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The Freedmen’s Bureau

William Troost, University of British Columbia

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly know as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was a federal agency established to help Southern blacks transition from their lives as slaves to free individuals. The challenges of this transformation were enormous as the Civil War devastated the region – leaving farmland dilapidated and massive amounts of capital destroyed. Additionally, the entire social order of the region was disturbed as slave owners and former slaves were forced to interact with one another in completely new ways. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an unprecedented foray by the federal government into the sphere of social welfare during a critical period of American history. This article briefly describes this unique agency, its colorful history, and many functions that the bureau performed during its brief existence.

The Beginning of the Bureau

In March 1863, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission was set up to investigate “the measures which may best contribute to the protection and improvement of the recently emancipated freedmen of the United States, and to their self-defense and self-support.”1 The commission debated various methods and activities to alleviate the current condition of freedmen and aid their transition to free individuals. Basic aid activities to alleviate physical suffering and provide legal justice, education, and land redistribution were commonly mentioned in these meetings and hearings. This inquiry commission examined many issues and came up with some ideas that would eventually become the foundation for the eventual Freedmen’s Bureau Law. In 1864, the commission issued their final report which laid out the basic philosophy that would guide the actions of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

“The sum of our recommendations is this: Offer the freedmen temporary aid and counsel until they become a little accustomed to their new sphere of life; secure to them, by law, their just rights of person and property; relieve them, by a fair and equal administration of justice, from the depressing influence of disgraceful prejudice; above all, guard them against the virtual restoration of slavery in any form, and let them take care of themselves. If we do this, the future of the African race in this country will be conducive to its prosperity and associated with its well-being. There will be nothing connected with it to excite regret to inspire apprehension.”2

When the Congress finally got down to the business of writing a bill to aid the transition of the freedmen they tried to integrate many of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission’s recommendations. Originally the agency set up to aid in this transition was to be named the Bureau of Emancipation. However, when the bill came up for a vote on March 1, 1864 the name was changed to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This change was due in large part to objections that the bill was exclusionary and aimed solely towards the aid of blacks. This name changed was aimed at enlarging support for the bill.

The House and the Senate argued about the powers and place that the bureau should reside within the government. Those in the House wanted the agency placed within the War Department, concluding that the power used to free the slaves would be best to aid them in their transition. Oppositely, in the Senate Charles Sumner’s Committee on Slavery and Freedom wanted the bureau placed within the Department of the Treasury – as it had the power to tax and had possession of confiscated lands. Sumner felt that they “should not be separated from their best source of livelihood.”3 After a year of debate, finally a compromise was agreed to that entrusted the Freedmen’s Bureau with the administration of confiscated lands while placing the bureau within the Department of War. Thus, On March 3, 1865, with the stroke of a pen, Abraham Lincoln signed into existence the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Selected to head of the new bureau was General Otis Oliver Howard – commonly known as the Christian General. Howard had strong ties with the philanthropic community and forged strong ties with freedmen’s aid organizations.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was active in a variety of aid functions. Eric Foner writes it was “an experiment in social policy that did not belong to the America of its day”.4 The bureau did important work in many key areas and had many functions that even today are not considered the responsibility of the national government.

Relief Services

A key function of the bureau, especially in the beginning, was to provide temporary relief for the suffering of destitute freedmen. The bureau provided rations for those most in need due to the abandonment of plantations, poor crop yields, and unemployment. This aid was taken advantage of by a staggering number of both freedmen and refugees. A ration was defined as enough corn meal, flour, and sugar sufficient to feed a person for one week. In “the first 15 months following the war, the Bureau issued over 13 million rations, two thirds to blacks.”5 The size of this aid was staggering and while it was deemed a great necessity, it also fostered tremendous anxiety for both General Howard and the general population – mainly that it would cause idleness. Because of these worries, General Howard ordered that this form of relief be discontinued in the fall of 1866.

Health Care

In a similar vein the bureau also provided medical care to the recently freed slaves. The health situation of freedmen at the conclusion of the Civil War was atrocious. Frequent pandemics of cholera, poor sanitation, and outbreaks of smallpox killed scores of freedmen. Because the freed population lacked the financial assets to purchase private healthcare and were denied care in many other cases, the bureau played a valuable role.

“Since hospitals and doctors could not be relied on to provide adequate health care for freedmen, individual bureau agents on occasion responded innovatively to black distress. During epidemics, Pine Bluff and Little Rock agents relocated freedpersons to less contagion-ridden places. When blacks could not be moved, agents imposed quarantines to prevent the spread of disease. General Order Number 8…prohibited new residents from congregating in towns. The order also mandated weekly inspections of freedmen’s homes to check for filth and overcrowding.”6

In addition to preventing and containing outbreaks, the bureau also engaged more directly in health care. Being placed in the War Department, the bureau was also able to assume operations of hospitals established by the Army during the war. After the war it expanded the system to areas previously not under military control. Observing that freedmen were not receiving an adequate quality of health services, the bureau established dispensaries providing basic medical care and drugs free of charge, or at a nominal cost. The Bureau “managed in the early years of Reconstruction to treat an estimated half million suffering freedmen, as well as a smaller but significant number of whites.”7

Land Redistribution

Perhaps the most well-known function of the bureau was one that never came to fruition. During the course of the Civil War, the U.S. Army took control of a good deal of land that had been confiscated or abandoned by the Confederacy. From the time of emancipation there were rumors that confiscated lands would be provided to the recently freed slaves. This land would enable the blacks to be economically self-sufficient and provide protection from their former owners. In January 1865, General Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and lands from South Carolina to Florida for blacks to settle. According to his order, each family would receive forty acres of land and the loan of horses and mules from the Army. Similar to General Sherman’s order, the promise of land was incorporated into the bureau bill. Quickly the bureau helped blacks settle some of the abandoned lands and “by June 1865, roughly 10,000 families of freed people, with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau, had taken up more than 400,000 acres.”8

While the promise of “forty acres and a mule” excited the freedmen, the widespread implementation of this policy was quickly thwarted. In the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued special pardons restoring the property of many Confederates – throwing into question the status of abandoned lands. In response, General Howard, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, issued Circular 13 which told agents to conserve forty-acre tracts of land for the freedmen – as he claimed presidential pardons conflicted with the laws establishing the bureau. However, Johnson quickly instructed Howard to rescind his circular and send out a new circular ordering the restoration to pardoned owners of all land except those tracts already sold. These actions by the President were devastating, as freedmen were evicted from lands that they had long occupied and improved. Johnson’s actions took away what many felt was the freedmen’s best chance at economic protection and self-sufficiency.

Judicial Functions

While the land distribution of the new agency was thwarted, the bureau was able to perform many duties. Bureau agents had judicial authority in the South attempting to secure equal justice from the state and local governments for both blacks and white Unionists. Local agents individually adjudicated a wide variety of disputes. In some circumstances the bureau established courts where freedmen could bring forth their complaints. After the local courts regained their jurisdiction, bureau agents kept an eye on local courts retaining the authority to overturn decisions that were discriminatory towards blacks. In May 1865, the Commissioner of the bureau issued a circular “authorizing assistant commissioners to exercise jurisdiction in cases where blacks were not allowed to testify.”9

In addition to these judicial functions, the bureau also helped provide legal services in the domestic sphere. Agents helped legitimize slave marriages and presided over freedmen marriage ceremonies in areas where black marriages were obstructed. Beginning in 1866, the bureau became responsible for filing the claims of black soldiers for back pay, pensions, and bounties. The claims division remained in operation until the end of the bureau’s existence. During a time when many of the states tried to strip rights away from blacks, the bureau was essential in providing freedmen redress and access to more equitable judicial decisions and services.

Labor Relations

Another important function of the bureau was to help draw up work contracts to help facilitate the hiring of freedmen. The abolition of slavery created economic confusion and stagnation as many planters had a difficult time finding labor to work their fields. Additionally, many blacks were anxious and unsure about working for former slave owners. “Into this chaos stepped the Freedmen’s Bureau as an intermediary.”10 The bureau helped planters and freedmen draft contracts on mutually agreeable terms – negotiating several hundred thousand contracts. Once agreed upon, the agency tried to make sure both planter and worker lived up to their part of the agreement. In essence, the bureau “would undertake the role of umpire.”11

Of the bureau’s many activities this was one of its most controversial. Both planters and freedmen complained about the insistence on labor contracts. Planters complained that labor contracts forbade the use of corporal punishment used in the past. They resented the limits on their activities and felt the restrictions of the contracts limited the productivity of their workers. On the other hand, freedmen complained that the contract structures were too restrictive and didn’t allow them to move freely. In essence, the bureau had an impossible task – trying to get the freedmen to return to work for former slave owners while preserving their rights and limiting abuse. The Freedmen’s Bureau’s judicial functions were of great help in enforcing these contracts in a fair manner making both parties live up to their end of the bargain. While historians have split over whether the bureau favored planters or the freedmen, Ralph Shlomowitz in his detailed analysis of bureau-assisted labor contracts found that contracts were determined by the free interplay of market forces.12 First, he finds contracts brokered by the bureau were extremely detailed to an extent that would not make sense in the absence of compliance. Second, contrary to popular belief he finds the share of crops received by labor was highly variable. In areas of higher quality land the share awarded to labor was less than in areas with lower land quality.

Educational Efforts

Prior to the Civil War it had been policy in the sixteen slave states to fine, whip, or imprison those who gave instruction to blacks or mulattos. In many states the punishments for teaching a person of color were quite severe. These laws severely restricted the educational opportunity of blacks – especially access to formal schooling. As a result, when given their freedom, many former slaves lacked the literacy skills necessary to protect themselves from discrimination and exploitation, and pursue many personal activities. This lack of literacy created great problems for blacks in a free labor system. Freedmen were repeatedly taken advantage of as they were often unable to read or draft contracts. Additionally, individuals lacked the ability to read newspapers and trade manuals, or worship by reading the Bible. Thus, when emancipated there was a great demand for freedmen schools.

General Howard quickly realized that education was perhaps the most important endeavor that the bureau could undertake. However, the financial resources and the few functions that the bureau was authorized to undertake limited the extent to which it was able to assist. Much of the early work in schooling was done by a number of benevolent and religious Northern societies. While initially the direct aid of the bureau was limited, it provided an essential role in organizing and coordinating these organizations in their efforts. The agency also allowed the use of many buildings in the Army’s possession and the bureau helped transport a trove of teachers from the North – commonly referred to as yankee school marms.

While the limits of the original Freedmen’s Bureau bill hamstrung the efforts of agents, subsequent bills changed the situation as the purse strings and functions of the bureau in the area of education were rapidly expanded. This shift in attention followed the lead of General Howard whose “stated goal was to close one after another of the original bureau divisions while the educational work was increased with all possible energy.”13 Among the provisions of the second bureau bill were: the appropriation of salaries for State Superintendents of Education, the repair and rental of school buildings, the ability to use military taxes to pay teachers’ salaries, and the establishment of the education division as a separate entity in the bureau.

These new resources were used to great success as enrollments at bureau-financed schools grew quickly, new schools were constructed in a variety of areas, and the quality and curriculum of the schools was significantly improved. The Freedmen’s Bureau was very successful in establishing a vast network of schools to help educate the freedmen. In retrospect this was a Herculean task for the federal government to accomplish. In a region where it was illegal to teach blacks how to read or write just a few years prior, the bureau was able to help establish nearly 1,600 day schools educating over 100,000 blacks at a time. The number of bureau-aided day and night schools in operation grew to a maximum of 1,737 in March 1870, employing 2,799 teachers, and instructing 103,396 pupils. In addition, 1,034 Sabbath schools were aided by the bureau that employed 4,988 teachers and instructed 85,557 pupils.

Matching the Integrated Public Use Sample of the 1870 Census and a constructed data set on bureau school location, one can examine the reach and prevalence of bureau-aided schools.14 Table 1 presents the summary statistics of various school concentration measures and educational outcomes for individual blacks 10-15 years old.

The variable “Freedmen’s Bureau School” equals one if there was at least one bureau-aided school in the individual’s county. The data reveals that 63.6 percent of blacks lived in counties with at least one bureau school. This shows the bureau was quite effective in reaching a large segment of the black population – as nearly two thirds of blacks living in the states of the ex-Confederacy had at least some minimal exposure to these schools. While the schools were widespread, it appears their concentration was somewhat low. For individuals living in a county with at least one bureau-aided school, the concentration of bureau-aided schools was 0.3165 per 30 square miles, or 0.4630 bureau aided-schools per 1,000 blacks.

Although the concentration of schools was somewhat low it appears they had a large impact on the educational outcomes of southern blacks. Ten to fifteen year olds living in a county with at least one bureau-aided school had literacy rates that were 6.1 percentage points higher. This appears to have been driven by the bureau increasing access to formal education for black children in these counties as school attendance rates were 7.5 percentage points higher than in counties without such schools.

Andrew Johnson and the Freedmen’s Bureau

Only eleven days after signing the bureau into existence, Abraham Lincoln was struck down by John Wilkes Booth. Taking his place in office was Andrew Johnson, a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee. Despite Johnson’s Southern roots, hopes were high that Congress and the new President could work closer together than the previous administration. President Lincoln and Congress had championed vastly different policies for Reconstruction. Lincoln preferred the term “Restoration” instead of “Reconstruction,” as he felt it was constitutionally impossible for a state to succeed.15 Lincoln championed the quick integration of the South into the Union and believed it could best be accomplished under the direction of the executive branch. Oppositely, Republicans in Congress led by Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens felt the Confederate states had actually seceded and relinquished their constitutional rights. The Republicans in Congress advocated strict conditions for re-entry into the Union and programs aimed at reshaping society.

The ascension of Johnson to the presidency gave hope to Congress that they would have an ally in the White House in terms of Reconstruction philosophy. According to Howard Nash, the “Radicals were delighted….to have Vice President Andrew Johnson, who they had good reason to suppose was one of their number, elevated to the presidency.”16 In the months before and immediately after taking office, Johnson repeatedly talked about the need to punish rebels in the South. After Lincoln’s death Johnson became more impassioned in his speeches. In late April 1865 Johnson told an Indiana delegation “Treason must be made odious…traitors must be punished and impoverished…their social power must be destroyed.”17 If anything, many feared that Johnson may stray too far from the Presidential Reconstruction offered by Lincoln and be overly harsh in his treatment of the South.

Immediately after taking office Johnson honored Lincoln’s choice to head the bureau by appointing General Oliver Otis Howard as commissioner of the bureau. While this action raised hopes in Congress they would be able to work with the new administration, Johnson quickly switched course. After his selection of Howard, President Johnson and the “Radical” Republicans would scarcely agree on anything during the remainder of his term. On May 29, 1865, Johnson issued a proclamation that conferred amnesty, pardon, and the restoration of property rights for almost all Confederate soldiers who took an oath pledging loyalty to the Union. Johnson later came out in support of the black codes of the South, which tried to bring blacks back to a position of near slavery and argued that the Confederate states should be accepted back into the Union without the condition of ratifying and adopting the Fourteenth Amendment in their state constitutions.

The original bill signed by Lincoln established the bureau during and for a period of one year after the Civil War. The language of the bill was somewhat ambiguous, and with the surrender of Confederate forces military conflict had ceased. This led people to debate when the bureau would be discontinued. Consensus seemed to imply that if another bill wasn’t brought forth that the bureau would be discontinued in early 1866. In response Congress quickly got to work on a new Freedmen’s Bureau bill.

While Congress started work on a new bill, President Johnson tried to gain support for the view that the need for the bureau had come to an end. Ulysses S. Grant was called upon by the President to make a whirlwind tour of the South, and report on the present situation. The route set up was exceptionally brief and skewed to those areas best under control. Accordingly, his report said that the Freedmen’s Bureau had done good work and it appeared as though the freedmen were now able to fend for themselves without the help of the federal government.

In contrast, Carl Schurz made a long tour of the South only a few months after Grant and found the freedmen in a much different situation. In many areas the bureau was viewed as the only restraint to the most insidious of treatment of blacks. As Q.A. Gilmore stated in the report,

“For reasons already suggested I believe that the restoration of civil power that would take the control of this question out of the hands of the United States authorities (whether exercised through the military authorities or through the Freedmen’s Bureau) would, instead of removing existing evils, be almost certain to augment them.”18

While the first bill was adequate in many ways, it was rather weak in a few areas. In particular, the bill didn’t have any appropriations for officers of the bureau or direct funds earmarked for the establishment of schools. General Howard and many of his officers reported on the great need for the bureau and pushed for its existence indefinitely or at least until the freedmen were in a less vulnerable position. After listening to the reports and the recommendations of General Howard, a new bill was crafted by Senator Lyman Trumbull, a moderate Republican. The new bill proposed the bureau should remain in existence until abolished by law, provide more explicit aid to education and land to the freedmen, and protect the civil rights of blacks. The bill passed in both the Senate and House and was sent to Andrew Johnson, who promptly vetoed the measure. In his response to the Senate, Johnson wrote “there can be no necessity for the enlargement of the powers of the bureau for which provision is made in the bill.”19

While the President’s message was definitive, the veto came as a shock to many in Congress. President Johnson had been consulted prior to its passage and assured General Howard and Senator Trumbull that he would support the bill. In response to the President’s opposition, the Senate and House passed a bill that addressed some of the complaints that Johnson had with the bill, including limiting the length of the bill to two more years. Even after this watering down of the bill, it was once again vetoed. However, the new bill garnered enough support to override President Johnson’s veto. The veto of the bill and the subsequent override officially established a policy of open hostility between the legislative and executive branch. Prior to the Johnson administration, overriding a veto was extremely rare – as it had only occurred six times up until this time.20 However, after the passage of this bill it became mere commonplace for the remainder of Johnson’s term, as Congress would overturn fifteen vetoes during the less than four years Johnson was in office.

End of the Bureau

While work in the educational division picked up after the passage of the second bill, many of the other activities of the bureau were winding down. On July 25, 1868 a bill was signed into law requiring the withdrawal of most bureau officers from the states, and to stop the functions of the bureau except those that were related to education and claims. Although the educational activities of the bureau were to continue for an indefinite period of time, most state superintendent of education offices had closed by the middle of 1870. On November 30, 1870 Rev. Alvord resigned his post as General Superintendent of Education.21 While some small activities of the bureau continued after his resignation, these activities were scaled back greatly and largely consisted of correspondence. Finally due to lack of appropriations the activities of the bureau ceased in March 1871.

The expiration of the bureau was somewhat anti-climatic. A number of representatives wanted to establish a permanent bureau or organization for blacks, so that they could regulate their relations with the national and state governments.22 However, this concept was too radical to get passed by enough of a margin to override a veto. There was also talk of moving many of its functions into other parts of the government. However, over time the appropriations began to dwindle and the urgency to work out a proposal for transfer withered away in a manner similar to the bureau.


Alston, Lee J. and Joseph P. Ferrie. “Paternalism in Agricultural Labor Contracts in the U.S. South: Implications for the Growth of the Welfare State.” American Economic Review 83, no. 4 (1993): 852-76.

American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. Records of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, Final Report, Senate Executive Document 53, 38th Congress, 1st Session, Serial 1176, 1864.

Cimbala, Paul and Randall Miller. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Congressional Research Service,

Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.

Johnson, Andrew. “Message of the President: Returning Bill (S.60),” Pg. 3, 39th Congress, 1st Session, Executive Document No. 25, February 19, 1866.

McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

Milton, George Fort. The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals. New York: Coward-McCann, 1930.

Nash, Howard P. Andrew Johnson: Congress and Reconstruction. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972.

Parker, Marjorie H. “Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau.” Journal of Negro Education 23, no. 1 (1954): 9-21.

Q.A. Gillmore to Carl Schurz, July 27, 1865, Documents Accompanying the Report of Major General Carl Schurz, Hilton Head, SC.

Ruggles, Steven, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2004.

Shlomowitz, Ralph. “The Transition from Slave to Freedman Labor Arrangements in Southern Agriculture, 1865-1870.” Journal of Economic History 39, no. 1 (1979): 333-36.

Shlomowitz, Ralph, “The Origins of Southern Sharecropping,” Agricultural History 53, no. 3 (1979): 557-75.

Simpson, Brooks D. “Ulysses S. Grant and the Freedmen’s Bureau.” In The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, edited by Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Citation: Troost, William. “Freedmen’s Bureau”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 5, 2008. URL