ďThe Freedmenís BureauĒ

July 25, 1868

Alfred R. Waud

ďThe Freedmenís BureauĒ

Black Americans; Reconstruction; U.S. Military;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South;

No caption

In July 1868, Congress essentially ended the existence of the Freedmen's Bureau, a temporary federal agency established to provide basic relief to emancipated slaves.  Cartoonist A. R. Waud honors its three years of service by portraying it as the necessary line of defense protecting black Southerners from their hostile white neighbors.

In February 1862, George William Curtis, an abolitionist and columnist for Harper's Weekly, wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase suggesting the creation of a federal agency to assist the former slaves crossing into Union territory.  It was an idea already eagerly discussed among abolitionists, and Curtis publicly promoted it in his ďLoungerĒ column in the March 1, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly.  He placed such importance on the issue that he addressed it again in the first issue of the newspaper in which he assumed responsibility as editorial writer, December 26, 1863.  Curtis and his father-in-law, Francis Shaw, president of the philanthropic Freedmenís Relief Association, helped Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts draft the Freedmenís Bill to establish the Freedmenís Bureau.  

Radical Republicans like Curtis wanted the agency in the Treasury Department under the abolitionist Chase.  Others wanted it positioned within the War Department, so passage of the legislation was delayed until after Chase resigned in 1864.  In March 3, 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmenís Bureau.  The final version of the bill established a temporary agency within the War Department, under the direction of General Oliver Otis Howard.  

The law granted relief to black and white persons displaced by the Civil War, but was aimed at assisting the freed slaves in their transition from enslavement to liberty.  The freed slaves were provided basic shelter and medical care, assistance in labor-contract negotiation and the establishment of schools, and similar services.  The Freedmen's Bureau was the first federal agency dedicated to social welfare.

In February 1866, Congress passed a second Freedmenís Bureau Act, which extended the temporary agencyís life for two years and gave the United States Army the responsibility of protecting the civil rights of black Americans in the former Confederate states.  President Andrew Johnson, however, vetoed the bill.  Although Congress had rejected Johnson's own Reconstruction program in 1865 as too lenient, many Republicans were surprised by the president's veto.  It was the beginning, though, of an increasingly acrimonious relationship between the Democratic president and the Republican Congress over the shape and control of Reconstruction in the postwar South.

That spring, President Johnson sent Generals John Steedman and Joseph Fullerton on a tour of the South to gather information in an effort to discredit the Freedmenís Bureau.  Southern blacks, however, expressed strong support for the continued presence of the Freemenís Bureau in the South, believing that it gave them necessary aid and, especially, protection.  In one case, when General Steedman offered a crowd of 800 blacks a hypothetical choice between the Freedmenís Bureau and the United States Army, the audience overwhelmingly chose the Bureau.  In July 1866, Congress passed the Freedmenís Bureau Act a second time.  President Johnson vetoed it again, but Congress was able to override his veto and it became law.

The Freedmen's Bureau helped Southern blacks build schools and churches, enforced civil rights and due process, facilitated the reunion of families separated by slavery, and allocated basic necessities of food and shelter until recipients could provide for themselves.  Yet, for all the good that it did, the agency's effectiveness was hampered by several obstacles.  During most of its three years of existence, it never had sufficient funding or personnel (at its peak, it only had 900 agents throughout the South).  It also faced opposition from segments of the Southern white population and their political representatives at the local, state, and federal level.  Furthermore, many whites in the North and their congressmen became increasingly uneasy about Reconstruction, and in this case over a federal social program targeting one specific group of Americans.  

On July 6, 1868, Congress passed a law that essentially instructed the Freedmen's Bureau to close up shop.  The federal legislation extended the agency's life to the end of the year, but discontinued it in the former Confederate states that were reconstructed (all but three).  On January 1, 1869, General Howard brought most of the agency's activities to a halt.

In an editorial appearing in the same issue as this cartoon, George William Curtis reflected on the vital role the Freedmen's Bureau had played.  "No institution was ever more imperatively necessary, and none has been more useful."  The Harper's Weekly editor agreed with cartoonist Waud's perspective that the Freedmen's Bureau had prevented a "war of races" in the postwar South.  The Civil War ended with the slaves freed, but left them without resources and hated in the land they knew.  "The Freedmen's Bureau was the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties and saying to them, with irresistible authority, 'Peace!'"  The agency "stood between the freedmen and starvation and cruel laws, meanwhile giving them arms and schools and civil and political equality, that they might start fair in the common race."  

Robert C. Kennedy

ďThe Freedmenís BureauĒ
July 23, 2024

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