The Freedmen’s Bureau

March 3, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which became known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

By March 1865, it had become clear that both the war and slavery would soon end and a government agency would be needed to help transition slaves to freedom. The federal government empowered this new Bureau to seize some 800,000 acres of abandoned or confiscated land in the Confederacy, border states, the District of Columbia, and the Indian Territory. This reflected the belief among many Republicans that government should redistribute property taken from Confederates either among the freed slaves or to set up facilities for them such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages.[1]

A Freedmen's Bureau School | Image Credit:

A Freedmen’s Bureau School | Image Credit:

The law authorized the Bureau to take “control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States.” This included providing temporary food, clothing, and shelter to over four million former slaves with no jobs, money, homes, or education. To avoid accusations of granting preferential treatment to blacks, the Bureau offered aid to poor southern whites as well, but few accepted. Bureau agents also adjudicated disputes between blacks and whites since blacks could not testify against whites in most American courts.[2]

Creating the Freedmen’s Bureau was based on recommendations by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, formed by the War Department in 1863 to find how to best transition slaves to freedom. Commission members shared the Radical Republicans’ desire to reshape southern society through massive federal intervention. Radical Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the Bureau law’s sponsor, sought to make the agency a permanent cabinet post, but Congress instead gave it a one-year term starting at war’s end.[3]

Southern whites resented Bureau agents because many acted for political, not humanitarian, purposes. Since most agents were Republicans, many worked to ensure that freed slaves also became Republicans in a region where white Democrats comprised the majority of property owners and taxpayers. Even some free blacks expressed concern about such unprecedented federal control over life, liberty, and property. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass feared that government aid could “serve to keep up the very prejudices, which it is so desirable to banish” by granting blacks special treatment over whites.[4]

Despite criticisms, the Bureau under Major General Oliver O. Howard issued some 150,000 rations per day this summer. It also helped set up thousands of elementary, industrial, and technical schools during its existence. But although the federal government had promised “forty acres and a mule” to each freed slave family, only about 3,500 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia actually shared in the redistribution.[5]


  • [1] Ferrell, Claudine, Reconstruction: Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900 (Greenwood, 2003), p. 8;; Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 68
  • [2] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 265
  • [3] Ferrell, Reconstruction: Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900, p. 8; Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, p. 68
  • [4] Napolitano, Andrew P., Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America (Kindle Edition), p. 108; DiLorenzo, Thomas J., The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003), p. 209
  • [5] Linedecker (ed.), The Civil War A to Z, p. 265

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