Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To assist the adjustment of African American slaves to freedom as the Civil War was coming to a close, the U.S. government established the Freedmen’s Bureau but never provided it with the resources it needed to fulfill its mission properly.

Summary of Event

On March 3, 1865, shortly before the Civil War (1861-1865) ended, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] created the Freedmen’s Bureau as a temporary agency within the War Department. Also known as the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the new agency was administered by General Oliver O. Howard from 1865 until it was dismantled by Congress in 1872. The primary objective of the bureau was to help newly freed African American slaves to function as free men, women, and children. To achieve its goal, the bureau was expected to assume responsibility for all matters related to the newly freed slaves in the southern states. Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] African Americans;and Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Freedmen’s Bureau is formed [kw]Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau (Mar. 3, 1865) [kw]Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau, Congress (Mar. 3, 1865) [kw]Freedmen’s Bureau, Congress Creates the (Mar. 3, 1865) [kw]Bureau, Congress Creates the Freedmen’s (Mar. 3, 1865) Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] African Americans;and Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Freedmen’s Bureau is formed [g]United States;Mar. 3, 1865: Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau[3810] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 3, 1865: Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau[3810] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 3, 1865: Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau[3810] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 3, 1865: Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau[3810] Howard, Oliver O. Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

The bureau faced enormous challenges because of the broad scope of his mission, its limited resources, political conflicts over Reconstruction policies, and a generally hostile environment. The work of the bureau was performed by General Howard Howard, Oliver O. and a network of assistant commissioners in various states, largely in the South. The Freedmen’s Bureau attempted to address many of the needs of the newly freed slaves, including labor relations, education, landownership, medical care, food distribution, family reunification, legal protection, and legal services within the African American community.

The Freedmen’s Bureau dealt with such labor-related issues as the transporting and relocating of refugees and newly freed persons for employment, contract and wage disputes, and harsh legislation enacted by some states. After the Civil War, many southern states passed laws known as black codes Black codes that required freed slaves to have lawful employment or businesses. Otherwise, they would be subject to fines and could be jailed for vagrancy. Sheriffs could hire them out to anyone who would pay their fines. Because of the desperate scarcity of jobs in the postwar South, state laws allowed former slave owners to maintain rigid control over newly freed slaves.

Another type of discriminatory law gave former owners of orphaned African Americans the right to hire them as apprentices instead of placing them with their relatives. This law also resulted in the continuation of virtually free labor for many white southerners. The Freedmen’s Bureau has been criticized for the failure of its agents to negotiate labor contracts in the interest of the newly freed. The bureau was frequently accused of protecting the rights of the southern planters instead.

Obtaining education was an important goal for newly freed African Americans. They understood that literacy would enable them to enter into contracts and establish businesses on their own, and would aid them in legal matters. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided some support by providing teachers, schools, African Americans;education Education;African American and books and by coordinating volunteers. The bureau also made a contribution to the founding of black colleges and universities. Southern whites generally opposed educating African Americans because of their fear that education would make former slaves too independent and unwilling to work under the terms established by white employers. Southerners therefore sought to control the educational systems in their states. White planters used various methods to exert control: frequent changes in administrative personnel, the use of racial stereotypes regarding the intellectual inferiority of African Americans, and educational policy making based on paternalism and self-interest. Consequently, educational opportunities were significantly restricted for black youths.

Eager to acquire property, newly freed slaves demonstrated their desire to own their own land as individuals and formed associations to purchase large tracts of land. Their sense of family and community was the basis for their strong desire to own land. The Freedmen’s Bureau was initially authorized to distribute land that had been confiscated from southern plantation owners during the Civil War. Specifically, on the sea islands of South Carolina, the bureau was mandated to lease or sell lands that had been confiscated. This land was to be distributed in parcels of forty acres.

The decision of Congress Congress, U.S.;and Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] to authorize the distribution of land was based on a proposal made by Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. However, President Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] acceded to pressure from the rebellious planters to return their lands. The plantation owners were pardoned, and their property rights were restored by the president. Consequently, all land that had been distributed to African Americans was returned to its previous owners. The dispossessed black people were then encouraged to sign contracts to work on the land that they had briefly owned. Many refused to comply with this arrangement. Others would not voluntarily leave the property they once owned. Those who refused to vacate were evicted.

A medical department was created within the Freedmen’s Bureau to be a temporary service, to ensure that medical services were provided to African Americans until local governments assumed that responsibility. In spite of inadequate resources, the bureau founded forty-five hospitals in fourteen states. Among the common problems of the medical department were inadequately staffed hospitals, medical personnel with little control over health concerns, frequent personnel changes and hospital relocations, and lack of funds to purchase food for patients. Despite these problems, the bureau experienced some success in providing for the medical needs of black people. Although it could not meet the medical needs of many, it rendered medical services to large numbers of former slaves.

The Freedmen’s Bureau also attempted to provide for the social welfare of the freed persons. The agency was noted for rationing food to refugees and former slaves; it assisted families in reuniting with members who had been sold or separated in other ways during the era of slavery.

Protecting the civil rights of the former slaves was a major task of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many Republican politicians believed that African Americans should have the same rights as white Americans. However, the black codes of many southern states severely restricted black civil rights. Exacting social and economic control over African Americans, these laws represented a new form of slavery. In cases in which state laws limited African American rights, the bureau attempted to invoke provisions of the 1866 federal Civil Rights Act Civil Rights Act of 1866;and Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] , which offered African Americans the same legal protections and rights as whites to testify in courts, own property, enforce legal contracts, and sue. However, the bureau found it difficult to enforce the Civil Rights Act and to prosecute state officials who enforced discriminatory laws. A shortage of agents and a reluctance among bureau commissioners to challenge local officials contributed to the agency’s limited success.

Finally, the Freedmen’s Bureau also established tribunals to address minor legal disputes of African Americans within their own communities. In many instances, freed slaves were able to resolve their own problems. When they could not, they presented their legal concerns to bureau agents.


The task assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau was monumental. The responsibilities of the bureau significantly exceeded the resources and authority granted to it by Congress. The bureau’s ability to perform its varied tasks also was impeded by personnel shortages. President Johnson’s Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] Reconstruction policies represented another major challenge to the bureau, as they were not always supportive of the bureau’s mandate and objectives. Myriad problems associated with the bureau meant that the newly freed men, women, and children were not able to receive the goods and services necessary to gain economic independence. Consequently, they developed extensive self-help networks to address their needs.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bankston, Carl L., III, ed. African American History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2005. Encyclopedic reference work on African American history that includes entries on the Freedmen’s Bureau, black laws, and many related subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crouch, Barry A. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. Discusses the Reconstruction era and the Freedmen’s Bureau in the state of Texas. Explores how bureau agents performed their tasks in a hostile climate characterized by racial injustices and resistance to change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Gaines M. “The Limitations of Federal Health Care for Freedmen, 1862-1868.” In The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Freedom, edited by Donald G. Nieman. New York: Garland, 1994. Detailed discussion of the medical needs of African Americans following emancipation. Explores the various problems that adversely affected the bureau’s ability to deliver medical services to African Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Focuses on the history of people of African descent brought to the United States as slaves. Examines the harsh social and economic conditions that have confronted African Americans and the strategies they used to survive in spite of these societal barriers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magdol, Edward. A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen’s Community. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. Examines the problems confronting African Americans as freed men, women, and children during Reconstruction. Emphasizes the efforts that African Americans pursued to acquire land and their relentless quest for self-determination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rasmussen, R. Kent. Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America. New York: Facts On File, 1997. Written for young adults, this brief but comprehensive history of segregation in U.S. history examines the successes and failures of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westwood, Howard C. “Getting Justice for the Freedmen.” In The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Freedom, edited by Donald G. Nieman. New York: Garland, 1994. Explores how the Freedmen’s Bureau’s agents addressed the legal concerns of freed persons during the Reconstruction era.

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Categories: History