[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M2029.]
The Freedmen's Branch was established in the office of the Adjutant General in June 1872. It assumed and continued the unfinished business of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau), which was ended by an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366), effective June 30, 1872.
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). Under the direction of Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard, it 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. 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.
An act of Congress approved July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), ordered the Bureau to withdraw from the states in which it operated and to discontinue its work. Consequently, in early 1869, with the exception of the superintendents of education and the claims agents, the Assistant Commissioners and their subordinate officers ended their field office activities. 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 state superintendents of education ceased to operate in the states, and the headquarters staff was greatly reduced. With the closing of the Bureau on June 30, 1872, its records and remaining functions, which consisted almost exclusively of the disposition of military–related claims, were then transferred to the Freedmen's Branch in the War Department's Office of the Adjutant General.
When Assistant Adjutant General Thomas Vincent assumed office as head of the Freedmen's Branch on June 27, 1872, his charge was to supervise the transfer of the records of the unfinished business of the Freedmen's Bureau and to "look to the arrangement of the records and distribution of the duties, so that there will be the least delay in the future transaction of the business, with the view of completing and closing it." When the records of the Freedmen's Bureau began to arrive at his office, however, Vincent found them "in a state of much confusion." The records for several states and divisions were intermixed with others; some records were missing and presumed kept by Assistant Commissioner and local agents; many transactions relating to claims were never recorded, making it difficult to determine who had been paid; and there were a deficit in the amount of moneys due the some 4,858 unpaid claims and the amount transferred by the Freedmen's Bureau. These and other factors contributed to numerous complaints, accusations of fraud and embezzlement, and delays in the Freedmen's Branch's attempt to prepare and pay claims.1
Vincent established his headquarters and a chief disbursement office in Washington, DC. Capt. James McMillian served as the chief disbursing officer of the Freedmen's Branch from July 1872 to July 1877, until he was succeeded by Capt. G. G. Hunt, who served from July 1877 to February 1879. Field disbursing offices were established at Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis; Missouri; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Payments to claimants in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia were made through the Washington office; in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and states where slavery had not existed, disbursing officers were temporarily assigned.
The effort to organize, arrange, and make sense of the Freedmen's Bureau's records took the Freedmen's Branch almost a year and a half. Nevertheless, in accordance with Joint Resolution Number 25, approved Mach 29, 1867, which had governed the payment of black veterans' claims by the Freedmen's Bureau, the Freedmen's Branch received, acted upon, and paid claims of black soldiers, sailors, and marines and their heirs for bounty, pension, arrears of pay, commutation of rations, and prize money. Under the provisions of the resolution, the chief disbursement officer received all checks and certificates relating to the settlement of blacks soldiers' claims, and was responsible for paying claimants in the Washington, DC, area and for the accounting and disbursements of funds to the field disbursing officers located in the Border and former Confederate States. The Washington office also paid attorneys' fees and expenses, and after satisfactory identification, the balance of the claim was paid to individual claimants, heirs or representatives. To protect black claimants from fraud and "imposition," claimants were to receive payment in currency rather than checks or drafts. The transfer or assignment of power off attorney for the balance of a claim ("or any part thereof") was not allowed. The resolution made clear that it was the duty of the Freedmen's Branch and its officers "to facilitate as far as possible the discovery, identification, and payment of claimants."2
In December 1874, the Secretary of War reported that as of July 1872, the Freedmen's Branch had paid military claims amounting to more than $1 million. He also reported that, to meet the needs of claimants in Kansas and the northwestern areas of Missouri, a field office was opened at Fort Leavenworth. The disbursing office that had been established at Nashville in 1873 was consolidated with the Memphis, TN office and the office at Fort Macon, NC and Columbia, SC, were discontinued. One of the offices at New Orleans, LA, was consolidated with that at Vicksburg, MS. While the Secretary of War reported that payments of claims by means of postal orders were alleviating delays in remote areas, Freedmen's Branch officials still found it difficult to process unpaid bounty and pension claims transferred by the Freedmen's Bureau. In many of these claims, individuals had moved from their former residences and could not be located. Some had died, leaving no representative; others for one reason or another failed to apply for payments.3
By mid–fall 1875, the disbursing office established at Fort Leavenworth, KS was consolidated with that in St. Louis, MO. Because of increasing demand for services, the office at Nashville was reopened. The offices at Fort Monroe, VA and Charleston, SC were permanent closed. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1875, the Freedmen's Branch received more than 13,000 correspondences relating to the military claims of black veterans. Disbursing officers settled more than 3,700 of these claims, at a cost of nearly $390,000. Also, through the "diligent effort" of disbursing officers, the settlement of unpaid claims had increased, although allocating some claimants still remains a problem. To protect the interests of both the Federal Government and claimants, disbursing officers worked "vigorously" to investigate contested and fraudulent claims, which had increasingly become an important part of their duties. The Freedmen's Branch also continued to pursue matters relating to embezzlement.4
By October 1876, payment of military claims had fallen off dramatically. The number of claims paid during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1876, and July and August 1876, totaled less than 2,500. Most claimants who remained unpaid lived in remote locations thus making payment extremely difficult. Also, some claimants had changed their place of residence after filing claims. The periodic reduction of disbursing offices and clerical staff also greatly impacted the settlement process. The offices at St. Louis, MO and Nashville, TN were permanently closed. The disbursing responsibilities formerly assigned at Natchez and Vicksburg, MS were moved to the New Orleans, LA; Memphis, TN; Louisville, KY and the chief disbursing office at Washington, DC. Nonetheless, the Freedmen's Branch continued to settle unpaid claims, address complaints, institute measures to combat fraud, and when necessary, worked to rearrange records that had been transferred by the Freedmen's Bureau.5
In accordance with an act of December 15, 1877 (20 Stat. 11), the work of the Freedmen's Branch had to be completed by January 1, 1879. If not, the Freedmen's Branch would be closed and all of its papers would be turned over the Paymaster General. However, when the Freedmen's Branch was finally closed on June 30, 1879, its work relating to the claims of black veterans was assigned to the Colored Troops Division in the Office of the Adjutant General.
1 House Ex. Doc. 109, 42nd Cong., 3rd Sess., Serial Vol. 1566, pp. 1 – 4; see also George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), pp. 212 – 213.
2 House Ex. Doc. 109, Serial Vol. 1566, pp. 6 – 7.
3 House Ex. Doc. No. 59, 43rd Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1645, pp. 1 – 2.
4. See Annual Report of the Adjutant General on the Operations of the Freedmen's Branch, October 9, 1875, pp. 1 – 14, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.
5 See Annual Report of the Adjutant–General on the Operations of the Freedmen's Branch, October 10, 1876, pp. 1 – 7, RG 105, NAB.