Freedmen's Bureau Records: An Overview
Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)
By Elaine C. Everly
At no time was the federal government more involved with African Americans than during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when approximately four million slaves became freedmen. No agency epitomized that involvement more than did the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually called the Freedmen's Bureau. No series of essays on the impact of federal records on historical research on African Americans would therefore be complete without some mention of the Freedmen's Bureau (Record Group 105) and related military records in the National Archives. In the last decades, extensive research among these records has been a significant factor in the revision of the history of Reconstruction and the subsequent highlighting of the condition and plight of the freedmen. Once discredited because of its alleged corruption and ties to the "Radical" Republicans, the Freedmen's Bureau is now most often viewed mainly as an agency of relief, with some historians going so far as to fault it for failing to achieve significant advances for the freedmen.
Useful as the Freedmen's Bureau records are for research about federal policies, their most enduring legacy may be the human face they give to slavery and emancipation. Records containing names of both freedmen and their former owners, some of which list freedmen only by their first names, are poignant reminders that slavery was the ownership of one human being by another; marriage registers and certificates remind us that marriage was a legal right denied slaves. The applications for relief, reports of the distribution of food and clothing, hospital records, and registers kept by superintendents of freedmen tell of the poverty and destitution, the disease and death that accompanied the freedom resulting from the Civil War. Letters and reports of Freedmen's Bureau officers describe the problems, trials, and tribulations of individuals and their families. Less poignant, but equally important, are the statistical and narrative reports that contain much aggregate data about the freedmen.
If history is not written but rewritten, as the adage goes, Freedmen's Bureau records will continue to be utilized for the information they contain about freedmen at the critical period of emancipation. In recent years, historians and sociologists have produced significant works on the African American family and on the social and economic conditions of the freedmen in the years following emancipation, but there is always need for further research. Freedmen's Bureau records provide data about family structure, migration patterns, poverty, and attitudes toward education that are useful not only in gaining a clearer picture of the past but also in understanding the present. They also disclose white attitudes, both in the reports of outrages and violence and in the more subtle, but equally meaningful, description of the freedmen by bureau officers.
Valuable as the Freedmen's Bureau records are, they are limited both in scope and the time period that they cover. The bureau was a War Department agency staffed primarily by army officers and was fully operational only from about June 1865 through December 1868. Organized hierarchically, it was headed by a commissioner in Washington with assistant commissioners in charge of operations in the former Confederate states, the border states, and the District of Columbia. Officers subordinate to the assistant commissioners in the counties and parishes performed the actual work of the bureau, which was not to collect information about the freedmen but to be in charge of all affairs relating to them. In most cases this consisted of issuing food, clothing, and fuel to the destitute; providing transportation to people migrating to other areas; operating hospitals and homes; witnessing labor contracts between the freedmen and plantation owners or other employers; and helping to secure their rights. In some places, bureau officers issued marriage certificates and even performed marriage ceremonies. In all districts they fostered and helped to launch schools for African Americans. Beginning in 1866, they also were given the responsibility of filing claims of African American soldiers and sailors for bounties, back pay, or pensions. Of all the bureau operations, the claims work was the most continuous and was ongoing when the agency was formally abolished in June 1872 and its functions transferred to the Freedmen's Branch of the Adjutant General's Office.1
The records of the Freedmen's Bureau documenting these activities are quite voluminous.2 The inventory of the records of the bureau headquarters includes about 240 record "series" and the much more voluminous records (more than 4,400 "series") of the field offices of the state assistant commissioners and their subordinate officers. Many of the latter series contain unique data about the freedmen. For ease of reference, appendixes to the three-part inventory list records of special interest, such as labor contracts, hospital records, registers of marriages, records relating to freedmen's complaints, and claims files. In conjunction with military service and pension application files, the latter records supplement information about African American soldiers and their families and confirm the significance of Civil War military service in the history of African Americans.
Of all of the types of records listed in the appendixes to the three-part inventory of records of the bureau field offices, the "pre-bureau" records are particularly valuable for research on African Americans during the Civil War. Because there was no centralized agency such as the Freedmen's Bureau during the war, records for this period are not as plentiful and are more difficult to locate, but they do show how the federal government became involved with freedmen and why the bureau was established. As soon as the war commenced, slaves fled to Union lines or were abandoned by their fleeing masters. Since most possessed little more than the clothes on their backs, the military began to dispense basic relief of food, clothing, and shelter and to employ as many as possible. In parts of the country where large numbers had gathered, commanders appointed superintendents to be in charge of all affairs relating to them. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed Oliver O. Howard to be commissioner of the bureau, he reportedly gave him a large basket of records of the superintendents of freedmen, and these, most likely, are the pre-bureau records in RG 105.
Although somewhat fragmentary, records of the wartime superintendents of freedmen, some of which begin as early as March 1862, show that the Freedmen's Bureau was in many respects but a continuation of operations that had started during the war. The most voluminous records are those of the general superintendent of freedmen in the military Department of Tennessee among the bureau records for Mississippi and those of the superintendent of the Bureau of Free Labor in the military Department of the Gulf among the bureau records for Louisiana. For both states there are records of "home colonies" and camps where freedmen were put to work cultivating abandoned plantations. Registers kept at these places give the names and ages of the freedmen employed and often the names and addresses of former owners. Other registers show the dispensation of relief or the people treated in hospitals. Less voluminous, but also significant, are bureau records for South Carolina and Virginia, which include those of the superintendent of contrabands at Beaufort in the military Department of the South and the superintendent of Negro affairs at Fort Monroe in the Departments of Virginia and North Carolina. Bureau records for the District of Columbia also include registers of freedmen's camps, one in the city and the other on Mason's Island, that were established during the war and copies of letters sent by the quartermaster officer in charge of freedmen in the military Department of Washington.
Additional documents about the operations of the wartime superintendents of freedmen are among what archivists refer to as "related records"; however, unlike the records in RG 105, which are clearly identified, these records are usually scattered among large series of letters, orders, or reports that relate to other aspects of military operations and only tangentially to freedmen. Locating them requires not only more effort but also detective work.
A description of some of the records relating to freedmen in the Washington, D.C., area illustrates this point. Only a small part of the documentation on "freedmen's affairs" in the nation's capital during the Civil War is in RG 105. The above-mentioned records that are in RG 105 have little significance without records of the commands in Washington.3 Letters and reports from the Washington commands indicate that as soon as the war commenced, slaves from nearby Maryland and Virginia began to flee to the city, where the military had the dual problem of assuring loyal Marylanders that they could reclaim their property and of dealing with the poverty of the newcomers. For forty cents a day, plus rations, the army hired able-bodied men as scavengers at the public buildings and hospitals, as sanitary policemen, and as laborers on the defenses and fortifications surrounding the city. The army housed others in the Old Capitol Jail and later in the houses in nearby Duff Green's Row on East Capitol Street. In the summer of 1862, soon after the military governor or commander of Washington appointed a civilian to superintend relief work for the contrabands, as they were first called, he moved the people to Camp Barker on Thirteenth Street and Vermont Avenue, and one of the two registers in RG 105 records the arrivals, deaths, and marriages at this camp.4 Other records tell of the removal of the people from Camp Barker to the newly established Freedmen's Village on the Arlington estate and of the controversies concerning this camp and the superintendent's relationship with the freedmen.5
Since the army's quartermaster department was responsible for hiring civilians and for dispensing supplies and equipment, records of the Quartermaster General's Office in RG 92 also tell much about freedmen's affairs in Washington during the war. "Reports of Persons and Articles Hired" list freedmen hired to work by the army or to cultivate abandoned farms on the south side of the Potomac, and there are consolidated files of correspondence on subjects such as the "Arlington Estate," "Freedmen's Village," "contraband fund," and "contraband camp," which provide more data about what the military was doing for the freedmen who had come to the Washington area. The consolidated file "contraband camp" even includes a diagram of Camp Barker.
Significant documents about freedmen in Washington are also in series of records that appear unlikely to include such information. A report of the inspection of the camp on Mason's Island among the records of the Inspector General shows that the camp was established as a general depot for hiring out the freedmen and makes more comprehensible the register in RG 105 of freedmen departing from Mason's Island. The report of the Freedmen's Inquiry Commission among the letters received by the Adjutant General includes details about living conditions of freedmen in Washington and supplements information about the establishment of Freedmen's Village, and a file among the letters received by the Colored Troops Division includes a diagram of Freedmen's Village.6
What these examples show is that while Freedmen's Bureau records in RG 105 may be the single richest source for information on African Americans during Reconstruction, "related military records" are equally, if not more, significant for the war period.
If history is as much an interpretation of the past based on our own experiences as it is a factual account of what took place, Freedmen's Bureau and related military records will be examined again and again. They provide facts about slavery and emancipation, but they also challenge researchers to ask new questions about the past. How serious and widespread was destitution during and after the war, and did women suffer to a much greater extent than the men? What was the fate of the elderly, and how great was the death rate? How much of the slave system continued after emancipation? Freedmen's Bureau records provide more than clues to these questions, and they attest to the fact that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War and that the place of the freedmen was one of the ongoing issues in American history.
1. Records of the Freedmen's Branch of the Adjutant General's Office are a part of the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NA).
2. Descriptions of the records of the headquarters of the Freedmen's Bureau, including headquarters of the Freedmen's Branch of the Adjutant General's Office, were published as Elaine C. Everly, comp., Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Washington Headquarters, National Archives Preliminary Inventory No. 174 (1973). Descriptions of the field office records of both the Freedmen's Bureau and the Freedmen's Branch are in a three-part unpublished inventory (NM-95), compiled by Elaine C. Everly and Willna Pacheli. This inventory is available for examination in the National Archives, Washington, DC. Part one describes records of the bureau districts in Alabama, Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Part two includes descriptions for districts in Maryland and Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Part three covers districts in Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia as well as records of the field offices of the Freedmen's Branch of the Adjutant General's Office.
3. The District of Columbia was under the immediate command of the following: May–August 1861, Commander of the Military Department of Washington; August 1861–March 1862, Commander of the Army of the Potomac; March 1862–December 1864, Commander of the Military District of Washington; January–June 1865, Commander of the Department of Washington and Twenty-second Army Corps.
4. See series 570 of NM-95, RG 105, NA.
5. See "Testimony taken during investigation of Superintendent Nichols, "Department of Washington, Miscellaneous Records, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920, RG 393, NA.
6. See Letters Received K 11 1864, Records of the Office of the Inspector General, RG 159, and Letters Received, O 328 1863, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, RG 94, NA.