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Freedmen, The Freed Slaves of the Civil War
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        Freedmen was the term given to those slaves who became free men after the U.S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862. Under this act, Confederates who did not surrender within 60 days of the act's passage were to be punished by having their slaves freed. It also dealt with a problem that had plagued field commanders occupying Southern territory. As troops advanced, slaves sought refuge in Union camps, and Federal commanders were confused over their obligations to the refugees. Some freed the slaves, other sent them back to their master for lack of means to care for them. The Confiscation Act declared all slaves taking refuge behind Union lines captives of war who were to be set free. The Act essentially paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation and solved the immediate dilemma facing the army concerning the status of slaves within its jurisdiction.
        After this act was passed, thousands of Southern slaves became "freedmen. Though they had eagerly awaited their liberators, freedom was accompanied by frightening uncertainties.
        Homeless, with few possessions, blacks fleeing to Union lines for protection found themselves as dependent on the Federal government for their existence as they had been on their masters. But Washington issued no concrete policy concerning their welfare, and field commanders saddled with caring for the refugees resorted to various means of providing them with food, shelter, and clothing.
        Many freedmen, herded into contraband camps, were hired out to loyal Unionist plantation owners for low wages, and others in the Western theater were assigned parcels of confiscated lands for subsistence farming. Still others rendered service to the army.
        Unaccustomed to administering refugee relief, the army generally managed to maintain freedmen at a subsistence level. But many died of disease in overcrowded stockades, and some voluntarily returned to their homes because of deplorable conditions. Supplemental aid arrived from Northern relief societies that collected food and clothing for the freedmen and by 1862 began sending teachers to educate them. That year the New England Freedman's Aid Society was operating schools in South Carolina, and before war's end blacks in Mississippi and Georgia had founded schools for their own people.
        Not all freedmen dared trust whites professing friendship. Abuses of slavery were fresh in their minds, and many suffered injustices at the hands of invading white soldiers. Knowing the war was not over, unsure of what or whom to believe, many preferred to stay with their masters, whose power over them would remain after Union forces moved on. Others joined the Federal army after 1863, or followed it aimlessly, not knowing what else to do.
        In 1863 the war department created the "American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission" to suggest methods for dealing with emancipated slaves. The commission's key conclusion was that no bureau or agency set up to help the ex-slaves should become a permanent institution but should instead encourage the negros to become self-reliant as quickly as possible.
        Out of this commission's report, was born, on March 4, 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the "Freedmen's Bureau." Despite it's official title it's main purpose was to help the more than four million former slaves, most with any resources or education populating the South after the war. Congress created the Freedman's Bureau, with a life span of just one year, to distribute clothing, food, and fuel to destitute freedmen and to oversee "all subjects relating to their condition" in the South. The bureau was not granted a separate budget for its work, but instead drew funds from the Department of War. Heading the bureau was none other than General Oliver O. Howard, a graduate of Bowdoin and West point and a very distinguished Civil War veteran. A devout church goer and fervent civil rights advocate, Howard helped manage the bureau's approximately 900 agents.
        One of the most difficult challenges of the bureau was instituting a judicial system that would be fair to both blacks and whites. At first, the bureau established its own judicial authority, with local agents setting up temporary three-man courts to hear individual disputes between white employees who were dealing for the first time with black employees demanding fair wages.
        Without adequate manpower or financial resources  for such an enormous undertaking, however, the bureau instead worked to persuade the Southern states to recognize racial equality in their own judicial proceedings. Bureau agents monitored state and local legal affairs and often intervened on behalf of blacks.
        Introducing a system of free labor economy was another of the bureau's responsibilities. The bureau's goal in this respect was to return the ex-slaves to plantation labor, which was still essential to the Southern economy, but to do so under conditions that would allow blacks to work their way up and out of the labor class. One way to accomplish this was to distribute lands confiscated or abandoned during the war-some 850,000 acres in 1865-to newly freed slaves. "Forty acres and a mule" was the slogan for the Reconstruction land-grant plan, but in the end only about 2,000 South Carolina and 1,500 Georgia freedmen actually received the land they had been promised-less than one percent of the four million ex-slaves populating the South.
        Another challenge facing the negro in the South was the abysmal lack of health care services. The bureau attempted to strengthen existing medical care facilities as well as expand services into rural areas through newly established clinics.
        Perhaps the most important contribution the bureau made to Reconstruction efforts involved expanding educational opportunities to emancipated African-Americans. Lacking adequate resources, the bureau did not establish new schools itself, but instead acted as a catalyst between Northern relief societies and local governments and individuals. By 1869, about 3,000 new schools serving more than 150,000 pupils, as well as dozens of evening and private schools, had been established. Working with the American Missionary Association and the American Freedman's Union Commission, the bureau also founded and staffed the first black colleges in the South, all of which were initially designed to train black teachers who would teach black students.
        Also, despite inadequate funding and a shortage of facilities, the bureau enabled an estimated 500,000 freedmen to receive medical attention in more than 100 hospitals.
        Despite its accomplishments, the Freedmen's Bureau was also known to be a corrupt and often inefficient organization. Although Howard himself was above reproach, the agents in the field, usually left completely to their own devices, used their positions to exact money and power from the very people they were meant to serve.
        In December 1865, the Radical Republicans in Congress managed to pass a strengthened Freedman's Bureau Act, but were disappointed when President Andrew Johnson vetoed it.
        Officially existing for just one year, plagued by corruption, and lacking enough funding and manpower to complete what was indeed a Herculean task, the bureau nonetheless made great strides in providing newly emancipated negros with access to equal justice, fair labor practices, land, and education.
        In order to fully understand the plight of the freed slaves and what brought about the Freedmen's Bureau one must fully examine the slavery issue as it existed in the country at the time. To do that, both the Preliminary and the Final reports of the Freedmen's Inquiry Commission are provided. These are extracted in their entirety from the "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion."

Preliminary Report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission to the Secretary of War.
Final Report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission to the Secretary of War.

        This Page last updated 02/16/02


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