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The Freedmen's Bureau: History & Definition

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Following the Civil War, African Americans and white Southerners attempted to define the meaning of freedom. Learn how the United States government created the Freedmen's Bureau as a bulwark to the newly acquired freedom of African Americans in the South.

Defining Freedom

The conclusion of the Civil War left a power vacuum in the South. African Americans, supported by the federal government, and white Southerners battled over the notion of freedom and basic rights. Former slaves believed that freedom consisted of total independence from white dominion. White Southerners believed that freedom meant the restoration of the pre-war South, complete with white supremacy and limited federal oversight.

In order to ensure freedom and maintain the balance of power, the United States Congress introduced the Freedmen's Bureau in March 1865. This organization was assigned to protect the freedmen from repression and maintain peace in the South during the early stages of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction Era
Freedmens Bureau

Origin of the Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau (also known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands) was run by the U.S. War Department. Upon its birth in 1865, the organization was staffed with thousands of Army officers under the command of General Oliver O. Howard.

Portrait of O.O. Howard
O.O. Howard

The officers were strategically placed throughout the southern United States in order to maintain peace between blacks and whites as well as protect the newly acquired freedoms of former slaves. Acting members of the Bureau also helped in attempting to create schools, appropriate food, establish a minimum wage and distribute land for settlement.

Successes of the Freedmen's Bureau

The most significant achievement of the organization was the advancement of a lasting education system. By 1870, it is estimated that over 3,500 educational institutions were created for freedpersons. Many of these institutions were staffed by volunteers of religions organizations, most notably the Freedmen's Aid Society, which was an assembly of the Presbyterian and Methodist faiths. African-American students gained a valuable education, and eventually more advanced institutions were constructed which provided college-level training.

The Bureau also contributed to the shaping of African Americans' political understanding. Individuals were trained in politics and judgment and several became prominent members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In addition to education and politics, the Freedmen's Bureau provided daily rations to African Americans and poor whites.

Failures of the Freedmen's Bureau

The shortcomings of the Bureau equally paralleled its remarkable successes. Land reform and the establishment of a minimum wage were significant failures of the Freedmen's Bureau. African Americans believed that freedom was manifested in land ownership and, therefore, expected the federal government to supply them with plots of land. These plots were specifically set aside for freedmen during General William T. Sherman's march to the Atlantic. The idea was that each individual would receive a specific amount of land and several useful farm animals. However, President Andrew Johnson did not believe that freedmen were entitled to the land. Instead, Johnson decided to return all acquired land to white, ex-confederate soldiers through presidential pardons and his Amnesty Proclamation.

Portrait of Andrew Johnson
Portrait of Johnson

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