Freedmen's Bureau, in U.S. history, a federal agency, formed to aid and protect the newly freed blacks in the South after the Civil War. Established by an act of Mar. 3, 1865, under the name "bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands," it was to function for one year after the close of the war. A bill extending its life indefinitely and greatly increasing its powers was vetoed (Feb. 19, 1866) by President Andrew Johnson, who viewed the legislation as an unwarranted (and unconstitutional) continuation of war powers in peacetime. The veto marked the beginning of the President's long and unsuccessful fight with the radical Republican Congress over Reconstruction. In slightly different form, the bill was passed over Johnson's veto on July 16, 1866. Organized under the War Dept., with Gen. Oliver O. Howard as its commissioner, and thus backed by military force, the bureau was one of the most powerful instruments of Reconstruction. Howard divided the ex-slave states, including the border slave states that had remained in the Union, into 10 districts, each headed by an assistant commissioner. The bureau's work consisted chiefly of five kinds of activity—relief work for both blacks and whites in war-stricken areas, regulation of black labor under the new conditions, administration of justice in cases concerning the blacks, management of abandoned and confiscated property, and support of education for blacks. In its relief and educational activities the bureau compiled an excellent record, which, however, was too often marred by unprincipled agents, both military and civilian, in the local offices. Its efforts toward establishing the freed blacks as landowners were nil. To a great degree the bureau operated as a political machine, organizing the black vote for the Republican party; its political activities made it thoroughly hated in the South. When, under the congressional plan of Reconstruction, new state governments based on black suffrage were organized in the South (with many agents holding various offices), the work of the Freedmen's Bureau was discontinued (July 1, 1869). Its educational activities, however, were carried on for another three years.
See P. S. Peirce, The Freedmen's Bureau (1904); L. J. Webster, The Operation of the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina (1916, repr. 1970); G. R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955, repr. 1970); M. Abbott, The Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina (1967).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.