Home » Unit IV: Reconstruction » Freedmen’s Bureau

Freedmen’s Bureau


SWBAT identify the freemen’s’ Bureau

SWBAT explain the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau and assess its advantages and disadvantages.

As the Civil War was winding down in early 1865, the outcome of the conflict had become clear. The Union, after nearly four long years, had overcome early Confederate military successes by employing superior numbers and resources to wear down the enemy in a war of attrition. The Confederacy lay in ruins and the institution of slavery was on its deathbed. Freedom for nearly four million slaves would bring about profound social and economic changes in the South. But what sort of freedom would it be? What did freedom mean to the ex-slaves? What did it mean to whites, both Northern and Southern? Equally important, how was the transition from slavery to freedom to be effected, and how successful would this transition be? During the war, the Union had taken a number of steps towards emancipation, but these steps were not part of an overall, coordinated plan.

What do you think freed slaves should have been given now that they are free? 

In September, 1861, Union general John C. Frémont declared martial law in Missouri and freed the slaves of rebellious slave owners. In May, 1862, General David Hunter, foreshadowing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation later in the year, declared “the persons in these states— Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina—heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.” Seeking to retain border state support and unwilling to let others determine government policy regarding slaves; Lincoln revoked both of these orders. The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, however, gave the president the authority to seize property being used in rebellion, thus freeing slaves who made it to Union lines. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln saw the importance of emancipation as a war measure, and after the Battle of Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves in those territories still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, “forever free.”

How do you think it would feel to be granted the right to be free forever after being born into slavery and spending your whole life serving someone else? 

The gradual shift of Northern opinion in favor of emancipation took final form in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the Union, passed by Congress in February, 1865 and sent to the states for ratification. But what exactly was freedom? What did it mean? Was freedom simply the absence of slavery, or was it something more? Freedmen and white Southerners differed on this point.

What Amendment was past to guarantee slaves would be free? 

When you think of “freedom” what are 4-5 different feelings or thoughts that accompany it? (Ex: Freedom is when laws apply to everyone equally.


Former slaves, more than anything, sought freedom from white control. It meant economic freedom–and thus power–in the form of land ownership. It also meant freedom to control one’s family. That is, freed men and women wanted to be able to reunite with relatives, legalize marriages, and make decisions that free people make. It meant freedom of movement. It meant the establishment of churches, schools and other institutions such as mutual aid societies. And perhaps most importantly, it meant access to justice in Southern society.

What did ex-slaves want as part of their freedom? Should these be granted? Why or why not?
Southern whites, on the other hand, set out to retain control of blacks in the wake of emancipation. Certain that the former slaves were incapable of assuming the responsibilities attendant with freedom and unwilling to give up their superior position in Southern society, Southern whites sought to retain as much of the status quo as possible. Needing a cheap and dependant labor force, Southern whites were prepared to achieve this goal through economic and legal means and even violence.

What did Southern whites think about their request? What were they willing to do to stop it from happening? 

Within this hostile environment, the responsibility for fostering black freedom was assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (BRF&AL). Created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was a temporary agency embedded within the War Department. Its purpose was to provide “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel states.” The act gave the Bureau the power to issue provisions, clothing, fuel, temporary shelter and other assistance to destitute white refugees and freedmen. It also gave the Bureau the authority to set aside abandoned or confiscated lands and to assign no more than forty acres to “every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman.”

What was the Freedmen’s Bureau created to do? (write it in your own words)

The act provided for a commissioner and as many as ten assistant commissioners. General Oliver Otis Howard was chosen as commissioner for the new agency. Known as the “Christian general,” Howard was an ideal choice. Although not initially an abolitionist, Howard became a strong advocate for the freedmen’s cause during the war and supported assistance to the ex-slaves in order to help them achieve freedom and independence.

What was Oliver Otis Howard assigned to do? 

Accomplishing this goal, however, would be a difficult one. His former commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman, wrote to Howard and wished him luck, but warned him that he had taken on “Hercules’ task.” Nevertheless, the Bureau took on the responsibility of setting up courts to try criminal and civil cases involving blacks as well as supervising the treatment of freedmen by state and local courts.

Why do you think setting up a courts involving blacks would be necessary? 

It mediated contract negotiations between freedmen and planters and arbitrated disputes when they arose. Working with benevolent societies, it set up schools and paid teachers’ salaries. It established hospitals and clinics. Bureau officials helped freedmen unite separated families and assisted black veterans and their relatives with bounty and pension claims.

What did the Freedmen’s Bureau do for blacks? 

SWBAT evaluate historians’ view of the Freedmen’s Bureau 

How successful was the Freedmen’s Bureau in achieving its goals? Historians have long debated this question and have come to different conclusions. Most agree that the Bureau was both undermanned and underfunded. The Bureau never had more than 900 people working for it at any one time. This included bureaucrats in Washington and officers in the field. Its funding was to come from Congress and from a six percent annual rent on abandoned or confiscated lands rented to freedmen.

What do historians agree the Freedmen’s bureau lacked?  

Congress never provided enough funding for the Bureau, and few rents materialized as President Andrew Johnson pardoned most planters in 1865, resulting in the restoration of their property. In addition to the loss of revenue, the Bureau’s failure to secure significant amounts of land for the freedmen deprived the ex-slaves of economic independence and undermined their faith in the U.S. government.

What were some of the biggest obstacles the Bureau faced?


Hopes for a better future through land ownership began on January 16, 1865, when General Sherman issued his famous Special Orders number 15, which set aside a 30 mile swath of coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina south to St. John’s River in Florida. It promised a plot of no more than forty acres to each family that chose to settle and farm the land. Although the order made no mention of mules or horses, such animals were assigned to freedmen. This was the source of the “forty acres and a mule” myth and the belief that lands would be confiscated from former masters and turned over to former slaves.

Because of Johnson’s generous pardons, however, only 2000 freed families acquired title to the land they tilled. Despite the fact that the Freedmen’s Bureau held over 858,000 acres of abandoned or confiscated land in 1865, few freedmen were able to acquire any of it. As a result, the vast majority of freedmen were unable to achieve economic independence as yeoman farmers, and they ended up working for former slave owners under contract instead.

What was the main reason blacks war not given access to economic independence? 

Although much of the failure to achieve economic independence can be explained by Johnson’s pardon policy and the requisition of land by planters, the “Free Labor” philosophy of many of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s later assistant commissioners contributed to the lack of black landownership. The “Free Labor” philosophy in the North was similar to the familiar “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” maxim. Despite the fact that the Bureau wanted to help blacks achieve economic independence, some within it wanted blacks to earn the land by working and raising the money to purchase land.

Explain what the maxim “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” means. 

How does this way of thinking unfair to blacks? 

The rationale was that by simply giving land away, freedmen would not develop industrious habits and would get used to living off the government dole instead. More successful was the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to secure justice for the former slaves. After emancipation, Southern white governments sought to apply antebellum Black Codes by writing them into their state constitutions. These codes were discriminatory in that they applied justice unevenly between blacks and whites.

What is discrimination? 

Were laws created that applied to blacks and whites equally? 

Free blacks of the antebellum period received harsher sentences for similar crimes. So it was to be for the freedmen unless the Bureau intervened. Early in the military occupation, the army set up military courts to try serious offenses and provost courts for less serious crimes. The Freedmen’s Bureau also set up its own temporary three-man courts. Whereas blacks suffered more severe punishments in the military and provost courts, they tended to receive fairer treatment in the Bureau’s courts. Freedmen, therefore, tended to bring their cases to Bureau courts rather than to the army’s or to state and local courts.

GIve an example of how blacks were given unfair access to justice. 

In the Bureau’s courts, blacks brought complaints against whites over violence, non-payment of wages, and contract violations such as the unequal division of crops. But by the end of 1866, most Southern courts, after revising their judicial proceedings to the satisfaction of the Bureau, regained jurisdiction of cases involving freedmen. Instead of trying to strengthen its own courts, the Bureau took on the responsibility of monitoring state and local courts.

What happened in 1866? (Write in you r own words) 

Fair treatment for the freedmen was not always realized, however, as most Southern whites could not conceive of equal treatment for blacks. The Bureau, therefore, retained the right to overturn discriminatory decisions of the state and local courts. The Bureau’s most enduring success came in the area of education. Commissioner Howard and his subordinates believed education to be the “talisman of power” and eagerly assisted the freedmen in setting up their own schools. Between 1865 and 1870, the Bureau spent $5 million in the effort to help freedmen build schools and hire teachers.

What did the Freedmen’s  Bureau do that was successful? 

Why do you think Howard believed education was central to freedom? 

For the purpose of training new teachers, it founded colleges such as the Hampton Institute, Howard University, and Fisk University. It also set up day, evening, Sunday, and industrial schools. It transported teachers from the North (mostly women) and it supplied building materials for schools. By the time the Bureau’s educational responsibilities ended in 1870, more than 4,300 freedmen’s schools served nearly 250,000 students. Despite the fact that schools were segregated by race and suffered from uneven quality, and despite the fact that most school-age black children did not attend school, the Freedmen’s Bureau played an important role in laying the foundations for black education in the South.

How many children were served by the education system? 

What was the longterm benefit of the educational program the Freedmen’s Bureau offered? 

Without it, opportunities for education for freedmen would have been very limited. Emancipation brought with it a peculiar problem for freedmen—finding relatives who were sold away during slavery. The Freedmen’s Bureau assisted ex-slaves in finding their loved ones by acting as a clearinghouse for information. Northern missionaries and teachers working with the Bureau would often write letters for the freedmen who were looking for relatives. In addition, the Bureau sometimes provided transportation so that freedmen could reunite with their spouses and children.

How did the Freedmen’s Bureau assist ex-slaves from finding their  loved ones? 

When freedmen had remarried after separation from former spouses, they often had to make the difficult choice of which spouse to remain legally married. There was also the problem of children born to ex-slaves with new husbands or wives. Custody disputes came before the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it often made painful decisions for the freedmen.

Was was one of the problems courts faced when attempting to reunite families? 

Historians have had mixed opinions about the success of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The biggest criticism of the Bureau is that it failed to secure land for the majority of freedmen, thus relegating them to the status of renter, not owner. This economic dependence made freedmen vulnerable to Southern white designs and contributed to the loss of their newly won civil rights.

How did the Bureau fail ex-slaves? 

Why do you think it was important  to have land at this time?

The failure to secure land for the freedmen cannot be entirely attributed to the Bureau, however. President Johnson’s generous pardons of white landowners in 1865 restored vast tracts of property, despite Commissioner Howard’s efforts to exempt certain lands against this, so that by the time the well-intentioned Southern Homestead Act of 1866 was passed, there was little left for the freedmen.

What was one reason the Freedmen’s Bureau failed to effectively assist Blacks? 

Also working against the Bureau was its limited funding and inadequate resources. Congress appropriated no money for it during its first year–it relied on the army for financial support. President Johnson’s opposition to the Bureau severely limited its effectiveness and encouraged Southern whites to challenge or ignore it.

What was a second reason the Freedmen’s Bureau failed to effectively assist blacks? 

Finally, when Congress extended the life of the Bureau in the July, 1868, it specified a January, 1869 target date for terminating all Bureau activities except for the collection of bounties for black veterans and educational work.

What was a Third reason the Freedmen’s Bureau failed to effectively assist blacks?

Despite these limitations, historians agree that the Freedmen’s Bureau played a significant role in the lives of the ex-slaves. It negotiated and enforced labor contracts between black laborers and white landowners. It helped to locate missing relatives and adjudicated custody disputes among freed men and women. It saw to it that the ex-bondsmen received justice in Bureau courts when justice was not available in state or local courts. The Bureau served as the freedmen’s counterbalance to white power. And perhaps its most enduring legacy was its contributions to the education of freedmen.

What were the benefits of the Bureau? 

It provided funds for the construction of schools. In some cases it paid the salaries of teachers. It founded teacher’s colleges and universities. It transported many teachers from the North into Southern communities. By studying the Freedmen’s Bureau, students gain insights into the needs and aspirations of ex-slaves in the wake of emancipation as well as the mindset of white Southerners who opposed them.

How did the Bureau effectively assist blacks to become educated? 

What did the slave expect from his freedom? Why were Southern whites so opposed to the aspirations of the freedmen? Examining the history of the Bureau will also bring insight into the need for such a federal agency. What would the transition between slavery and freedom be like? Whose version of freedom would prevail? Finally, by evaluating the goals and accomplishments of the Freedmen’s Bureau, students will realize that not everything in history is black or white, right or wrong, completely one thing or completely the other. That is, they will see that the Freedmen’s Bureau was successful in some ways in meeting its goals, but unsuccessful in others.

How was the Freedmen’s Bureau Successful? 

How was the Freedmen’s Bureau Unsuccessful? 

What is freedom to an ex-slave? 

What rights do you believe an ex-slave should be entitled to? 


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