Setting a Precedent for American Aid; The Freedmen’s Bureau

Authored by Marion Ward

Registers and Letters Received by the Commissioner, Indexes and Registers, Register 14, Jan. 1–July 31, 1869.

On March 3, 1865, the War Department of the United States established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; it has since come to be known as the Freedmen’s Bureau (National Archives 2021). Facing the aftermath of the Civil War and the havoc it wreaked on the American economic system, President Andrew Johnson worked alongside Congress to create the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was a federal agency that was established for the purpose of promoting the social welfare of the recently freed population of enslaved African Americans (Hatfield 2020).

As one of America’s first federal social service agencies, the Freedmen’s Bureau was founded in Washington in order to supervise division of property and educational efforts, all while orchestrating the transition of black citizens from slaves to members of the American citizenry labor force (Smith 1998, 331). The Freedmen’s Bureau remained a functioning federal agency until 1872, at which time Congress allowed its authorization as a governmental agency to expire (Hatfield 2020), although the majority of the work accomplished by the Freedmen’s Bureau was accomplished between 1865 and 1868 (National Archives 2021). During this time, the Freedmen’s Bureau strove to address the economic issues created by the Civil War, particularly in the American South; ex-slaves were faced by a hostile, racist environment that necessitated an intentionally facilitated labor relation structure (Fleischman, Tyson, and Oldroyd 2018, 76). While the work accomplished by the Freedmen’s Bureau has had its critics regarding efficacy over the years since its inception and eventual expiration (DuBois 1901), the Bureau itself strove to ameliorate challenges of facilitating the transition to a free labor system in the years following the Civil War (Cohen 1984, 222).

The above image is the first page of a handwritten log that features a variety of requests directed towards the Freedmen’s Bureau. The log picks up in January of 1869, which is a timeframe that is arguably outside of the immediate post-War period during which the Freedmen’s Bureau did the bulk of its work; however, while the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War lasted beyond the official existence of the Freedmen’s Bureau (Foner 2022), the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the United States attempted to address myriad issues stemming from the systemic racism and oppression that marked the ways in which much of the United States treated a large swathe of its population. While the Freedmen’s Bureau was unable to address many of the issues that sprung forth from systemic racism in the United States, the object included above provides an example of some of the work–primarily educational work in this case–towards which the Freedmen’s Bureau contributed. An Ames Hugh from Seguin, Texas requests an appointment as the Assistant Superintendent of Education; an individual from Montgomery submits a supplemental report of school buildings in Alabama; another person asks that his account “be promptly paid as he is solely dependent upon it for support” (Freedmen’s Bureau 1869, 4). The first page of this log provides a snapshot of the breadth of the work attempted and accomplished by the Freedmen’s Bureau; it demonstrates in a practical fashion how the Bureau’s day-to-day efforts manifested.


Cohen, William. 1984. “Black Immobility and Free Labor: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Relocation of Black Labor, 1865-1868.” Civil War History 30, no. 3 (September): 221 – 234. Kent State University Press.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1901. “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” The Atlantic, March.

Fleischman, Richard, Thomas Tyson, and David Oldroyd. 2018. “The U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau in Post-Civil War Reconstruction.” Accounting Historians Journal 41, no. 2 (June): 75 – 109.

Foner, Eric. 2022. “Reconstruction; United States History.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified August 29, 2022.

Freedmen’s Bureau. 1869. “Registers and Letters Received by the Commissioner, Indexes and Registers, Register 14, Jan. 1 – July 31, 1869.” The Smithsonian Institute.

Hatfield, Edward A. 2020. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” September 16, 2020. New Georgia Encyclopedia. Last modified September 16, 2020. 

Smith, John David. 1998. “Review: ‘The Work It Did Not Do Because It Could Not’: Georgia and the ‘New’ Freedmen’s Bureau Historiography.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 82, no. 2 (Summer): 331 – 349.

National Archives. 2021. “The Freedmen’s Bureau.” Last modified October 28, 2021.