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Chapter 47: freedmen's aid societies and an act of congress creating a Bureau of refugees, freedmen and abandoned lands

During the progress of the war it was a noble characteristic of our home people that they followed the armies with such abundant evidence of their interest and affection. Through the Christian and Sanitary Commissions, they showed themselves in every hospital, on every field after battle, and in every camp. With faithful assiduity they pressed forward an abundance of supplies and agents to distribute them to the front, to such an extent that commanders like Sherman, in the light of what they deemed larger interests, at times were obliged to restrain their ardor; but such restraints were infrequent and caused by a temporary necessity.

Voluntary contributions of $12,440,294.57 of cash expenditures and more than double this amount in clothing and comforts were thus generously given through these two leading commissions. The commissions sought to better the rations, to prevent sickness, to supply the hospitals with all possible home relief, to succor the wounded, and to smooth the pillows of those who could not live. And, really, not the least

Aggregate cash expenditure Sanitary Commission$6,962,014.26
Aggregate cash expenditure Christian Commission5,478,280.31

[195] of these happy provisions was centered in the selected agent himself, who brought with him a breath from home, who cheered the weary and suffering, and gave them visions of peace, love, and hope. He made it happier for the sick soldier to live, and easier for the extremely ill and the fatally wounded to die.

Still more remarkable was the almost universal interest, often amounting to enthusiasm, manifested among the people of our Northern, Central, and Western States for the relief of the white refugees and the freed people. The donors who rose up everywhere without stint sought channels to bestow their gifts. They took up, as we have already seen, existing organizations where they could find those willing to do their behests. For example, they used the Christian Commission for the East and Sanitary Commission for the West; also, East and West, the American Tract Society and the American Missionary Association, and many others connected with the Catholic and Protestant Churches. By the chosen agents of these, help was brought to those needy classes-clothing, food, medical attendance, and medical supplies-and always schools; for, as the benevolent actors thought, education was to be the permanent cure for all existing ills.

The prevailing thought was: The slaves are becoming free; give them knowledge-teach them to readteach the child This work thus undertaken was at first very irregular and spasmodic; only here and there was there any settled system of doing.

The generous enthusiasm for the freedmen pushed the eager home people further still. Unsatisfied with present facilities, they organized new commissions, societies, associations, leagues. The following names of a score of them bear their own interpretation: [196] The Educational Commission of Boston. The Port Royal Relief of Philadelphia. The American Freedmen's Aid Commission.

The Freedmen's Aid Commission of Western Pennsylvania and adjacent parts of West Virginia.

The Western Freedmen's Aid Commission. The Northwestern Freedmen's Aid Commission. The National Freedmen's Aid Commission. The National Freedmen's Relief Association of New York. The Emancipation League of Massachusetts. The New England Freedmen's Aid Society. The Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association.

The Baltimore Association of Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People.

Delaware Freedmen's Association. The Ladies' Aid Society of Philadelphia. Friends' Relief Association.

Besides these our large church bodies formed, each within its own community, what they called a Freedmen's Department; so that there existed for many years Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Unitarian Freedmen's Departments.

The Congregational churches, as well as many individuals from the outside, habitually used the American Missionary Association for their channel of freedmen's work.

In Great Britain there was in operation for some years the Freedmen's Society of Great Britain and Ireland. This society, being central, with its main office in London, was fed by numerous other freedmen's aid societies in the United Kingdom. Its contribution to us exceeded $800,000.

It is not possible to sum up with any accuracy the generous gifts for the indigent classes found in the South and Middle West prior to the operation of [197] the Freedmen's Bureau Law. It had reached about $1,000,000.

A convention of freedmen's associations, with a view to secure concert of action, assembled during the war in Indianapolis, Indiana, July 19, 1864. Their proceedings give a slight indication of how the people felt the responsibility pressing them and how they proposed to meet it. The convention was made up of seven Western associations or branches. There had been overlapping and interfering in their previous operations, and their field agents had had troublesome rivalries and contentions. Again, in some places cooperation with the army officers in command and with Treasury agents sent from Washington under special instructions, had not been secured, so that there was between them hurtful friction. Other difficulties confronted them, such as the existing social conditions in the border States, and for that matter, the same in all the seceded States. Most people there were unfriendly to Northern teachers and vexed at Northern interference; and there were the unwelcome shiftings of population from place to place. Still, the enthusiastic delegates to the convention never dreamed of surrender, or of abatement of interest and effort. They publicly declared that they had at this time the grandest opportunities that ever presented themselves to Christian benevolence and activity; and so in their session of two days they formulated and forwarded a memorable petition to President Lincoln.

In this instrument, after summing up the pressing wants of freedmen and refugees, and presenting in strong light their own various agitations and obstacles, and something of their disappointment that Congress had thus far failed to establish any bureau of freedmen's [198] affairs, they entreated the President to give them at least a “Supervising agent” for the West. They desired that this agent should have military power and authority, meaning undoubtedly that the President should detail for that duty a military officer of sufficient rank to overcome all controversy in the execution of his trust. The memorial petition was sent to Congress, and had its weight with that body in securing the final enactment of the Freedmen's Bureau Law.

The Emancipation League of Massachusetts, as early as January, 1863, had likewise sent to the Senate an earnest petition, asking for the creation of a “Bureau of emancipation” ; and other societies had at different times, in one form or another, urged upon their representatives in Congress some governmental department to meet the new situation of affairs, which now concerned millions of slaves set free, and affected thousands of loyal whites who had been driven from their homes by the operations and consequences of the great war.

The Honorable Thomas D. Eliot, member of the House from Massachusetts, whom, after personal acquaintance, I learned to love and honor, was early made chairman of committees which had under consideration freedmen's matters. He was an able, eloquent, and persevering friend of the emancipated. The field societies looked to him for sympathy and help in the House, as they always did to Henry Wilson and Charles Sumner in the Senate. Eliot and Wilson were never extremists. They were wisely progressive; if they could not take two steps forward, they would take one, and bide their time for further advance. [199]

Mr. Eliot, the latter part of January, 1863, began his open work by a House bill to try to establish a “Bureau of emancipation.” As this was smothered in the committee room and produced no fruit, he introduced another bill in December, 1863, which was referred to a select committee of which he was chairman. It came back from the committee to the House with a majority and minority report. It was first debated on the floor February 10, 1864. The provisions of this interesting bill were substantially:

1. The creation of a Commissioner of Freedmen's Affairs. His powers were to be large. All matters pertaining to freedmen, all laws enacted or prospective concerning them, and all rules and regulations for general superintendence and management were committed to him.

2. All officers, military or civil, having to do with freedmen's affairs must report and be governed by him.

3. He was especially instructed to give protection to the freedmen in their rights, and to care for the interests of the United States touching them.

4. He was able to organize departments of freedmen to be placed under assistant commissioners who were to report to him.

5. These assistants were to allow freedmen to occupy, cultivate, and improve abandoned lands; assist them to labor properly compensated; aid them to obtain their wages duly earned, and arbitrate all troublesome controversies except in those localities where existing legal tribunals could receive the cases at issue.

6. The commissioner himself was to act under the supervision and direction of the Secretary of War, [200] though all assistants, both civil and military, were to be subordinated to the commissioner.

The lively debate upon this bill, even in a dry record, is full of interest. The opposition came not only from the Democratic party, but many of the Republicans thought the measure unwise, abnormal to our system of government, and that there might be some other expedient devised than either a Department or Bureau of Negro Affairs.

Democrats like Samuel S. Cox of New York and George H. Pendleton of Ohio, and James Brooks of New York, attacked the proposed measure with argument, with ridicule, and with abundant sarcasm. But Mr. Eliot was at his best. He pleasantly answered every objection and earnestly called on the friends of the Government and of humanity to rally around him upon the side of duty.

The bill at last passed the House, but only with a majority of two votes. May 25th, this bill, somewhat amended, was reported to the Senate by Mr. Sumner. It encountered for some days hot and strong opposition there, pleading against its constitutionality and expediency, but was finally passed by a majority of twelve votes.

While the friends of the original bill were urging the House to nonconcur in the Senate amendments, the whole subject by a new motion, disheartening to its friends, was postponed to the ensuing session of Congress.

During the next session, after many disagreements on the bill between the two Houses, the Conference Committee proposed a substitute. It came up in the House in February, 1865. The substitute established an independent Executive Department of Freedmen's [201] Affairs. Every provision in the two previous bills remained substantially unchanged. The new draft went through the House by a vote of 64 against 62.

In the Senate this new bill met with an increasing opposition, and so February 28th still another bill had grown out of the hot debate of the Conference Committee. To prevent its passage unusual expedients were resorted to, and dilatory motions were made, sometimes for postponement and sometimes for adjournment, but finally this bill, so long squabbled over, with slight amendment passed the Senate; and being again carried to the House, after a short debate went through that body without a division.

The same day, March 3, 1865, President Lincoln signed it; and having his approval, the Act establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands became a law.

Its provisions as far as they went were good, and were developed from the first draft which Mr. Eliot had introduced in the House more than two years before.

This Act of Congress, which in its plan and subsequent life seemed to grow like a tender shoot till it became a green tree with abundant branches, was destined by its fruitage to accomplish great things. The varied character of its fruitage will appear as we go on to develop the organization that grew out of this remarkable legislation. This statute law greatly affected my own work. In fact, upon it turned much of my subsequent career in life. As we may notice, it established a bureau in the War Department. The word “bureau” excited considerable amusement in the very beginning, even before there was any attempt to put the Act of Congress into execution. One poor [202] colored woman, who had been a slave, came to an official in the War Department and said she had been a long time in want of a bureau, and that she understood that there was one there waiting for her.

By a few well chosen lines the cartoonist Nast, before his audiences, frequently represented on a blackboard a sizable bureau with the drawers open and little curly-headed colored children jumping out from them. The serious people of the country, however, were rejoiced that the representations of their delegates in their Indiana Convention had at last resulted, through the President and Congress, in providing a benevolent system for those just freed from slavery, and for those, white and colored, who had been driven hither and thither by the operations of the Civil War. The first provision, however, was for only one year after peace. It committed all subjects relating to the classes named to the care of the new Bureau, and it put the responsibility for the operations of the Bureau upon the President himself. The use of abandoned lands, authorized by the Act, was intended to give some revenue to the Government, thus hoping, if possible, to avoid direct appropriations of money. The part that was to interest me most was the provision that the head or commissioner and his assistants might be detailed from the army and assigned to duty without increase of pay or allowances. In fact, the President could take any or all of the officials required from the military service.

There was another use besides the purpose of revenue for the abandoned lands, the commissioner being required to set apart for the use of loyal dependents such abandoned farms as he should find in the insurrectionary States, or farms of which the United [203] States became the possessor by confiscation, by sale, or in any other way. Even the number of acres was designated for each person. The commissioner was instructed further to secure the use of these farms to the occupants for three years, and further to charge a rental of 6 per cent. on a proper valuation.

This benevolence was extended yet more — that the free inhabitants just emancipated might purchase the land at the expiration of their leases. This sort of legislation, in 1865, was quite new to our Government. It was the exercise of benevolent functions hitherto always contended against by our leading statesmen, even when providing for the Indian Bureau. The Nation, as something to love and cherish and to give forth sympathy and aid to the destitute, began then to be more pronounced than ever before. Our attitude toward the Indians in General Grant's peace policy and in giving them land in severalty; our intervention in Cuba and our subsequent neighborly action toward the people of that island; our national efforts to lift up the people of Porto Rico, and our sending instructors in large numbers to set in motion the work of education in the Philippine Islands: these and other benevolences suggested by this reference make the people of to-day feel that at last we have a Nation which cares for its children. A martinet system always suggests bones and sinews which make up the form of a man without a soul. It was always hard to love a Government which, theoretically, was a mere machine and which could extend no sympathy to people in disaster, nor kindness to the impoverished. I think we are growing to cherish more and more the idea of a single name for the Republic, and we are fast assuming that “America” should be that [204] name. Every day we hear from the North, South, East, and West, the expression: “I am proud that I am an American.” It was in this spirit that my assistants, who in time became very numerous, and myself, in the Bureau work, began and kept on in the varied duties through clouds of calumny and misrepresentation. The reward, as we shall see, was in the vast work undertaken and accomplished in the interest of humanity. In the discussions on the floors of Congress we see why the Bureau proposed had so hard a struggle to justify its existence. The friends and opponents of the measure were about equally divided. It was the long, patient, and thorough examination of emancipations like ours in other countries by Mr. Eliot of Massachusetts, and his singular perseverance in bringing his bill, every time improved, again and again before the House, which at last resulted in the law and which brought a positive relief from the horrors which had obtained in other nations in their passage from slavery to freedom. He and his committee were never popular, but he accomplished a great work for his country.

The chaotic condition of all the classes which were mentioned in the Act of Congress, running as they did for the most part to large centers of population, was not forgotten by Mr. Eliot's committee, so that one paragraph of the law demanded the issue of provisions, clothing, and food for the immediate and temporary shelter of the destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen, including their wives and children. It was believed that these wants would be but temporary. Indeed, the law itself was only a temporary provision; still, there were matters in it of great importance which looked forward to and virtually promised [205] an extension beyond the year of the benefits designated. It would have required more than human foresight to have wholly met the difficulties of this dark period of our Governmental history, but the friends of the measure hoped that the experiences of one year of active operation under the eye of our most energetic and able Secretary of War would demonstrate the value of the Bureau sufficiently to warrant at least another year's trial.

Though Mr. Lincoln promptly approved the Bureau Act, yet he delayed creating the organization authorized by it. Doubtless he had sympathetically followed the debate, and so, to avoid the rocks and quicksands predicted, was earnestly desiring to move with care and deliberation. His death, April 15, 1865, prevented him from directly carrying out his purpose; but he did have, not long before his death, a consultation with Mr. Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, concerning the new Bureau in his Department, and expressed to him his wishes concerning the law and the officials who should carry it out. These wishes were a legacy that Mr. Stanton religiously respected, and as soon as he could he saw to it that they were, as far as he could effect it, fulfilled.

NoT.-For the Freedmen's Bureau Act (March 8, 1866), ee Appendix.

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