National Museum of African American History and Culture

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Alabama, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1870


Collection ID:
Physical Description:
23 Reels
This collection is comprised of digital surrogates previously available on the 23 rolls of microfilm described in the NARA publication M809. These digital surrogates reproduced the records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Alabama, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–70. The records consist of 17 volumes and some unbound documents. The volumes include letters, reports, endorsements, and telegrams sent; orders issued; and registers of letters received. The unbound records include letters, reports, and issuances received. Except for some unfilmed duplicate copies this microfilm publication contains all the records created or received in the office of the Assistant Commissioner for Alabama.

Historical Note

Historical Note
[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M809.]
The Freedmen's Bureau, as the Bureau was commonly known, was established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507), and extended twice by the acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 3). Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was appointed Commissioner by the President in May 1865 and he served in that position until June 30, 1872 when the activities of the Bureau were terminated in accordance with an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366). Although the Bureau was a part of the War Department, its work was primarily social and economic in nature. The Bureau cooperated with benevolent societies in issuing supplies to the destitute and in maintaining freedmen's schools. Bureau officials supervised labor contracts between Negro employees and white employers; helped Negro soldiers and sailors to collect bounty claims, pensions, and backpay; and attended to the disposition of confiscated or abandoned lands and other property.
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 States. In Alabama, operations began in July 1868 when Brig. Gen. Wager Swayne took command as Assistant Commissioner. Succeeding Swayne in January 1868 was Bvt. Brig. Julius Hayden who served until March 1868, Col. Oliver L. Shepherd who served from March to August 1868, and Col. T. H. Ruger who held the position of Assistant Commissioner for only a few days before the arrival of Bvt. Lt. Col. Edwin Beecher later in August 1868. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in Alabama, as in other States, were terminated except for the educational functions and the collection of claims. Colonel Beecher remained to serve as Superintendent of Education and held that position until the office was closed in July 1870. Some of the records for Beecher's tenure as Superintendent of Education are among the records of the Assistant Commissioner, but most of them are in the records of the Superintendent of Education.
The Assistant Commissioner's staff consisted at various times 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 more important subdistricts included those with headquarters at Demopolis, Eufaula, Greenville, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Opelika, Selma, Talladega, and Tuscaloosa. Under direct supervision of the subassistant commissioners were the civilian and military agents. Occasionally military officers would be retained by the Bureau in a civilian capacity after the termination of their military service. One such instance was the appointment of O. D. Kinsman in June 1867 as subassistant commissioner in charge of the Assistant Commissioner's office. Kinsman had served previously under General Swayne as Assistant Adjutant General.
The Assistant Commissioner corresponded extensively both with his superior in the Washington Bureau headquarters and with 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 Alabama. 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.
From June 1866 to January 1868 the Assistant Commissioner, General Swayne, served also as the military commander of Alabama. He therefore created and received records in both capacities. The dual function of the Assistant Commissioner also resulted in a succession of changes in the official headings used on correspondence and issuances. The title "Office of the Assistant Commissioner" was changed in June 1866 to "Headquarters, District of Alabama" and in August 1866 to "Headquarters, Subdistrict of Alabama." The heading "District of Alabama" was used again from March 1867 until superseded by "State of Alabama" in February 1868. The dual function of the office is also reflected in the recordkeeping practices for that period. Although the Assistant Commissioner generally maintained separate records for each of his capacities, in the case of letters and endorsements sent the records were frequently combined. Wherever separable the records created by the Assistant Commissioner in his military capacity are among Records of United States Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920, Record Group 393.
The volumes reproduced in this microfilm publication were originally arranged by type of record and thereunder in numerical sequence. Originally no numbers were assigned 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. In some volumes, and particularly in indexes and alphabetical headings of registers, there are a number of blank numbered pages that have not been filmed.


Immediate Source of Acquisition
Acquired from FamilySearch International in 2015.

Digital Content

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Using the Collection

Conditions Governing Access
Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection, 1865–1872, is a product of and owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Copyright for digital images is retained by the donor, FamilySearch International; permission for commercial use of the digital images may be requested from FamilySearch International, Intellectual Property Office, at:
Preferred Citation
Courtesy of the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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