[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1907.]
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, letters were 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 MISSISSIPPI
The first Assistant Commissioner of Mississippi was Col. Samuel Thomas, who established his headquarters at Vicksburg in June 1865. Before his appointment to the Freedmen's Bureau, Colonel Thomas served in Mississippi within Chaplain John Eaton's Freedmen's Department of the Department of Tennessee. The functions and activities of the Freedmen's Department in Mississippi were similar to those of the later Bureau. Although the size and organization of the Mississippi office varied from time to time, the Assistant Commissioner's staff usually included an acting adjutant general, an assistant inspector general, and a surgeon in chief, a superintendent of education, a disbursing officer, and a chief commissary of subsistence.
At the start of operations in Mississippi, officers subordinate to the Assistant Commissioner were organized in a hierarchical manner. The state of Mississippi and the parishes of Madison, Carroll, Concordia, and Tenas in northeastern Louisiana were divided into the Western, Southern, and Northern Districts, with an acting assistant commissioner in charge of each district. Subassistant commissioners in charge of subdistricts, which usually encompassed several counties, reported directly to the acting assistant commissioners, who, in turn, reported to the Assistant Commissioner. In January 1866, the Louisiana parishes were placed within the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for Louisiana. In March 1866, the three districts were discontinued; thereafter, the subassistant commissioners or the civilian agents in charge of subdistricts reported directly to the Assistant Commissioner.
Colonel Thomas was succeeded by three other officers who acted as both Assistant Commissioners and military commanders in Mississippi. In April 1866, Gen. Thomas J. Wood was appointed Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi; he was succeeded in January 1867 by Gen. Alvan C. Gillem. In March 1869, Gen. Adelbert Ames was appointed Assistant Commissioner; he established his headquarters at Jackson and supervised the closing of the office of the Assistant Commissioner. Gen. Ames's appointment was revoked on April 30, 1869. The major subordinate field offices for the Bureau at Mississippi included those with headquarters at Jackson, Lauderdale, Natchez, and Vicksburg. For a list of known Mississippi subordinate field office personnel and their dates of service, see the Appendix.
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in Mississippi 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, provided assistance in legalizing freedmen marriages, and assisted, to a limited extent, in locating land for freedmen.
The Freedmen's Bureau sought to prevent widespread starvation and destitution in Mississippi by issuing more than 180,000 rations to both whites and blacks in 1865, and 170,000 rations to blacks and white refugees in 1866. Also in 1866, Commissioner Howard ordered an end to rations except for freedmen in Bureau hospitals and orphanages. By December 1868, the Bureau's relief efforts in Mississippi ceased.1
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen's Bureau in Mississippi. In General Orders Number 5 (July 29, 1865), Assistant Commissioner Thomas outlined the rules governing the free labor system in the state. He specified that all contracts between freedmen and planters must be in writing and approved by the Bureau. Contracts were not to exceed one year, and any contracts involving wages must allow for food, clothing, and medical attention. The Bureau settled disputes. Between 1865 and 1866, numerous freedmen complained of inadequate compensation for their labor. Freedmen who worked for "Shares" (for a portion of the crop) found themselves in debt to planters at the end of the season, and thus forced to contract for the next year to pay their obligations. Blacks who worked for wages were frequently cheated of their pay and in some instances, like those who worked for shares, were "Driven Off" once the crops were harvested. Assistant Commissioner T. J. Wood, who replaced Thomas in 1867, instituted a plan by which freedmen contracted with planters for a portion of the crop. Freedmen were to receive one–third of the crop, and planters were to supply land, stock, tools and food. Clothing, medicines, and the cost of rations provided to children too young to work would be taken from the freedmen's share of the crop at the end of the year. By 1868, a modified version of the "Share System" became the most prevalent kind of labor agreement in Mississippi. Freedmen who worked land provided by the planters paid a stipulated rent or a certain amount of cotton or corn for the use of the land. By and large, this labor arrangement allowed freedmen to rely less on credit from planters and more on their own resources for supplies.2
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was also of great concern to the Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states, including Mississippi, enacted a series of laws commonly known as "Black Codes," which restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. Under Mississippi law, for example, blacks could not rent or lease land outside cities and towns, thus restricting their ability to become independent farmers. Freedmen who were not lawfully employed by the second Monday of each January were considered vagrants, and as such, were subject to fines and imprisonment. Freedmen were prohibited from owning firearms without a license, and black children who were deemed orphans could be bound out as apprentices without their parents' permission. Assistant Commissioner Thomas issued General Orders Number 8 (September 20, 1865), which offered Mississippi judicial officials the opportunity to try freedmen cases in local courts (without interference from the Bureau) if they would afford blacks the same "Rights and Privileges" as whites. In October 1865, after Mississippi officials agreed to accept his offer, Thomas ordered that all cases relating to freedmen were to be handled by Mississippi judges and magistrates. However, it was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that the Freedmen's Bureau in Mississippi was able to achieve some degree of equal justice for freedmen.3
From July 1865 to July 1866, the educational activity of the Bureau in Mississippi was under the direction of Dr. Joseph Warren. Following his resignation, the duties of the superintendent of education were performed by Assistant Commissioners for eight months, until H. R. Pease assumed the duties of the office on May 18, 1867. Pease found that some 63 teachers were employed in the major towns and villages by various educational and benevolent associations, and that another 31 teachers, who received aid from the Bureau, were employed by freedmen. Many of the schools, however, lacked adequate buildings, and in schools in areas where the black population was small, freedmen were unable to support teachers' salaries. Teachers and trustees had difficulty collecting tuition from pupils, and, with no teaching standards, some teachers were unfit to teach. The Bureau cooperated with educational and benevolent societies, and encouraged freedmen to contribute to the support of their schools by paying a monthly tuition. By December 1868, the number of pupils attending freedmen schools increased from over 2,000 in October 1867 to more than 6,000, and the number of freedmen schools increased from 47 to 115. Teachers commissioned by educational societies increased from 13 to 23; and teachers supported by freedmen and the Bureau went from 34 to 101. Assistant Commissioner Gillem reported that during the year ending October 1868, more whites were beginning to take an active role in assisting blacks in building schools and supporting teachers.4
The Bureau in Mississippi was very active in documenting and solemnizing marriages of freedmen. Continuing a practice started by military officials and civilians during the Civil War, Assistant Commissioner Samuel Thomas issued Circular Number 1 (July 3, 1865) authorizing his officers to keep a record of marriages of persons of color and gave instruction on how to maintain marriage registers. Returns of marriage certificates forwarded to the Office of the Commissioner by Assistant Commissioner Thomas include such information as the color of persons marrying, complexion of parents, and the number of years the couple had been living together as man and wife. The certificates also include data about the number of years the couple lived with another person, how they were separated, and the number of children by a previous connection. Marriage records in the records of the Mississippi Office of the Assistant Commissioner provide similar information. The registers for Davis Bend, Vicksburg, and Natchez, Mississippi, document the registration of more than 4,600 freedmen from Mississippi and northern Louisiana. Over half of the soldiers registering marriages for Natchez were members of the 6th Mississippi Heavy Artillery of the U. S. Colored Troops. Nearly all of the soldiers registering marriages for Davis Bend served with the 64th Colored Infantry. The Mississippi subdistrict field office also registered freedmen marriages or issued licenses and certificates in the subdistricts of Brookhaven, Columbus, Davis Bend, Goodman, Grenada, Jackson, and Pass Christian.5
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. Nearly 5 million acres of this Federal land was located in Mississippi. Because the act specifically prohibited discrimination against applicants due to race, it offered an opportunity for Mississippi freedmen and others to become landowners. Generally, the Freedmen's Bureau assisted interested freedmen through "Locating Agents" in finding plots, and provided them with one–month subsistence, free transportation to their prospective tracts of land, and seeds for the initial planting. In Mississippi, as in other public land states in the South, most freedmen were under labor agreements at the time of the act and were unable to take advantage of land opportunities. Because Mississippi had no land office, Bureau officials were unable to secure maps and other records relating to the quality and location of public lands in the state. By 1868, feeling that much of the public land for Mississippi was of poor quality and "Unfit for Agricultural Purposes," Bvt. Brig. Gen. Alvan C. Gillem, who replaced Thomas Wood in early 1867 as Mississippi Assistant Commissioner, made no effort to survey public lands. A land office was eventually opened in August 1868. By then, however, the Freedmen's Bureau, for all practical purposes, had been discontinued.6
1 William C. Harris, Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), p. 84; Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Mississippi, October 10, 1867, p. 20, and December 12, 1868, pp. 11 – 12, Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Record Group 105, NARA.
2 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1256, pp. 167 – 168; Annual Reports, Mississippi, October 10, 1867, pp. 4 – 11, and December 12, 1868, pp. 3 – 4.
3 Donald G. Nieman, "The Freedmen's Bureau and the Mississippi Black Code," The Journal of Mississippi History XL, No. 2 (May 1978): pp. 92 – 99; House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., pp. 101 – 102.
4 Annual Reports, Mississippi, October 10, 1867, pp. 27 – 34; see also, the report for December 12, 1868, [pp. 12 – 17].
5 For a discussion of Mississippi marriage registers, see Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1790–1925 (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), pp. 18 – 24. The Mississippi marriage registers are reproduced in National Archives Microfilm Publication M826, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Mississippi, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869, Roll 42. Compiled service records for the 6th Mississippi Heavy Artillery, USCT, have been reproduced on microfilm publication M1818, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Artillery Organizations, Rolls 109 – 133. For returns of marriage certificates forwarded to the Office of the Commissioner, see microfilm publication M1875, Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861–1869, Rolls 2 and 3.
6 Warren Hoffinagle, "The Southern Homestead Act: Its Origins and Operation," The Historian; A Journal of History, XXXII, No. 4 (1970): 618 – 620.