[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1912.]
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 TEXAS
Brig. Gen. Edgar M. Gregory, the first Assistant Commissioner of Texas, established his headquarters at Galveston in September 1865. Brig. Gen. Joseph Kiddoo relieved Gregory in May 1866 and was himself succeeded by Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin in January 1867. When Griffin died in office in September 1867, Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds assumed the duties of Assistant Commissioner but was absent from actual duty until November 1867; in the interim, Lt. Charles Garretson, the acting assistant adjutant general, acted as Assistant Commissioner. Upon his arrival, Reynolds moved the headquarters from Galveston to Houston, where it remained until the Bureau ended its operations in the state. In January 1869, Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby succeeded Reynolds who subsequently resumed office in April and served until the Bureau, except for the Superintendent of Education, withdrew from Texas in December 1870.
Beginning in 1867, the Assistant Commissioner of Texas also served as the military commander of the state. Although the Assistant Commissioners created and received records in both aspects of their dual capacities, they appear to have maintained separate sets of records for each. The records that they created and received as military commanders of Texas are among the Records of United States Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920, RG 393, and are not reproduced in this publication.
Although the Freedmen's Bureau did not begin operations in Texas until September 1865, its major activities there generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau provided relief, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools. The Freedmen's Bureau's relief efforts in Texas were minimal and consisted chiefly of issuing food and medicine. Freedmen received beef and pork, bread, peas, corn, coffee, and tea. By fall 1866, the Texas Bureau limited rations to hospitals and asylums. The Bureau established only one hospital in the state, and it survived less than one year.1
The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas. When Brig. Gen. Edgar M. Gregory assumed his duties as Assistant Commissioner in September 1865, he found the existing labor contract system, established by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger, in trouble. Blacks distrusted planters for fear of being re–enslaved, but also delayed signing contracts in the belief that on Christmas 1865 the Federal Government planned to distribute lands of former owners to them. Planters believed that freedmen were "lazy" and would not work unless coerced, and some who entered into labor agreements with freedmen cheated them of their wages and shares of the crops. Gregory attempted to promote cooperation, informing freedmen that while they would be allowed to work for whomever they please, "a life of idleness [would] not be encouraged or allowed." Planters were told that their success was tied directly to the fair and just treatment of freedmen, and any person or persons who acted to the contrary would be arrested and punished.2
In May 1866, the Assistant Commissioner sought to protect both planters and freedmen from individuals who attempted to persuade blacks to break their contracts under the pretext of higher wages. New orders specified that anyone convicted of such practices could be fined as much as $500, and freedmen enticed away from fair agreements were subject to fines not to exceed $25. Assistant Commissioners' efforts to eliminate the distrust among freedmen and planters fell short, but most areas of the state reported an increase in contract signings by spring 1868.3
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was also a Bureau priority. 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. In 1866, the 11th Texas Legislature enacted a series of laws that restricted freedmen in matters of labor, vagrancy, apprenticeship, court testimony, property ownership, and a number of other areas. The Bureau could not effectively address these restrictive laws due to jurisdictional claims that often overlapped with those of the civil courts and the U. S. military. Civil courts claimed jurisdiction over all criminal cases, and military officials reserved the right to handle cases involving soldiers and Federal Government personnel. The Bureau claimed exclusive authority over all cases involving freedmen. To advance its claim, the Bureau established three–member courts consisting of a subordinate chosen by the Assistant Commissioner and two civilians, one selected by each party involved in a given case. Bureau courts could impose fines up to $100 and prison sentences of as much as 30 days. Convictions could be appealed to the Assistant Commissioner, the Commissioner, the Secretary of War, and the President of the United States.4
However, with limited military power and the inability to enforce decisions and protect freedmen from being "maltreated and murdered," the Bureau was forced to transfer most of its cases to civil courts. The agency was limited to trying only those cases involving whippings and beatings. In January 1867, Assistant Commissioner Charles Griffin ordered his subordinates to direct all criminal cases to civil officials. Bureau agents could, however, advise blacks who were involved in civil cases. On November 29, 1867, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, Fifth District Military Commander, brought Bureau judicial activities to a halt.5
The Bureau officially began its educational efforts in Texas with the appointment of E. M. Wheelock as superintendent of schools in October 1865. Wheelock served until February 1867, when he became inspector of schools, a position he held until June 1867. Others holding the position of superintendent of schools included Lt. I. P. Kirkman (Mar.–Oct. 1867); Lt. Charles Garretson (Oct.–Nov. 1867); E. M. Wheelock (Nov. 1867–Apr. 1868); Rev. Joseph Welch and E. C. Bartholomew, acting superintendent (1869 and 1870); Louis Stevenson (Mar.–July 1870); and Bartholomew (July–Dec. 1870), until all Bureau officers were withdrawn from Texas in December 1870.
The Bureau established and maintained schools and examined and appointed teachers. It paid teachers' salaries, provided for their transportation, and paid for construction and repair of school buildings and for the rent of properties used for educational purposes. Private organizations and individuals also established and financed freedmen's schools in Texas. Many schools were established by local whites and freedmen, although subsequently the Bureau provided them direction and support. The American Missionary Association provided some of the pay for teachers it recruited, and salaries were partially subsidized by contributions from freedmen. By Bureau policy, subscriptions were to be solicited from freedmen whenever possible for establishing schools, and tuition was to be charged for each student in attendance.
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Texas included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sunday schools for both groups. Reporting only one freedmen school and 80 students in September 1865, the Bureau reported in summer 1866 that the number of schools had increased to 72, with an enrollment of more than 4,300 pupils. The school regulations devised by the office of the superintendent of education specified that reading, writing, and arithmetic were vital to the success of freedmen; and those subjects received the greatest emphasis in most Bureau schools. Teachers were recruited from the local white population, freedmen themselves, and from the North by freedmen's aid societies. In 1867, to increase the Bureau's educational fund, Assistant Commissioner Joseph Kiddoo instructed his subassistant commissioners to charge both planters and freedmen a fee for labor contracts they approved. Kiddoo also worked out an agreement with the American Missionary Association to provide more teachers in Texas. Between 1868 and 1870, despite a slight decline in teacher recruitment and student enrollment, the Bureau's education programs remained reasonably stable. The Bureau's educational activities in Texas ceased as of December 1870.6
1 Diane Neal and Thomas W. Kremm, "'What Shall We Do With the Negro?' The Freedmen's Bureau in Texas," East Texas Historical Journal 27, No. 2 (1989): 25; see also Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, 153 – 155.
2 Neal and Kremm, "What Shall We Do With the Negro?," 26, 27; see also Circular No. 1, October 12, 1865, Vol. 9 (Texas), reproduced on Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Texas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M821, Roll 19), Record Group 105, National Archives, Washington, DC.
3 Sen. Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., 141 – 142; see also Neal and Kremm, "What Shall We Do With the Negro?" 28.
4 Neal and Kremm, "What Shall We Do With the Negro?," 25; For a discussion of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas and Texas black codes, see Barry A. Crouch, "To Enslave the Rising Generation,' The Freedmen's Bureau and the Texas Black Code," in The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, eds. Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 261 – 285.
5 Neal and Kremm, "What Shall We Do With the Negro?" 25; see also Barry A. Crouch, "A Spirit of Lawlessness: White Violence; Texas Blacks, 1865–1868," Journal of Social History 18, No. 2 (Winter 1984), 217 – 232.
6 James Smallwood, "Black Education in Reconstruction Texas: The Contributions of the Freedmen's Bureau and Benevolent Societies," East Texas Historical Journal 19, No. 1 (1981), 17 – 40; see also Senate Ex. Doc. No. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., 148 – 150.