[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1908.]
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.
HISTORY AND ORGANIZATIONTHE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU IN MISSOURI
On May 31, 1865, Major Gen. Oliver Otis Howard appointed Brig. Gen. John W. Sprague as the Assistant Commissioner for Missouri and Arkansas. In June Sprague established his headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri. Bvt. Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord relieved Sprague in October 1866, and was succeeded by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Smith in March 1867.
When Sprague arrived in St. Louis, his jurisdiction encompassed areas outside Arkansas, including Missouri, Indian Territory, and parts of Kansas (around Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott) and Illinois (around Quincy and Cairo). Commissioner Howard felt by September 1865 that the laws of Missouri afforded enough protection to freedmen for the Bureau's activities to cease there. Therefore, on October 16, 1865, Sprague received orders from Commissioner Howard to transfer headquarters from St. Louis to Little Rock, Arkansas, and the operations of the Bureau were withdrawn from Missouri. However, in April 1867, F. A. Seely was assigned as a disbursing officer for Missouri with headquarters at St. Louis, a position he held until February 1872. Although much of Seely's work related to the processing and payment of claims, he was also in charge of freedmen's affairs in Missouri. Much of his correspondence relates to the establishment of schools for freedmen as well as to the settlement of military claims.
Although the political and social environment in Missouri was less hostile and violent than in other border states, and the Freedmen's Bureau received considerable support for its operations from a large segment of the foreign–born German community, activities of the Missouri Bureau generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau provided relief, worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of freedmen schools, administered justice and protection, helped freedmen legalize marriages, and assisted black soldiers and their heirs with military claims.
When General Sprague assumed command as Assistant Commissioner for Missouri and Arkansas, he assigned Chaplin Alpha Wright as superintendent for Missouri and Kansas. From June 1865 to September 1866, to prevent widespread starvation and destitution, the Bureau in Missouri and Arkansas issued some 1,705,055 rations to both blacks and whites. However, by late October 1865, the Bureau's ration–relief efforts had been discontinued in Missouri. Because civil authorities in the Arkansas district failed to provide medical assistance to the "Destitute and Starving," the Bureau, with assistance from Northern societies, established asylums, hospitals, and various kinds of relief camps. By the fall of 1866, with two commissioned medical officers, contract physicians, and male and female attendants, the Bureau had treated more than 100 refugees and over 15,000 freedmen. In late October 1866, Assistant Commissioner Sprague reported that Arkansas hospitals alone had given medical aid to 3,260 people, nearly 200 of them freedmen. By the end of June 1868, Bureau hospitals in Arkansas had treated four times as many patients as in previous years, and greatly curtailed the attacks of smallpox and cholera.1
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen were paramount concerns to the Freedmen's Bureau. After the Civil War, several Southern states enacted a series of laws commonly known as "Black Codes" that restricted freedmen's rights and legal status. Freedmen often received harsh sentences for petty crimes, and in some instances were unable to get their cases heard in state courts. On May 30, 1865, Commissioner Howard directed Assistant Commissioners to "adjudicate, either themselves or through officers of their appointment, all difficulties arising between Negroes themselves, or between Negroes and whites or Indians." In Missouri, "because good laws [were] passed protecting the rights of freedmen," Bureau officials mostly relied on the civil courts to administer justice in freedmen cases. In Arkansas, however, freedmen's cases were tried in both provost and freedmen courts. A freedmen court consisted of a Bureau official and two citizens of a given county. These courts had jurisdiction over labor disputes and other cases relating to freedmen and refugees that did not exceed $300, 30 days in prison, or a fine of $100. In October 1865, Sprague appointed civilian superintendents to administer justice in Arkansas, especially where freedmen were denied the right to testify in courts. Superintendents were told to follow state court procedures and laws as long as the laws made "No Distinctions on Account of Color." By summer 1866, despite continued allegations of mistreatment of freedmen, all cases but those relating to labor contracts were being handled by state courts or military authorities. In 1867, when reconstruction acts placed Arkansas under the fourth military district, both state and Bureau courts were put under military supervision.2
By the time the Freedmen's Bureau arrived in Missouri, several benevolent societies had established schools for freedmen. In 1864, the American Missionary Society established a freedmen school at Warrensburg, and the Western Freedmen Aid Society (WFAS) assisted military officials in the education of freedmen at Benton Barracks. The WFAS also helped open an orphan home for black children in St. Louis. When Frederick Seely opened his office in Missouri in 1867, there were more than 1,000 students attending some 30 schools in St. Louis alone. Seely, however, provided support and assistance to local groups in the construction of additional schools in St. Louis, Warrensburg, Kansas City, Westport, and Carondolet. In south St. Louis, for example, the Bureau granted $800 to a group of blacks to erect a school at Jefferson and Cinde streets. A group of black Methodists in Carondolet received $1,500 dollars from the Bureau to construct a building for religious and educational purposes.3
In response to Assistant Commissioner Sprague's orders of June 24, 1865, "to keep and preserve a record of marriages of freed people, and by whom the ceremony was performed," Freedmen's Bureau officials in parts of Missouri registered freedmen marriages. Reproduced in this microfilm publication is a register documenting the marriage of some 66 freedmen couples performed during the months of July and August 1865 at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The register includes such information as the date of marriage, names and ages of the bride and bridegroom, where married, by whom, and the number of male and female children. Reports of these marriages and of others performed during the month of August 1865 at Pilot–Knob, Missouri, were forwarded to the Office of the Commissioner in Washington, DC.4
On November 14, 1863, Maj. Gen. J. M. Schofield, commander of the Department of Missouri, issued General Orders Number 135, authorizing the widespread recruitment of African American volunteers for service during the Civil War in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Schofield's order called for the recruitment of slaves, contrabands, and free blacks, with compensation of as much as $300 for loyal slaveowners who lost slaves to military service. More than 8,000 African Americans, most from Missouri, enlisted in the Missouri regiments of the 18th, 60th, 62nd, 65th, and 68th USCT. The Colored Troops Division of the Adjutant General's Office maintained descriptive lists of black volunteers recruited for the army from Missouri. In accordance with a law passed by Congress on May 29, 1865, making the Freedmen's Bureau the sole agent for payment of claims of black veterans, Bureau disbursing officers assisted tens of thousands of black soldiers and their heirs in the preparation and settlement of claims for back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. Reproduced in this publication are registers relating to military claims of black soldiers from Missouri and proceedings of a Missouri commission established by the War Department to award compensation to loyal persons "whom a black volunteer or drafted man may have owed service at the time of his enlistment."5
1 Thomas S. Staples, Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862–74 (New York: Columbia Univ., 1923), pp. 205 – 207; House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial l, Vol. 1256, p. 73.
2 House Ex. Doc. No. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1255, p. 45; Staples, Reconstruction in Arkansas, pp. 211 – 215; For a discussion of Freedmen's Bureau courts (including Missouri), see George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), pp. 152 – 168.
3 W. A. Low, "The Freedmen's Bureau in the Border States," in Radicalism, Racism, and Party Realignment: The Border States During Reconstruction, ed. Richard O. Curry, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1969), pp. 258 – 262.
4 See the series Register of Marriages at Cape Girardeau on Roll 24 of this microfilm publication. The monthly reports of marriages for Cape Girardeau and Pilot–Knob, Missouri, sent to headquarters, are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1875, Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861–1869.
5 See Microfilm Publication M1894, Descriptive Recruitment Lists of Volunteers for the United States Colored Troops for the State of Missouri, 1863–1865. Compiled service records for the 18th Missouri Infantry Regiment, USCT, have been reproduced on M1822, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 14th through 19th, Rolls 65 – 83. See the series Proceedings of a Missouri Commission to Award Compensation to Each Loyal Person to Whom a Black Volunteer or Drafted Man May Have Owed Service at the Time of His Enlistment or Draft into the Military Service of the United States on Roll 24 of this microfilm publication.