[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1911.]
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 families 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 offices 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 TENNESSEE
In Tennessee, the Bureau's operations began on July 1, 1865, when Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk took command as Assistant Commissioner. General Fisk originally divided Tennessee into three subdistricts with headquarters at Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. Later, two additional subdistricts were added with headquarters at Pulaski and Knoxville. The subdistricts were further subdivided into agencies with boundaries that usually coincided with county lines. Among the more significant of these additional local offices were those headquartered at Columbia, Gallatin, Jackson, Kingston, Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Purdy, Springfield, and Trenton. In addition, from July 1865 to June 1866, the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee also had jurisdiction over Kentucky and the northern part of Alabama.
Brig. Gen. John R. Lewis succeeded Fisk in September 1866, and served to December 1866; Maj. Gen. William P. Carlin served from January 1867 to October 1868; and Lt. Col. James Thompson served from October 1868 to May 1869 (the last several months as superintendent of education). At that time, in accordance with the act of July 25, 1868, Bureau operations were terminated except for educational functions and the collection of claims.
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations and provided medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools.
From July 1865 through October 1866, the Freedmen's Bureau issued nearly 150,000 rations to both freedmen and white refugees in Tennessee and Kentucky. In addition, several charitable organizations contributed significant amounts of corn, clothing, and fuel to aid the destitute. A special $10,000 relief fund was authorized by Congress for the Bureau's use in the event of major destitution in the state. To treat the sick and poor, Tennessee Bureau officials opened dispensaries and/or hospitals in Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Memphis, Tennessee; and in Kentucky, hospitals at Columbus and Camp Nelson, and a dispensary at Louisville. Beginning in late summer 1867 through early fall 1868, the Bureau's ration–relief program was, by and large, limited to a small hospital at Nashville and an orphan asylum at Memphis.1
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee. Like in most states under its control, labor contracts between the two parties had to be approved by Bureau officials and usually lasted for one year. Freedmen who worked for wages generally received $150 – $180 per year, including clothing and housing. About half of the freedmen who signed labor agreements in 1866 in Tennessee worked for a share of the crop. During the year ending in the fall of 1866, Tennessee Bureau officers registered some 20,000 contracts that included approximately 50,000 adults and children. While there were no general rules involving the enforcement of labor agreements, the Bureau's Tennessee office made use of provost courts, military commissions, freedmen courts, and local courts to resolve disputes between freedmen and planters. By 1868, labor conditions in Tennessee worsened. An increase in outrages against freedmen and continued attacks from the recently organized Ku Klux Klan threatened to undermine the free labor system and destabilize Tennessee communities. By 1869, with assistance from the Bureau, some degree of calm was returned to the state and most freedmen were working under contracts earning as much as $150 per year.2
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was also a priority of the Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee. Following the Civil War, many laws in the state restricted the rights and legal status of freedpeople. Freedmen were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and excluded from giving testimony in state courts. Under federal law, the Freedmen's Bureau was authorized to adjudicate all cases where freedmen were being denied the same rights as whites. When Gen. Clinton B. Fisk assumed office as Assistant Commissioner for Tennessee, he immediately established freedmen courts (Bureau courts) to insure justice for blacks. In January 1866, in an effort to remove the need for Bureau courts, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a measure allowing freedmen testimony. However, suspicious of the state's motives and its sincerity to administer equal justice to blacks in local courts, Fisk continued to operate Bureau courts until May 1866. When Bureau courts were discontinued, freedmen had to rely on state officials to protect their rights. In an 1868 report to Commissioner Howard on the operations and conditions in Tennessee, then–Assistant Commissioner W. L Carlin reported that "justice [by civil authorities regarding freedmen] has been impartially administered in the matters arising out of [labor] contracts . . . [but] the enforcement of the laws in criminal cases has been very imperfect."3
The Bureau's educational activity in Tennessee was under the direction of Assistant Commissioner Fisk until the appointment of Lt. Col. Alexander M. York as superintendent of education on July 28, 1865. York was succeeded on August 23 by John Ogden, who served until May 1866. Ogden's successor, Rev. David Burt, served until April 1868, at which time Bvt. Lt. Col. James Thompson assumed the office in addition to his Assistant Commissioner duties. In May 1869, Bvt. Lt. Col. Charles E. Compton assumed the educational duties until July 1870, when all of the Bureau's educational activities in the state ceased.
Within months of his arrival at Nashville as Assistant Commissioner, General Fisk had charge of about 75 schools and more than 260 teachers who were instructing nearly 15,000 students in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Bureau in Tennessee provided rent, construction, and repair of school buildings, and employment and transportation for teachers. The daily operation of the schools was shared by the Freedmen's Bureau, benevolent societies, and, over time, by freedmen themselves. To improve the quality of education for black students and increase the number of qualified teachers, the Bureau sought to establish teacher training schools. On January 9, 1866, with funds provided by the American Missionary Association of New York City and the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission of Cincinnati, Ohio, Fisk University was established as the first teacher training school for blacks in Tennessee. Working closely with the Freedmen's Bureau, the university had an enrollment of more than 800 students by year's end.
Despite the Bureau's goal to provide freedmen with a sound education, teachers and pupils came under repeated attacks from hostile whites, and many schools were either damaged or destroyed. In 1866, the Bureau spent much of its resources repairing and constructing new schoolhouses in Nashville, Tullahoma, Springfield, Memphis, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Smyrna, Shelbyville, and other locations. With a February 1867 act of the Tennessee legislature, black schools that had been formerly maintained by the Freedmen's Bureau, freedmen, and benevolent societies, were all placed under the newly created Tennessee school system by 1868. By the end of 1869, some 100,000 freedmen students were attending "Separate and Segregated" schools maintained and funded by the state.4
1 Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, 133 – 136; The Bureau's relief efforts in Tennessee are also explained in Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Tennessee, September 30, 1867 [pp. 5 – 6], and October 10, 1868 [p. 4], Records of the Commissioner, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
2 Weymouth T. Jordan, "The Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee," The East Tennessee Historical Society's Publications, 11 (1939): 54 – 55; See also Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, 130.
3 Jordan, "The Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee," 50 – 51; Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Tennessee, September 30, 1868 [p. 7]. See also Monthly and Narrative Reports of Operations and Conditions, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Tennessee, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M999, Rolls 16 – 18).
4 Jordan, "The Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee, 55 – 58; See also Frank M. Hodgson, "Northern Missionary Aid Societies, The Freedmen's Bureau and Their Effect on Education in Montgomery County, Tennessee, 1862–1870," The West Tennessee Historical Society [Memphis] Papers, XLIII (December 1889): 45.