[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1913.]
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. However, the records of this branch are among the Bureau's files.
THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU IN VIRGINIA
In Virginia, the Bureau's operations began in June 1865 when Assistant Commissioner Orlando Brown established his headquarters in Richmond. Brown served until May 1866, when he was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, who remained in office until August 1866. Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield served from August 1866 to March 1867, when Orlando Brown again assumed office and served as both Assistant Commissioner and superintendent of education until May 1869.
From June 1866 to March 1867, Assistant Commissioners Terry and Schofield also served as military commanders of the Department of Virginia and its successor, the Department of the Potomac. Although the two generals created and received records in both capacities, they maintained separate sets of records for this period. Records created by Terry and Schofield while serving in their military capacities are found among the Records of United States Army Commands, 1821–1920, RG 393.
Beginning in September 1865, the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia was responsible for Bureau operations in the Virginia counties of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Loudoun, and the Freedmen's Village near Arlington, VA. Bureau officers were assigned to supervise the activities of these districts. In August 1866, supervision of Loudoun County was transferred to the Assistant Commissioner for Virginia, and Alexandria and Fairfax Counties were similarly transferred in March 1867. Because officers in the above counties reported to the Assistant Commissioner of the District of Columbia, some records for Virginia are among his files.
From July 4, 1865 to April 14, 1867, the Virginia Bureau was divided into 10 districts, with an agent or superintendent in charge of each. Districts were further divided into subdistricts, each headed by an assistant superintendent. On April 15, 1867, the state was reorganized into 10 subdistricts, with a subassistant commissioner in charge of each. The subdistricts were divided further into divisions headed by assistant subassistant commissioners. Subdistrict headquarters were established at Alexandria, Fort Monroe, Fredericksburg, Gordonsville, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, Winchester, and Wytheville. On January 1, 1869, the 10 subdistricts were reorganized into 8 educational subdistricts, with an assistant superintendent of schools in charge of each. The heads of the various subdivisions supervised all Bureau activities, including education, in their respective areas and reported on educational matters to both the superintendent of education and the Assistant Commissioner.
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia 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.
The Freedmen's Bureau's efforts to provide relief to both blacks and whites in Virginia began almost as soon as Orlando Brown assumed office as Assistant Commissioner for the state in June 1865. From late summer to early fall 1865, the Bureau issued more than 350,000 rations at a cost of nearly $33,000. By mid October 1865, however, the number of rations issued had declined from a previous 275,000 to less than 236,000. During the same period, the number of people receiving rations decreased from 16,298 to 11,622. In September 1866, with Commissioner Howard's limitation of government assistance to those persons in orphanages and hospitals, and the plan to relinquish relief efforts for the destitute to state and local government officials, the Bureau in Virginia issued rations to fewer than 5,000 individuals statewide. Because the Virginia Bureau in 1866 and 1867 was committed to reducing expenditures and providing limited relief for those in dire need, by late September 1868 a large number of freedmen in the state still remained impoverished.1
The Virginia Bureau also opened several hospitals for the sick and infirm. At various times, hospitals were established at Eastville, Drummondtown, Norfolk, Hampton, Yorktown, Petersburg, Farmville, Lynchburg, Danville, Richmond, and City Point. Under the direction of surgeon J. J. De Lamaster, 13 contract and 2 noncontract physicians provided treatment for more than 650 patients during 1865 and 1866. Two dispensaries administered more than 18,000 prescriptions for medicine. At Howard Grove Hospital near Richmond, Virginia, the Bureau opened a ward for the insane and a home for the aged and infirm. In the northern part of the state, homes were located for 139 inmates housed at an orphan asylum. By late October 1866, over 30,000 freedmen received medical aid from the Bureau in Virginia. By October 1867, that number increased to 50,000.2
The Bureau worked to make freedmen self–sufficient and to incorporate them into the new free–labor system in Virginia. Thousands of freedmen who crossed Union lines during the Civil War continued to seek support from the Freedmen's Bureau at war's end. With great demand for labor in some areas (especially in large cities) and not in others, and the Federal Government's determination to reduce dependency on government aid, the Virginia Bureau provided transportation for persons who were unable to find work in areas where they resided to locations where work was readily available. Those able–bodied freedmen who refused or did not apply for transportation would no longer receive rations. Under labor agreements approved by the Virginia Bureau, freedmen received rations (but no clothing) and wages that averaged about $9 per month. In some districts freedmen worked for a share of the crop. Often, however, with limited employment (especially during the winter months), low wages, inadequate shares of crops, and the failure of local officials to provide for the destitute, freedmen were constantly dependent upon the Bureau for subsistence.3
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen were major concerns of the Virginia Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states, including Virginia, 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 or to testify in state courts. In September 1865, Assistant Commissioner Orlando Brown established Freedmen's Bureau courts to adjudicate cases involving freedmen where the penalties did not exceed a $100 fine or three months in prison. The three–member court was composed, for the most part, of a Bureau agent, a planters' representative, and an individual selected by freedmen. In February 1866, the Virginia legislature amended laws that adversely affected the rights of freedmen, and thus by early May 1866, Bureau courts were discontinued, and both civil and criminal cases were turned over to state authorities. However, because of the failure of many local court officials to administer equal justice (especially in areas outside of large cities and towns), the Bureau in Virginia found it necessary to re–establish Bureau courts in certain areas of the state. In late May 1867, Maj. Gen. Schofield, who served as both Commander of the 1st Military District and Assistant Commissioner for Virginia, issued orders appointing military commissioners to oversee the administration of justice in Bureau subdistricts throughout Virginia, giving them exclusive jurisdiction and power to decide whether a case would be tried by a civil court or a military commission. Despite the establishment of military commissioners however, protecting the rights and securing justice for freedpeople still remained an enormous problem for the Bureau as late as the fall of 1868.4
The Freedmen's Bureau's educational activities in Virginia began with Assistant Commissioner Brown's appointment of Prof. W. H. Woodbury as Virginia's superintendent of schools for freedmen on June 20, 1865. By November, he had been replaced by Ralza Morse Manly, the assistant superintendent of schools (later education), who served until August 15, 1870, when all Bureau educational activities ceased.
Within six months of assuming office, Manly had more than 136 teachers instructing some 8,000 pupils. The number of teachers soon increased to more than 200, with nearly 18,000 students under instruction. During the years 1866 and 1867, freedmen schools continued to improve and expand. By the fall of 1868, there were nearly 270 schools in operation, with more than 350 teachers providing instruction for some 20,000 pupils.5 Schools assisted or maintained by the Bureau in Virginia included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath schools. Students received instruction in such subjects as reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. Many teachers were recruited from the North by freedmen's aid societies that included the American Missionary Association, the New York National Freedmen's Relief Association, the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the Friends Freedmen's Relief Association, and the American Freedmen's Union Commission. Teachers were also recruited from among the local white and black populations.
The Bureau's educational support for freedmen schools generally involved assistance in the establishment and maintenance of schools and the examination and appointment of teachers. Bureau funds were used to pay for construction and repair of school buildings, for rental of properties used for educational purposes, and for providing teachers with transportation. Teachers' salaries were usually paid by freedmen's aid societies; however, in some situations, salaries were partially subsidized by contributions from freedmen. Whenever possible, the Bureau solicited subscriptions from freedmen for the establishment of schools, and in some cases tuition was charged.
1 Mary J. Farmer, "Because They Are Women: Gender and the Virginia Freedmen's Bureau's War on Dependency," in The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, eds. Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 165 – 169; Annual Reports of the Assistant Commissioners, Virginia, October 8, 1867 [pp. 4 – 7], and October 19, 1868 [pp. 12 – 14], Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.
2 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, 163 – 164; For further details on the medical activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia, see Annual Reports of J. J. De Lamater, Surgeon and Chief, Virginia, October 25, 1866 [pp. 1 – 34], and October 1, 1867 [pp. 1 – 23], Annual Reports, Virginia, RG 105, NAB.
3 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, Serial Vol. 1276, 161 – 162; see also Annual Reports, Virginia, October 8, 1867, [pp. 4 – 8], and October 19, 1868, [pp. 12 – 14].
4 George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), 152 – 153; Senate Ex. Doc. 6, Serial Vol. 1276, 165 – 167; Annual Reports, Virginia, October 8, 1867, [p. 3], and October 19, 1868, [pp. 2 – 8].
5 Senate Ex. Doc. 6, Serial Vol. 1276, 164 – 165; Annual Reports, Virginia, October 8, 1867, [pp. 9 – 14], and October 19, 1868, [pp. 16 – 18].