.
In response to the act, Commissioner Howard issued a circular on April 3, 1867 (Circular Number 11), that set aside $500,000 for the purpose.1 The agency maintained homes for refugees and orphans. Hundreds of refugees were housed in two hotels in New Orleans (the Commercial and the Western Verandah) and later the Marine Hospital. While most of the residents were from Louisiana, some were from Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Beginning in 1865, the Bureau provided assistance to several privately run orphan asylums in New Orleans and other areas of the state until its work for orphans was discontinued in September 1865. The Bureau also provided medical aid to freedmen and white refugees. In 1866, to help combat such diseases as cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox, seven doctors, on average, served under the Bureau in Louisiana: five at the New Orleans hospital and one at both the Shreveport hospital and the Rost Home Colony. The Bureau also maintained numerous dispensaries throughout the state. In spite of the closure of the Rost Home Colony hospital and most of the Bureau's dispensaries by the end of 1867, the agency in 1868 treated more than 8,500 freedmen for various infectious diseases. At the Rost Home Colony—one of the most successful of the four "Home Colonies" established in Louisiana—Bureau officials also issued rations and clothing, established a school, provided employment, and compiled a variety of personal data about individuals who arrived and departed from the Colony. Both the New Orleans and the Shreveport hospitals maintained registers of patients and the sick and wounded.2
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen's Bureau. In a circular issued on December 4, 1865 (Circular Number 29), Bureau officials in Louisiana outlined the rules governing the free labor system in the state. Freedmen could choose their employers, and all contracts were to be approved by a Bureau agent. Wages were not set, but the circular declared that it was the freedmen's "Duty" to "obtain the best terms they can for their labor." Freedmen were required to work 26 days per month, consisting of 10–hour days in the summer and 9–hour days in the winter. Any work time exceeding 6 hours beyond the normal workday would constitute an additional day's work. In addition to wages, freedmen were also entitled to receive rations, clothing, "Comfortable" living quarters, and medical attention, and each family was to receive a half–acre plot to maintain a garden. Five percent of the freedman's monthly wages was to be retained by the employer for the purpose of sustaining schools for the freedman's children. In cases where freedmen desired to work for a share of the crop, employers were required to have sufficient amounts of provisions available for freedmen and their families each month. Also, employers who entered into share agreements were obligated to pay Bureau agents 1/20 of the amount of the freedmen's share of the crop each month for the benefit of freedmen schools.3
In the two years following the April 1862 occupation of New Orleans by Union troops, various civilian and military organizations established schools to educate freedmen in Louisiana. Gen. Nathaniel Banks's order of March 22, 1864 (Department of the Gulf General Order 38), established a board of education to govern the organization of freedmen's schools. B. Rush Plumly was appointed head of the board, and Lt. Edwin M. Wheelock became supervisor. Schools under the board's jurisdiction were supported mainly by a tax on citizens recently disloyal to the Union. On June 29, 1865, Assistant Commissioner Conway took charge of the schools, and on July 5, 1865, replaced Plumly and Wheelock with Capt. H. R. Pease as superintendent of education. Pease's successors included Bvt. Maj. A. G. Studer, Lt. F. R. Chase, J. M. Lee, L. O. Parker, H. H. Pierce, and E. W. Mason.
Pease divided the state into seven school districts, placing military and civilian personnel in charge. Under these officers were school directors responsible for each parish and "Canvassers" who collected the school tax for each district. At the time of his arrival, there were some 126 freedmen schools, with 230 teachers and approximately 19,000 students. However, with limited funds and intense opposition to the school tax, Circular Number 34, dated December 27, 1865, directed that all schools be "suspended until such time as it may be found practicable to re-establish them on a permanent and self–supporting basis."4
In February 1866, then–Assistant Commissioner Baird sought to make schools self–supporting through a tuition plan. Despite Baird's new plan and congressional appropriations of 1866 and 1867 for freedmen education in the South, the Freedmen's Bureau's educational programs in Louisiana continued to face financial difficulties. In June 1868, Congress authorized the Bureau to sell school buildings to private groups that were willing to maintain freedmen schools, and the Bureau entered into cooperative agreements with such groups as the American Missionary Society, the Methodist Freedmen's Aid Society, and the Free Mission Baptists. Under the agreements, the Bureau provided monies for construction of the school buildings, and the religious organizations maintained the schools. In 1870, the cooperation between the Bureau and religious groups led to significant progress in the establishment of numerous freedmen schools in Louisiana. Despite their efforts however, freedmen schools continued to suffer from the effects of limited resources, lack of competent teachers, and a segregated school system.5
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was of paramount concern to the Freedmen's Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states enacted a series of laws, commonly known as "Black Codes," that 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. Assistant Commissioners were directed to "adjudicate, either themselves or through officers of their appointment, all difficulties arising between Negroes themselves, or between Negroes and whites or Indians."6 Assistant Commissioner Conway issued Circular Number 15 (September 15, 1865), authorizing his subordinates to establish freedmen courts in cases where freedmen were not receiving just treatment. Conway's successors—Fullerton, Baird, and Sheridan—believed that civil officers in most parishes administered justice impartially in freedmen cases, and so abolished the special tribunals as unnecessary. Nevertheless, Bureau officers were still required to represent freedmen in court cases and refer the most extreme cases of injustice to United States courts. In the latter part of 1866, fearing that freedmen's rights were not being adequately protected, Assistant Commissioner Joseph Mower re–instituted some Bureau judicial functions that had been previously suspended by his predecessors. William H. Wood, who succeeded Mower, told Bureau agents during his tenure that only in cases where the evidence clearly showed the civil court's failure to administer justice, were they to become involved. Wood's replacement, Gen. Robert C. Buchanan, like Fullerton, Baird, and Sheridan, continued the policy of leaving matters of justice to civil authorities. By the time Gen. Edward Hatch assumed office as Assistant Commissioner in 1868, Louisiana had restored its constitutional relations with the Federal Government, and matters concerning justice were returned to the state.7
The Southern Homestead Act (14 Stat. 66), 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. Six million acres of this Federal land was located in Louisiana. The act specifically prohibited discrimination against applicants due to race, and thus offered Louisiana freedmen and others an opportunity to become landowners. Only persons who headed households or were former United States soldiers were eligible to apply. A five–dollar application fee was required of all applicants, which allowed them to settle on an 80–acre tract and gain permanent possession after five years of cultivation. Generally, the Freedmen's Bureau, through "Locating Agents," assisted interested freedmen in finding plots, and provided them with one-month subsistence, free transportation to their prospective tracts of land, and seeds for initial planting. By January 1867, J. J. Saville, as locating agent, found homesteads for 87 freedmen, 73 whites, and 14 soldiers. However, because the New Orleans land office was closed, only 7 were able to file applications. While limited resources and the lack of suitable lands for settlement hindered freedmen in their effort to acquire land, freedmen also faced intense opposition from whites who opposed black land ownership. Freedmen were thus encouraged by Bureau officials in Louisiana to settle on land in large numbers in order to protect themselves from intense opposition by whites.8
An act of Congress on June 14, 1864, authorized the payment of bounties, not to exceed $100, to black soldiers who had entered the military after June 15, 1864, and who were free on April 19, 1861 (14 Stat. 126). Amendments in 1866 dropped the requirement of freedom at enlistment and offered additional bounties of $100 for those blacks who had signed on for three years, and $50 for individuals who enlisted for two years. To assist black soldiers and their heirs in filing bounty and other military claims against the Federal Government, a claims agency was initially established in the United States Sanitary Commission. On July 14, 1865, Commissioner Howard authorized Freedmen's Bureau officials to act as agents of the Commission and to assist it in filing for black military claims. However, freedmen often rejected the free services of the agency and paid fees to private claims agents, believing that they would receive their money quicker. In 1867, concerned about abuse and fraud in the settlement of black military claims, Congress passed a law making the Freedmen's Bureau the sole agent for payment of claims of black veterans (15 Stat. 26). From October 31, 1866, through September 30, 1867, the Bureau in Louisiana settled claims amounting to just $1,489.73. However, one year later, 240 veterans' claims amounting to $52,058 were settled, with 484 remaining to be resolved.9
1 Howard A. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970), 64 – 76.
2 Ibid., 76 – 85; For a discussion of the establishment and activities at Rost Home Colony, see Michael F. Knight, "The Rost Home Colony: St. Charles Parish, Louisiana," Prologue 33, No. 1 (Fall 2001): 214 – 220; Records relating to the Freedmen's hospital at New Orleans have been reproduced on Records of the New Orleans Field Offices, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1483, Rolls 1 – 7); For Shreveport hospital records, see Roll 101 in this publication.
3 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess. Serial Vol. 1256, pp. 30 – 33.
4 White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana, pp. 166 – 175; See also House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1256, pp. 35 – 36.
5 White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana, 176 – 200.
6 House Ex. Doc. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1255, pp. 45 – 46.
7 White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana, 134 – 165.
8 Ibid., 59 – 63.
9 Howard A. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana, pp. 160 – 162; See also, Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Louisiana, October 5, 1868 [pp. 19 – 20], Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Record Group 105, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.