[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M803.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established in the War Department by an act of Congress approved March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). The legislation provided that the Freedmen's Bureau, as it was often called, would be headed by a Commissioner appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate. Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was appointed as Commissioner in May 1865 and served in the Bureau Headquarters in Washington, D. C., until the activities of the Bureau were terminated in 1872. With minor variations in size and organization, General Howard's staff consisted of an Assistant Adjutant General, an Assistant Inspector General, a Chief Medical Officer, a Chief Quartermaster, a Chief Disbursing Officer, and officers in charge of the Claim Division, the Education Division, and the Land Division.
The Bureau confined its operations to the District of Columbia and to the area of the former Confederate and border states. Assistant Commissioners supervised the work of the Bureau in the districts into which the States were divided. The initial legislation provided for only 10 Assistant Commissioners, necessitating some of the districts to encompass more than one State. The number of Assistant Commissioners was increased later to 14.
During the years of its greatest activity the operations of the Freedmen's Bureau resembled, in many ways, the work of later Federal social agencies. In addition to supervising the disposition of abandoned or confiscated lands, Bureau officers issued rations, clothing, and medicine to destitute refugees and freedmen; established hospitals and dispensaries; and supervised camps and settlements for the homeless. Bureau officers worked with members of benevolent and philanthropic organizations in dispensing relief, operating employment offices, and establishing schools. The schools were of four types: day schools for instruction of young children; night schools for older children and parents; industrial schools for practical instruction in such skills as sewing; and Sunday or Sabbath schools for religious instruction.
Although the establishment of schools was an important aspect of improving the lives of the newly freed slaves, there was no organized department concerned with matters of education when the Bureau began operations in 1865. The educational activities of the Bureau and the organization for supervising these activities grew as the educational needs of the freedmen increased.
During the early months of the Bureau's existence there was no apparent attempt by the Government to finance freedmen's schools on a large scale. This inactivity on the part of the Bureau was due primarily to the fact that benevolent societies in the North maintained schools in many parts of the South, and a few in some of the Northern States, and continued to do so for some months after the establishment of the Bureau. In July 1865 Commissioner Howard directed the Assistant Commissioners in the States to appoint general superintendents of schools to assist them in making reports on educational matters.
In October 1865 Rev. John W. Alvord was appointed Inspector of Finances and Schools. In the months after his appointment the educational needs of the freedmen grew rapidly and many benevolent societies learned that their financial resources were inadequate to meet the demand for educational development. By an act of July 13, 1866 (14 Stat. 92), Congress authorized funds for the salaries of State superintendents of education and for the repair and rental of school buildings. The appropriation aided in establishing the Education Division as a separate entity within the Freedmen's Bureau. Reverend Alvord was relieved of his responsibilities for the inspection of the Bureau's finances in January 1867 when he was appointed as General Superintendent of Education. He retained the new position until his resignation in late 1870.
Throughout its existence the Bureau maintained close ties with the benevolent societies who retained control of such administrative matters as the selection and the specific school assignments of teachers. In many instances when the philanthropic societies had to curtail their financial support, the Bureau provided funds that were channeled through the societies.
The period from late 1866 until far into 1868 was one of great activity for the Education Division. Enrollment in Bureau financed schools grew rapidly, new school buildings were constructed in many communities, and the curriculum was expanded. But by late 1868 much of the work in other divisions of the Freedmen's Bureau was coming to an end.
An act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), provided that on January 1, 1869, the Commissioner was to withdraw the Assistant Commissioners and most Bureau officers from the States and to discontinue the functions of the Bureau except those relating to education and to the collection and payment of claims. Although educational activities were to continue for an unspecified period, by late 1870 most offices of the State superintendents of education had closed, and on November 30, 1870, Reverend Alvord resigned as General Superintendent of Education.
The work of the Education Division was greatly reduced after Reverend Alvord's resignation, but school reports and correspondence continued to arrive during the next several months and some clerical functions were continued. Because no further appropriations were made by Congress the educational activities of the Freedmen's Bureau terminated in March 1871.
The volumes reproduced in this microcopy were originally arranged by type of record and thereunder in numerical sequence, with no numbers assigned to index books or to series consisting of single volumes. Later all the volumes were arbitrarily assigned numbers. In this microfilm publication the last set of numbers assigned are in parentheses and are useful as an aid in identifying the volumes.