Freedmen's Bureau

By: Cecil Harper, Jr.

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 22, 2020

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by Congress in March 1865 as a branch of the United States Army. It was to be a temporary agency. Its functions were to provide relief to the thousands of refugees, Black and White, who had been left homeless by the Civil War; to supervise affairs related to newly freed slaves in the southern states; and to administer all land abandoned by Confederates or confiscated from them during the war. Since the profits from administering the lands were to provide funds for the operation of the bureau, the bill establishing the agency did not appropriate money for it. President Andrew Johnson, however, returned most of the confiscated property to its owners, and Congress was forced to appropriate funds for the bureau's operations after the first year. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was commissioner of the bureau throughout its existence. Under Howard was an extensive hierarchy of assistants and subassistants. Officers working with the bureau at the state level were headed by an assistant commissioner and included a superintendent of education, a traveling inspector, and, during the early months of the bureau's activities, a surgeon-in-chief.

The Freedmen's Bureau operated in Texas from late September 1865 until July 1870. During that time five men served as assistant commissioner: Edgar M. Gregory, from September 1865 until May 14, 1866; Joseph Kiddoo, until January 14, 1867; Charles Griffin, until his death on September 15, 1867; Joseph J. Reynolds, until January 1869; and Edward R. S. Canby, briefly, until he was replaced by Reynolds. In the beginning, at least, Howard regarded Texas as his most difficult sphere of operations. Much later in his Autobiography he recalled that the job of assistant commissioner for Texas, to which he was appointing Gregory, "seemed at the be the post of greatest peril."

The men who served as assistant commissioners in Texas were convinced that the two keys to providing long-term protection for freedmen and promoting peace and goodwill were the establishment of a free agricultural labor system and the founding of good schools for the freedmen. They reasoned that once the planters realized that fair treatment and pay would motivate Blacks to work, then planters would offer those incentives, and freedmen would willingly work hard in their own best interest. Education would provide Blacks with the tools they needed to function effectively in a literate society. Although the five commissioners shared to some extent the racial views prevalent among most contemporary Americans, they insisted that the courts accord Blacks the same legal rights that Whites enjoyed. When, for example, a subassistant commissioner aided local authorities in disarming Blacks who were in town, Kiddoo ordered the agent to return the weapons unless the law also disarmed Whites.

For implementation of their objectives the assistant commissioners relied on the subassistant commissioners, who operated on the local level. The nature of their responsibilities made these local authorities powerful, at least theoretically. They were to monitor all legal cases involving Blacks and take control of the legal process if necessary to ensure justice to them. They were to supervise all labor contracts and void those that were signed by freedmen under duress or were patently unfair to the Black laborer. They were to do their utmost to protect Black lives and property and to aid in the apprehension of those who committed crimes against freedmen. They were to aid Blacks in organizing schools and ensure the safety of their teachers. They toured their respective districts urging freedmen to work hard and fulfill their contracts. Agents also tried to help Blacks to find relatives from whom they had been separated while slaves. Although not always successful, the bureau provided a network through which information about missing relatives could be circulated throughout the South.

From the beginning, the effort to build a truly effective organization in Texas was defeated by the size of the state, its poor transportation and communication facilities, and the hostility of most White Texans to the bureau's efforts. The bureau had only limited resources at its disposal. Between September 1865 and May 1866, when he was relieved, Gregory placed subassistant commissioners in stations across East Texas. By May 1, 1866, he had established branches of the bureau in thirty counties, staffed by thirty-one subassistant commissioners. Kiddoo petitioned Howard for more military officers, but he was not successful in enlarging the bureau's operations. The number of subassistant commissioners varied from a high of thirty-four to a low of twenty-seven during his tenure. When Griffin took over in January 1867 the positions of assistant commissioner and commander of troops were combined, and thus he had greater control over the assignment of soldiers to bureau posts. By April 1867 Griffin had forty-nine agents in the field. At its largest, the bureau had fifty-nine subassistants and ten assistant subassistant commissioners. Each of the fifty-nine agents was responsible for a clearly defined district.

Though the increased number of agents did increase the amount of supervision bureau agents could provide on the local level, the number was still quite inadequate. In the first place, Griffin had ordered that every commander of troops in an area where no bureau existed act as an agent of the bureau. Therefore, some of the men officially designated as subassistant commissioners were stationed at places such as Fort Inge, Camp Verde, and Fort Belknap, where there were few or no freedmen. Second, the size and shape of the districts were determined by the ability of the bureau to provide protection to the agents rather than by the ability of the agents to fulfill their duties in their districts. Matthew Young, stationed at Belton in August 1867, for example, was responsible only for Bell County. Lt. Adam G. Malloy, on the other hand, stationed the same month at Marshall, was responsible for Harrison, Marion, Panola, Rusk, Davis, and Upshur counties.

The bureau could draw subassistant commissioners from three sources: the army, Northern citizens, and Texans. Of these three the assistant commissioners clearly preferred army officers. Army officers received army pay while serving with the bureau; they had training, experience, and credentials that the assistant commissioners, as army officers themselves, were familiar with; and, as Kiddoo put it, army officers were "amenable to the Articles of War and military discipline." The problem that the assistant commissioners faced was finding enough officers willing to serve as agents. Gregory lamented that "but few...manifest that interest in the advancement of the freedmen that they should." The use of civilians presented problems for the assistant commissioners, particularly before 1867, when the bureau had neither funds nor authority to pay them. Civilians who served before 1867 did so on a voluntary basis. Even afterward, assistant commissioners hesitated to use civilians because they had less control over them. Of the civilians willing to serve in the bureau, assistant commissioners were most suspicious of former Texans, who were assumed to have no sympathy for the freedmen. Nonetheless, there were always at least a few civilians employed, and at the height of the bureau's activities, from April 1867 through December 1868, about half the agents were civilians. A few Texans were generally serving at any given time in the bureau's history.

Because the Freedmen's Bureau was an agency of the United States Army White Texans generally viewed it as an extension of the army of occupation imposed on them by the victorious North, as further evidence of the Northern desire for revenge. Not only that, but the bureau's objectives envisioned a role for Blacks in Texas society that Whites had steadfastly maintained they were incapable of filling. Under such conditions, when a bureau officer made a mistake, it glared. Through a system of traveling inspectors, the assistant commissioners endeavored to prevent problems, but they were not totally successful. Although the vast majority of subassistant commissioners appear to have been competent and dedicated individuals, a few were clearly incompetent, and some were little more than criminals. There were enough of these latter types to prove to Texans what they already wanted to believe. To make the situation worse, the military generally would not allow bureau officers to be tried locally. Cases involving misdeeds by bureau agents were investigated and tried by the military.

The role of local agents in Texas was enlarged considerably after the passage of the Reconstruction acts in March 1867. As the military took charge of politically reconstructing the state, they often relied on local bureau agents for information and advice. This process began on March 30, 1867, when Griffin ordered bureau agents to supply him reports of the population of their counties, convenient polling places ("as few as possible"), and the names of "undoubted union men (White and Black)" who could serve as voter registrars and election judges. Later that year, when the removal of county officials as "impediments to Reconstruction" began, local agents often supplied the proof of the officials' wrongdoing. Agents were also called on to recommend replacement officials and to investigate the suitability of candidates whose names had been suggested by others. Agents were now charged with the responsibility of seeing that Blacks' right to register and vote was not impeded. In 1866 Texans had refused to ratify the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, had passed a series of "Black Codes" restricting the freedom of former slaves, and had refused to allow Blacks even limited political participation. It seemed obvious, therefore, that in a free election the majority of Blacks would vote for the Republican, the Northern, party. For most White Texans then, the agents were not only guilty of trying to force Black political equality on the south, but also of trying to turn the machinery of state government over to a despised political party.

After the expansion of the bureau staff, many agents were forced to operate with little or no military support. In some areas, the results were violent. Two agents were killed on duty and a third was killed en route to his post. At least three others were shot and wounded, two more escaped attempted assassinations without serious injury, and two others, finding themselves surrounded by a hostile populace and threatened with death, ran. These problems were compounded by the yellow fever epidemic in the late summer and early fall of 1867. The fever forced several local offices to close and caused the death of General Griffin and four of his subassistant commissioners. In December 1868 the bureau halted all but its educational efforts in Texas, and the local offices were closed.

Evaluations of the bureau are fraught with controversy. Earlier accounts, generally based on documents of contemporary White Texans, portray the bureau negatively. More recent accounts have revised the picture somewhat. But on any account the bureau failed to achieve its long-term objectives. Shortly after Reconstruction ended, Black political participation was effectively limited, and segregation became entrenched by custom and law. Still, while it was operating the bureau probably provided positive benefits to Blacks. At least many Blacks clearly believed that it did, for hundreds monthly turned to the agency for protection, advice, or help in finding lost relatives.

The bureau was most successful in its educational effort. At the end of 1865, sixteen schools were serving just over 1,000 Black pupils. By July of 1870, the last month of the bureau's activities, 150 schools enrolled 9,086 Black students. As in other areas of their work, the bureau had faced fierce and determined opposition on the part of some White Texans, who burned school buildings, harassed teachers, and otherwise obstructed progress. Gradually, however, the opposition declined. In his last report, the superintendent of the Texas schools reported that "The burning of school houses and maltreatment of teachers so common at the commencement of the Bureau operations, have almost entirely ceased." Even historians generally critical of the Freedmen's Bureau have conceded that the education of Blacks in Texas would not have been possible so soon without its efforts. See also AFRICAN AMERICANS, and SLAVERY.

Ira Christopher Colby, The Freedmen's Bureau in Texas and Its Impact on the Emerging Social Welfare System and Black-White Social Relations, 1865–1885 (D.S.W. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1984). Barry A. Crouch, The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992). Barry A. Crouch, "The Freedmen's Bureau and the Thirtieth Sub-District in Texas: Smith County and Its Environs during Reconstruction," Chronicles of Smith County, Spring 1972. Barry A. Crouch and Larry Madaras, "Reconstructing Black Families: Perspectives from the Texas Freedmen's Bureau Records," Prologue 18 (Summer 1986). Barry A. Crouch, "View from Within: Letters of Gregory Barrett, Freedmen's Bureau Agent," Chronicles of Smith County, Winter 1973. Ross Nathaniel Dudney, Texas Reconstruction: The Role of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1870, Smith County, (Tyler) Texas (M.S. thesis, Texas A&I University, 1986). Claude Elliott, "The Freedmen's Bureau in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 56 (July 1952). Alton Hornsby, Jr., "The Freedmen's Bureau Schools in Texas, 1865–1870," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 76 (April 1963). Nora Estelle Owens, Presidential Reconstruction in Texas: A Case Study (Ph.D. dissertation, Auburn University, 1983). Charles W. Ramsdell, Reconstruction in Texas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). William L. Richter, The Army in Texas during Reconstruction, 1865–1870 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987). Robert W. Shook, Federal Occupation and Administration of Texas, 1865–1870 (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1970). James Smallwood, "Black Education in Reconstruction Texas: The Contributions of the Freedmen's Bureau and Benevolent Societies," East Texas Historical Journal 19 (Spring 1981). James Smallwood, "Charles E. Culver, a Reconstruction Agent in Texas," Civil War History 27 (December 1981). James Smallwood, "The Freedmen's Bureau Reconsidered," Texana 11 (Fall 1973). James Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction (London: Kennikat, 1981). Esther Lane Thompson, The Influence of the Freedmen's Bureau on the Education of the Negro in Texas (M.A. thesis, Texas Southern University, 1956).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cecil Harper, Jr., “Freedmen's Bureau,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022,

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October 22, 2020

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