[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M826.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). Congress assigned to the Bureau responsibilities that previously had been shared by the military commanders and by the agents of the Treasury Department. The duties included supervision of matters concerning refugees, freedmen, and abandoned property. Under the provisions of the initial legislation, the Bureau was to have been terminated 1 year after the close of the Civil War. It was twice extended by laws of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). Its functions were limited by an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), effective January 1869, to education and assistance in the collection of claims. Remaining Bureau functions were terminated following the discontinuance of the Bureau in 1872, in accordance with a law of June 10 of that year (17 Stat. 366).
In May 1865, the President appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard Commissioner of the Bureau. Howard, who served until the Bureau was discontinued, maintained his headquarters at Washington, D. C. Assistant Commissioners supervised the work of the Bureau in the States.
The first Assistant Commissioner of Mississippi was Col. Samuel Thomas, who established his headquarters at Vicksburg in June 1865.1 Although the size and organization of the office varied from time to time, the Assistant Commissioner's staff usually included an Acting Adjutant General, an Assistant Inspector General, a Surgeon in Chief, a Superintendent of Education, a Disbursing Officer, and a Chief Commissary of Subsistence.
At first, the officers subordinate to the Assistant Commissioner were organized in a hierarchical manner. The State of Mississippi and the parishes of Madison, Carroll, Concordia, and Tensas in northeastern Louisiana were divided into the Western, Southern, and Northern Districts, with an Acting Assistant Commissioner in charge of each district. Subassistant commissioners in charge of subdistricts, which usually encompassed several counties, reported to the Assistant Commissioners, who, in turn, reported to the Assistant Commissioner. In January 1866, the Louisiana parishes were placed within the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner for Louisiana. In March 1866, the three districts were discontinued; thereafter, the subassistant commissioners of the civilian agents in charge of subdistricts reported directly to the Assistant Commissioner.
The policies and programs of the Freedmen's Bureau in Mississippi were established by the Assistant Commissioner and administered primarily through subordinate officers. Bureau officials, in cooperation with benevolent societies, established school for freedmen and issued food, clothing, and medical supplies to refugees and freedmen. They approved or disapproved freedmen's labor contracts and indentures, investigated freedmen's complaints, kept registers of the marriages of freedmen, and helped black soldiers and sailors to file and collect claims for bounties, pensions and pay arrearages. In addition, the Assistant Commissioner maintained several freedmen's hospitals and colonies for destitute freedmen, and provided transportation to return refugees to their homes or to convey freedmen to distant jobs.
In 1865 and 1866, much of the work of the Assistant Commissioner concerned the custody of abandoned property of former supporters of the Confederacy. Officers of the Bureau leased much of the abandoned property and used the proceeds to finance Bureau activities. The Assistant Commissioner maintained colonies for destitute freedmen on several of the abandoned plantations and sometimes utilized abandoned buildings as Bureau offices. The Assistant Commissioner, however, with the approval of the Commissioner of the Bureau, restored most of the property to former owners who signed loyalty oaths or received Presidential pardons.
Colonel Thomas was succeeded by three others officers who acted as both assistant commissioners and military commanders in Mississippi. In April 1866, Gen. Thomas J. Wood was appointed Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi, he was succeeded in January 1867 by Gen. Alvan C. Gillem. Appointed Assistant Commissioner in March 1869, Gen. Adelbert Ames established his headquarters at Jackson and supervised the closing of the office of the Assistant Commissioner. The appointment of General Ames was revoked April 30, 1869.
When the Freedmen's Bureau was abolished, its records were sent to the Office of the Adjutant General. Clerks in the Adjutant General's Office numbered the volumes or book records and prepared "indexes" or lists of these books, in this microfilm publication the number assigned to the volume by the clerks in the Adjutant General's Office appears in parenthesis. This number is useful only as a more precise method of identifying the volume.
1 Before his appointment to the Freedmen's Bureau, Colonel Thomas served in Mississippi within Chaplain John Eaton's "Freedmen's Department" of the Department of the Tennessee. During the Civil War, several commanders of military departments delegated the superintendence of freedmen's affairs in occupied areas to special organizations, often referred to as "Freedmen's Department." The functions and activities of the Freedmen's Department in Mississippi were similar to those of the later Freedmen's Bureau.