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Chapter 50: courts for freedmen; medical care and provision for orphans

Upon their appointment the assistant commissioners of freedmen were enjoined to use every proper means to quicken the industries in the States under their charge. They held indeed a broad commission. Negroes were declared in my letters sent them to be free to choose employers and receive pay for their labor. The old system of overseers was abolished. Cruelty and oppression were to be suppressed. It was easy to write and publish, but hard to carry such orders into execution.

Owing to the almost universal disturbance of labor through eleven or twelve States by the war and consequent emancipation, well-meaning planters and farmers, and employers of negroes generally were much puzzled as to the best method to put industries in motion. Fortunately, as we have seen, there had already been before the Bureau began its trials, considerable practical experience with freedmen who did work under contract or with leases. Yet these experiments came to the knowledge in those days of but few Southern men. From all directions anxious employers poured in letters upon me urging me to fix prices and enable the employer to exercise power, in one way or another, over the laborer. The majority did not believe [246] the negro would work unless under compulsion. One prominent gentleman came all the way from Louisiana to Washington. He had been delegated by a score or more of planters to visit me and show a schedule of prices which they had drawn up as liberal as they could make them and live; he asked for a formal approval.

Much to the astonishment and chagrin of the suggestors and their agent, the statement made and reiterated by me that wages must be free was adhered to, and that they were to be regulated by the assent of both parties to a contract verbal or written, or adjusted from the common market value. I repeatedly cautioned my officers against any substitute whatever for slavery. The assistant commissioners ably seconded these efforts. They left wages to be regulated by demand and agreement. They found that minimum rates, when published, sometimes protected the freedmen; but it was difficult after public notice to ever advance above the minimum. If you fixed rates for able-bodied men, you did not properly discriminate with regard to differences of skill and ability in a given class.

In some communities, finding the plantation negroes inclined to leave their homes and go to the cities, villages, and military posts with no good prospect of work or support, the agents at hand were directed to adopt a system like that of the ordinary intelligence office; they first used every effort to find good places of employment where the idle could find support, and then sent them there. Industrial farms and industrial schools, established by the benevolent societies, helped absorb this class. Government farms, those that had been set apart or allotted, served the purpose in various [247] places from Maryland to Louisiana to distribute and absorb the surplus population.

Yet, after all such provision, we found many authentic complaints of idleness for which no remedy seemed to exist. At last I urged for such freedmen the use of the vagrant laws which applied to whites, leaving out the whipping post which had still been retained in their law books for minor offenses in some of the States. Naturally enough, where exaggerated stories were always rife, a rumor was circulated among the freedmen quite generally that they would finally get somehow all the lands of disloyal owners. The wording of the Bureau law unfortunately fostered the idea. Were not forty acres to be set apart to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman Soldiers, colored and white, magnified the report till the belief became prevalent that the Government intended, at the Christmas of 1865, to effect this division. Speculators who desired to cheapen the lands added to the tales their own exaggerations. The result was that toward the autumn great numbers of freedmen became averse to making any contracts whatever with property holders, verbal or written, for the coming year.

Our officers and agents at once set themselves to disabuse the minds of the working people of impressions so detrimental to their interests, entreating them to hasten and get places of support, and then aiding them to obtain fair wages. But even the correction of false reports did not always produce willingness to contract. And, indeed, I felt that the system we were obliged to adopt was checking individuality, or not sufficiently encouraging self-dependence; but a little wholesome constraint could not in many cases be avoided. [248]

In my first published instructions on the subject I said that no assistant commissioner or agent was authorized to tolerate compulsory, unpaid labor, except for the legal punishment of crime. Suffering may result from this course to some extent, but suffering is preferred to slavery, and is to some degree the necessary consequence of events.

I was confident that the education unhindered in books, and from experience, would, in time, work wonders, stimulating individual enterprise. The people, however, were never compelled to make contracts. When farmers, traders, or mechanics preferred, they could make their bargains without record, but the interest springing from the employer's necessity to have some security for the laborer to remain the year out, and the need of each freedman to have some guaranty for his wages rendered it easier for the Bureau agent to introduce written contracts. Certainly this was true wherever sufficient daylight had penetrated to make men see that slavery really had been abolished.

Vigilance and effort the first season gave good results in those communities in which the people most quickly recognized the negro as a free man. In Virginia and North Carolina the vast majority of freedmen were already well at work. Partnerships and joint stock companies with capital had come in and greatly helped us. They hired the men as they would have done elsewhere, treated the workmen well, and paid promptly.

In South Carolina and Georgia the first results of free labor efforts were not so encouraging. I wrote after a visit to Charleston that, as the department commander and assistant commissioner were both at Charleston trying to cooperate, more complete order [249] and confidence would come, and that the arrival in Georgia of General Davis Tillson, the new acting assistant commissioner, in the month of September had produced a favorable change in that State. He was at the State capital during the session of the State Reconstruction Convention, and explained to its members the purpose of the Bureau, and corrected false impressions, especially touching the settlement of land and labor. He and the department commander for Georgia began and continued to work heartily together, and, but for the extreme poverty in some sections, were introducing stability and continued industry.

Florida was quiet and orderly enough. There had been but few acts of violence; but the freedmen there hardly as yet realized that they were free. The assistant commissioner had not been long enough in the State, nor had he sufficient assistants to make his organization felt; but he had, nevertheless, in a few counties made a good beginning. Here by his action the old compulsory overseer system had been effectually stopped.

General Wager Swayne, assistant commissioner for Alabama, found there a failure of the crops; it was owing to a drought and to the excitement of some late military raids through the State; he feared great distress of both whites and blacks during the coming winter; but Swayne, always wise, carefully matured plans for effective relief. For example: In such counties as most needed assistance he had organized some colonies on good farms where shelter and employment were at once given to the most needy and which in time he expected to become self-supporting. But his best work was the excellent provision he was making for contracts and leases for the coming year. The [250] department commander and the new governor appointed by President Johnson were cordially cooperating with him. In the steadiness of labor, and in the kind relations of laborers and property holders, Alabama at that time was in advance of other States.

It appeared by all accounts from Louisiana that the system of free labor was also succeeding there, especially in every county or parish where the white men were disposed to give it a fair trial, and better where both parties would at all fulfill their contracts. The best outlook was on the plantations where employers paid cash at short intervals. Prior to a change of officers which I brought about in that State, from lack of mutual confidence the military commander, the new civil authorities, and the assistant commissioner were working all the while at cross purposes, but by September, 1865, there was harmony. Matters at once took better form for the interests of both employers and employed. Old contracts were happily fulfilled and new ones extensively made for the ensuing season.

General Fisk, the assistant commissioner for Tennessee and Kentucky, at first found his most pressing duty to disseminate the indigent masses of refugees and freedmen that the war had brought together. In both States he had, in his efforts among the planters, remarkable success. Tennessee had early found a renewal of public confidence, and the planters of that State had quickly absorbed the labor found in their midst.

General Sprague in Missouri and Arkansas, too, except in impoverished districts, had readily found employment for workingmen, white or black. By the close of 1865, he believed that the active demand for labor was in a great measure settling the condition [251] of society. The negroes were industriously cultivating the cotton fields, having employment and good wages. The contracts made were for the most part carried out. Sprague, of a manly and popular turn himself, had secured the cooperation of the military commanders and the provisional governor of Arkansas of recent appointment. Missouri was better off; she had become a free State with fairly good laws protecting the rights of the freedmen just enacted; so that the operations of the Bureau almost ceased there.

In the District of Columbia and vicinity, where masses of freedmen had gathered, Colonel Eaton had established five intelligence offices, and through them furnished thousands of the able-bodied of both sexes with situations far and near. He had been much worried during the year with the Maryland apprentice laws. After trial he could only relieve specific cases where there was uncalled — for restraint and cruelty; but his reports brought their ugly slavery features to the knowledge of the President and Congress. A remedy came in time.

The work of my officers in obtaining recognition of the negro as a man instead of a chattel before the civil and criminal courts took the lead; we took the initiative in influencing the South in its transition into the new order of things. In land and labor matters the Bureau found existing conditions the settlement of which would brook no delay if we were to prevent race wars or starvation; but under the title of justice was the first active endeavor to put the colored man or woman on a permanent basis on a higher plane.

Here is the way the process began: Quite early in my administration as commissioner I paid a visit to [252] Virginia, and not far from Charlotteville met a small assembly of planters. Some of them said they could not work negroes when free. Others asked what was to hinder men from running off and leaving a crop half gathered? The most of them appeared quite in despair how to make or execute contracts with exslaves.

After having drawn out quite generally an expression of opinion and feeling on their part, I addressed them: “Gentlemen, no one of us alone is responsible for emancipation. The negro is free. This is a fact. Now cannot we blue-eyed Anglo-Saxons devise some method by which we can live with him as a free man” I then made a suggestion. “Suppose for all minor cases, say within one or two hundred dollars of value, we organize a court. My agent being one member may represent the Government; the planters of a district can elect another, and the freedmen a third. In nine cases out of ten the freedmen will choose an intelligent white man who has always seemed to be their friend. Thus in our court so constituted, every interest will be fairly represented.” The hearers were pleased. They were astonished to find me a friend and not an enemy, and they said with feeling: “General, why didn't you come down here before?”

After this talk a court was started there, and similar courts extended in orders to all my jurisdiction. For the whole field for some months minor justice was administered by these Bureau courts constituted wholly or partially from officers or agents of the Bureau; but everywhere when practicable we associated civilians with our officials. By orders, the power as to punishment was limited to not exceed $100 fine, or thirty days imprisonment. All cases of capital crimes, [253] felonies, or questions relating to titles to real estate were referred to some State court, if such existed where the case occurred, or to a court of the United States, or to military commissions.

These lesser bureau courts were often necessary for the protection of negroes against small personal persecutions and the hostility of white juries.

The higher courts of a State, though not admitting the testimony of people of color, were usually fair.

As soon as the military occupation of the South had been completed, provost courts, a military substitute for civil courts in unoccupied territory, were established here and there in each State. We gladly took advantage of these for the settlement of all sorts of difficulties. The sentence could be readily and easily executed against black and white men because of the guardhouse and the ever ready military force. In the great majority of instances, the provost courts decided fairly; but there were some where the officers composing them had the infectious prejudice against the negro, and discriminated against his interest; they invariably meted out to those who abused him by extortion or violence, punishments too small and in no way commensurate with their offenses.

When the President's provisional governors had rehabilitated the States under their old laws modified somewhat to conform to the amendments of the United States Constitution, the civil local courts became available for Bureau purposes and were at once used, provided they would admit the testimony of the freedmen. This boon of negro evidence was at first quite generally refused.

General Swayne in Alabama, proving himself an able diplomat as well as a good lawyer, had the first [254] substantial success. He had primarily obtained the good will and cooperation of the provisional governor. He next agreed with him to transfer all causes for court action to the State tribunals, if they simply would admit in them the testimony of negroes. The judges, urged and advised by the governor, in nearly the whole of Alabama gave up their opposition and yielded recognition and decided to accept the jurisdiction. Very promptly I approved of Swayne's entire proposition, believing that we could thus test the disposition of the judicial functionaries as to their willingness to do justice to the freedmen; and so the experiment began with fair success in that State. All officers and agents of the Bureau available were instructed to act as advocates of the freedmen in these courts; and the right to withdraw Government recognition from the courts was kept in the hands of the assistant commissioner.

As soon as our action was known to the country, many of the negroes' pronounced friends, and among them Wendell Phillips, severely condemned my action. “Howard has put the freedmen into the jaws of the tiger,” he cried. But the ready answer which I gave was: “Justice in time will work itself clear. It is a long step gained to secure the negro's testimony in the Southern courts.” Excellent reports soon came from nearly every quarter of Alabama. There were, however, a few exceptions on the borders of Tennessee and Georgia.

A similar course was tried in Mississippi, but the results, owing to the strong indigenous prejudice against negroes as witnesses, were not very encouraging. In Louisiana suits and testimonies were quickly allowed under the State government, and the civil [255] courts were often used by Bureau officials with a reasonable measure of justice.

Following Alabama, General Tillson tried the civil magistrates of Georgia under similar directions and restriction as in Alabama. He was reassured by a prompt cooperation and pleased with the action everywhere taken. He felt that if we trusted the Southern white people more, they would be disposed to do right.

For South Carolina General Meade, the Military Division commander, forestalling action by the Bureau, had arranged with the provisional governor for that State that all freedmen's cases should be brought before his provost courts. This was well enough generally for immediate justice, but not so well for the ultimate, when the military would have to be withdrawn.

In all the other States the same course was pursued with desirable fruitage. In some counties after their withdrawal the Bureau courts had to be reestablished to prevent open revolt by negroes against evident legal persecution in State courts.

To avoid, as much as we could, too much new Bureau legislation, our officers secured by their influence the extension as far as possible of the State laws to the freedmen, i. e., laws made for the whites. It was always the practical method — the best way-to make use of time-honored rules established by wise legislation for other people. Those laws applicable to marriage and divorce, to apprenticeship of orphan minors, to paupers and to vagrancy were especially available. Marriages of the freedmen were carefully registered by the Bureau in every State; many orphans were apprenticed to people of good character, under humane and liberal regulations; and the district, parish, county, or town was for the most part gradually [256] induced to care for all except a few extreme cases of poverty which could not be shown to belong to any particular locality.

In view of the entire field, the outlook as touching justice to refugees and freedmen appeared to be brighter at the close of November, 1865, than for a long subsequent period.

It has not been possible to speak of land, labor, and justice connected with the destitute refugees and freedmen without mentioning, more or less, the indigent, helpless, and pauper classes. It will be recalled that, in the outset, we found that over 144,000 people were receiving daily rations, medical supplies, and other help.

Our first record of these facts was found at the War Department, May, 1865. By the end of the year, we had made a great reduction, but leaving still a destitute host of more than 70,000. This reduction, as before stated, was effected by finding places of work and giving transportation to them, and also by the voluntary efforts of refugees and freedmen, seeking and finding employment for themselves. Those obtaining daily rations included the sick and the orphan children, citizen employees of the Bureau, also officers on duty with us and citizens laboring voluntarily for the freedmen. All volunteer helpers received their rations by purchasing.

For a few days after the Bureau was organized we were at a loss how to feed this unorganized mass. June 20th, Colonel Balloch and I visited General A. B. Eaton, the commissary general of the army, and pleaded before him our case. We showed him our army of over 140,000 dependents; that there was no appropriation; that the law had a clause: “That the [257] Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children, under such rules and regulations as he may direct.” I said: “The Secretary leaves this matter, General Eaton, to you and to me.” We then submitted a proposed circular letter, which, after a close examination and a few alterations, General Eaton approved.

This important instrument defined the destitute ration in all its parts and fixed the half ration for children under fourteen years. The ration consisted mainly of pork, bacon, or fresh beef, flour, or bread, with occasional issues of corn meal, beans, peas, or hominy with coffee or tea for women. It named the ration returns (requisitions for rations) and required them to be approved and signed by the commanding officer of a post or station, and, when practicable, by an assistant commissioner or one of his agents for the State or district. A seven days supply could be obtained at a time. In cases where the destitute could partially supply themselves, then only such parts of the ration as were actually needed were given. Thus, taking advantage of the army machinery, at a stroke the feeding process was provided for. The general authority for all supplies was put by the law in the hands of the Secretary of War, and so my order after approval by Mr. Stanton required quarterly estimates of all provisions and clothing, and allowed the purchase of rations by teachers and other persons working for refugees and freedmen. A limited transportation was given to teachers on Government transports and railways — of these there were many in those days-and [258] the instructions allowed public buildings, and especially those seized from disloyal owners, to be used for schools and for homes for teachers, soldiers' wives, and refugees.

A few months having elapsed, October 10, 1865, we received further positive relief. The quartermasters department was directed by Mr. Stanton to turn over to my officers on their requisitions out of their abundance, such quartermaster's stores on hand, and clothing, camp and garrison equipage, unfit for issue to troops, as might be required to enable such officers to perform their public duties and provide for the immediate necessities of destitute refugees and freedmen that were temporarily dependent on the Government.

From May to November 30th, the total number of white refugees who had been transported at public charge from distant places to their own homes, or to new homes found for them, had reached 1,778. There had been from May to this date a steady diminution of this class to be moved, so that in the month of November there were but sixteen persons so sent. Correspondingly, for the freedmen for November only 1,946 received formal transportation. The employees, teachers, and agents of benevolent associations receiving this favor were 307. Besides this sending of persons, boxes and bales of stores were forwarded free of charge, such as had been collected from benevolent people for the benefit of our destitute wards.

The medical arrangement was most important, --that with the surgeon general. Our medical work had at first been done in an irregular way; but on August 3, 1865, Surgeon General Barnes kindly directed his medical purveyors to issue medical and hospital supplies to our medical officers. All the provisions [259] in the Bureau law were thus given effect for at least one year after the close of the war, and that date, hardly fixed by any single event, was given a liberal interpretation. June 16th, Surgeon Caleb W. Horner became my medical director. With alacrity he entered upon his multifarious duties, and little by little extended the Medical Division throughout the States where the Bureau was already operating, especially to all the colonies, camps, hospitals, and orphan asylums directly and indirectly under our charge.

From time to time as he needed them he called for medical assistants and they were promptly furnished. By the middle of August he had seventeen such assistants from the army, covering the whole territory from Maryland to Louisiana. The last of November he wrote: “Although the Bureau has not yet reached the remote sections of the South, already forty-two hospitals with accommodations for 4,500 patients are in operation and facilities are afforded for the treatment of 5,000 sick in twenty-four asylums and established colonies.”

Besides the medical officers designated, eightythree physicians and 180 male and 177 female attendants were employed by contract. With regard to the work of this great division it may be said that at the close of the year 2,531 white refugees had been under medical treatment and 45,898 freedmen had received medical aid, yet there remained in all the hospitals only 388 refugees and 6,645 freedmen. The percentage of deaths during the year, owing to the previous hardships to which the patients had been exposed, was unusually large; for refugees 9 per cent had died, and for freedmen 13 per cent. Before systematic medical aid was extended to these people they were found to be [260] dying at the rate of 30 per cent. But where the relief system of the Bureau had been made complete, as in the District of Columbia, the mortality was reduced to less than 4 per cent.

As concrete illustrations a few of the orphan asylums will serve. By the breaking up of the slave system former owners were of course freed from the care of negro children, and there having been in much of the South a want of any permanent family relation among the slaves, hosts of negro children without parents or friends were found in Southern cities. In the District of Columbia was one asylum established during the war under the auspices of a Ladies' Benevolent Society. The name under its charter was the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. When the war was over and our active Bureau agency came to play its part, all helpless adults were soon cared for in the Freedmen's Hospital of the district, so that this society thereafter confined its attention and resources mainly to orphan children. They cared for between one and two hundred during 1865. At first the association occupied the “abandoned property” of Mr. R. S. Cox, situated near Georgetown in the District, and they greatly hoped to retain that property, which was in a healthful location and in every way commodious. But, on August 17th, I informed the ladies of the association that President Johnson had requested the Bureau to provide some other place for the orphans because he had fully pardoned Mr. Cox, the Confederate owner, and he was thereby entitled to complete restoration of his estate. The ladies were much grieved at this action of the President, yet after some delay they purchased several lots on the Seventh Street road, just [261] beyond the limits of the city of Washington; and thereon, as quickly as possible, the Bureau erected a suitable building for the asylum. Here the orphans were properly provided for. It further aided the good ladies with rations and medical attendance. Mr. Cox, a citizen newly made by the removal of his political disabilities, sought a little retributive justice against that association of ladies by suing them for damages to his property during their occupancy to the amount of $10,000, but he was not successful in his suit.

Three orphan asylums in New Orleans were maintained the same year. One of them was on Dryades Street, mainly in charge of the National Freedmen's Relief Association. The Bureau, as in Washington, aided the management with food, medicine, and medical care for the children, whose number was about one hundred. Madame Louise de Mortie, an educated and philanthropic lady, opened another asylum in the Soule mansion, designed for orphan girls. This mansion, abandoned, was assigned to her by the Bureau. The lady provided for between sixty and seventy girls. This institution required but little help from the assistant commissioner. For a time, there were in Louisiana two other asylums, one that had been in existence before 1865 and was supported wholly by the Government; the other was opened by the colored people themselves. The assistant commissioner for Louisiana speedily united these two and put them under the management of the National Freedmen's Association, the Bureau furnishing, as generally, a building, medical aid, fuel, and rations. This union asylum, well located in New Orleans, had the care of a hundred and fifty orphan children at a time, and did excellent [262] service. The colored people themselves of this city very largely cared for the orphans of their friends and acquaintances in their own families, and thus, when orphanage was at its height, generously saved the Government much expense.

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