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Chapter 53: the bureau work in 1866; President Johnson's first opposition

Major Fowler, who had, as his main business, to hasten the return of houses and lands to pardoned owners, was given in addition the Claim Division. Its origin was this: At the office in Washington constant complaints had been received from our agents that discharged colored soldiers were constantly defrauded by unprincipled men of amounts due them from the Government. Some were told that they had dues when there were none. The deceivers would get from the individual soldier discharge papers and require a fee for their return. Soldiers would wait days and weeks in towns and cities for promised action touching bounties and prize money, often when the same had no existence in fact.

Again, in the thousands of cases where there were actual dues exorbitant fees would be taken in settlement, totally regardless of all law or reason. The gross ignorance of the mass of colored soldiers rendered them especial objects of such extortion and fraud, and the numerous shrewd transactions against them were usually so concealed as to render it exceedingly difficult to detect and expose the guilty. To prevent these soldiers far and near from being uselessly disturbed in their work; to forestall and prevent all such frauds in future and to enable those entitled to [294] do so to obtain their prize and bounty money and other bona fide dues that might be lost to them, this Claim Division had its birth and was regularly set on foot. It began its work March 17, 1866, and by our extensive agency which penetrated every State, great numbers of both soldiers and sailors of the freedmen class were, without charge to the beneficiaries, helped and benefited. It was the efficient work done here that led to the Act of Congress which the next year placed all remaining payments of bounties, prize money, and unsettled claims of colored soldiers and sailors under the charge of this Bureau.

An incident showing the variety of our burdens was the making of the Bureau by Congress the channel of expending an appropriation of $25,000 for the immediate relief of destitute whites and blacks in the District of Columbia.

In the early spring, there suddenly appeared an extraordinary destitution in Washington and Georgetown, caused by the overplus of population which no effort on the part of the Government had been able to reduce. In this destitution there were more white people than negroes who were in a starving condition. April 17, 1866, Congress made that special appropriation and charged me, the commissioner of the Bureau, with its disbursement.

With a view to have others share with me the responsibility, a special relief commission of six members was constituted by me and placed under the immediate supervision of the assistant commissioner of the home district. Surgeon Robert Reyburn was chosen as the president of the commission. By using in this organization officials of the Bureau, and securing the help of many benevolent citizens besides as [295] visiting agents without pay, the assistant commissioner was able to do the work with comparatively small expenditures. There were made twenty-two subdistricts and a visitor appointed for each. All of these except two performed the duty gratuitously, and our officers gave them great credit for their assiduous and self-sacrificing labors. The destitute fund was expended directly in small sums for groceries, clothing, fuel, rentals, medicines, and their careful distribution attended to. Probably no sudden want of a destitute multitude was ever more promptly and satisfactorily met and relieved.

Surgeon Horner of the Volunteer Army returned to his civil practice during the summer prior to being honorably mustered out of service, November, and our Medical Division thereafter came under the charge of Colonel L. A. Edwards, a surgeon in the army. Both classes, namely refugees and freedmen, including the blind, deaf mutes, insane and idiotic, were put under him and faithfully cared for. The total number in all the country under medical care during the eleven months prior to August 31, 1866, was of refugees 5,784, of freedmen 160,737. Still, there remained September 1, 1866, but 501 refugees and 6,045 freed people actually in hospital. The 56 hospitals, according to our plan, were reduced during the year to 46; there were, however, established a number of dispensaries at different points from which medicines were obtained. The orphan asylums aided were reduced to five without reckoning one at Richmond, Va., and another at Lauderdale, Miss., as these two were not separate from the permanent hospitals. Prompt and energetic measures, both remedial and preventive, were invariably adopted whenever any contagion or epidemic [296] appeared in any part of the country. Cholera showed itself at several points, but its ravages were limited, and diminished far more than could have been anticipated; military quarantine of all seaports and Bureau surveillance of the blacks were prompt and constant. Our medical officers, civil and military, 231 in all, during the year were reduced to 128 at its close; they prided themselves on the cheering and successful results due to their zeal and energy. The percentage of mortality among the vast number of persons treated was for the refugees but three per cent., and for the freedmen four and six tenths per cent.; it was quite an advance on the aggregate average of the year previous of nine and thirteen per cent. for both classes. Thus we have a bird's-eye view of the situation in 1866, and rejoice at a good work done for humanity.

For political reasons, however, the President desired to put before the people a very different view of the Bureau. His plan of reconstruction of the Southern State governments had been discredited by Congress; senators and members of the House applying for seats under it were refused admittance. The plan had been broached of giving negroes a vote, the Bureau to be the means of preparing them for the suffrage and protecting them in it. It was during the time that the new Bureau bill was being'debated in Congress (May, 1866), that he inaugurated a remarkable inspection of the Bureau in the South by two officers in the interest of his policy. One of them, General Steedman, had been a brave soldier; but he was a rough character with no sympathy for negroes. The other had been my adjutant general in the field, and afterwards a long time in my Bureau. He was a kind, [297] upright young man, but unaccountably took part in this attack upon the Bureau and upon the administration of some of our best subordinates. The two men set out, reporters with them for the press, generally unfriendly to plans of reconstruction favored by Congress. They passed on from city to city and from place to place, visiting military and Bureau headquarters in each Southern State, and sent their reports, as critical and adverse as possible, broadcast through the newspapers to the entire country.

Before this operation began, General Grant, who had to some extent found out what was to be done, kindly sent for me and said substantially: “Howard, you must not take too much to heart or as against yourself what may be said or reported before long against your Bureau.” I did not at first very well understand what he meant, till the noisy and pretentious inspection of Steedman and Fullerton was well on foot.

The following statements of mine to President Johnson, given August 23, 1866, in reference to this inspection, portrays the Bureau troubles and triumphs of that year.

The last report of Generals Steedman and Fullerton of, an inspection of the Bureau under my charge contains so many statements differing from those I have received from other officers and assistant commissioners, and furnishes deductions so widely varying from those I have formed and offered, that I deem it my duty to review the main points of this report; and more especially is this course necessary for me that I have been assigned to duty by yourself, and have administered the Bureau in accordance with your instructions, verbal and written, keeping constantly in view a thorough and practical execution of [298] the law by which my officers and myself have been bound.

The ostensible object of the inspection is to detect and correct abuses of administration and furnish yourself with information of the actual state of things. Had the inspectors made a thorough examination and report to yourself or to the Secretary of War, in accordance with their written instructions, so that I could have corrected the wrongdoings of individual agents or modified any policy that was faulty, I would not complain, but be grateful for the aid and encouragement thus afforded. This method of inspection and report is the one that has always been pursued in the departments of the service with which I have been connected.

The inspectors have pursued an extraordinary course. I understand they took as clerks several newspaper reporters, who gave to the press the substance of their reports, and sometimes the reports themselves, before you had time to give them consideration. The effect of this course has been to concentrate the attention of the public upon certain individual acts of officers and agents, or accusations against them carelessly drawn, in such a way as to keep the faults committed, and not the good done, prominently in view.

Some things they have held up as criminal, which were not so in reality. Erroneous conclusions have been drawn from a state of affairs now existing in many places, for which the Bureau is not responsible, e. g., they charge to the account of the Bureau all the evils of the labor system which they find, while they attribute to the State governments and citizens, in great part, the good accomplished. Certainly this is the impression received from reading the reports. [299]

In what I have to say I have no desire to screen my officers from just charges; in fact, I have taken instant measures to bring to trial any officer against whom there seemed to be any well-founded accusation. It is a fact well worth considering here, that of thirteen assistant commissioners there was but one whom the inspectors were able to condemn, namely, the assistant commissioner of North Carolina; and he, though held up to the country as a liar and a dishonest speculator, has been acquitted by a decision of a fair and honorable court, so far as the charges were concerned.

Again, in the departments of Virginia and North Carolina, of over two hundred agents, accusations were brought against ten only, seven officers and three civilians. The majority of them have been honorably acquitted of the charges preferred against them. The Reverend Mr. Fitz, of such terrible notoriety, who was having his case investigated on the arrival of the inspectors, proves to be not a reverend, but a young man of eighteen years, a quartermaster's clerk during the war, and personally guiltless of the cruelties imputed to his charge. All these cases will soon be officially reported — I need not refer to them further.

I may say, however, that the charge against an officer of putting men in a chain gang had no foundation in fact, but in another part of the same State another officer specially selected by the inspectors for unqualified commendation had issued an order to place delinquents as vagrants in a chain gang ....

Their final objection is to citizen agents, and in order to reduce expenses, they recommend that all such agents be discharged-given in the following language: “A great reduction in the expenses of the [300] Bureau, and a reform which would render it far less objectionable than it is now, would be effected by the discontinuance of all paid employees not in the military service of the Government.”

I assent to this principle, though the inspectors do not seem to do so, as they have given unqualified praise to the administration of the Bureau in Georgia, where the greatest number of citizen agents are employed. Could I obtain details from the Army I should certainly do so; but the smallness of the military force in most of the States has rendered it impossible. They next speak of Georgia, saying that the amended laws of the State are fully as liberal as those of any Northern State, and place the negro in all respects on a perfect equality with a white man as to his civil rights, conveying the impression that the freedmen are thoroughly protected under the execution of these laws.

General Tillson, who is highly commended by the inspectors, and who is known to be a man of integrity and good judgment, in a late report to me says: “ There are many instances where, through the prejudice of the people, or the incompetency of the magistrates, the freedmen are denied the protection of the law, and where the interference of the Bureau is absolutely essential to secure justice. When this influence has been wisely directed, and the authority of the Bureau brought to bear firmly but kindly, the happiest consequences have followed, not only protecting the freedmen in individual cases, but changing the tone and temper of the people, so as to prevent the recurrence of acts of injustice and oppression. The continuance and agency of the Bureau is still a necessity.”

The case of maladministration of Captain Lewis [301] J. Lambert is the only one mentioned among two hundred and seventy-three agents. This will be thoroughly investigated by General Tillson. I am thankful for so great purity of administration in Georgia. I may say here with reference to legal justice, that the policy pursued constantly has been to transfer jurisdiction to civil tribunals wherever there was a prospect of its impartial exercise under just laws; in fact, it has been the practice in most Bureau courts to use the State laws when no distinction exists on account of color.

No fault is found with Alabama, except that a few officers are reported as engaged in planting.

The inspectors must mean that these officers have invested some of their private funds in planting. All I can say is that a great many — in fact nearly allofficers of the Government have invested their funds in planting or something else. If they have not prostituted their official positions for private gain I cannot complain, though I have lately forbidden such investments within the limits of their official jurisdiction, in order to avoid even the appearance of evil.

General Wood, assistant commissioner of Mississippi, is commended for improving upon the administration of Colonel Samuel Thomas. The policy of the latter is declared not calculated to produce harmony between the races.

In this statement, the inspectors have doubtless been misinformed, for I have testimony from General Wood and from inspectors that the policy pursued by Colonel Thomas has not been changed.

They next admit a state of affairs in Mississippi that demands some other remedy than the removal of the military force, that is, if freedmen and peaceable [302] citizens are to be protected. The murder of a United States officer, and the firing upon others without cause, are admitted, and there is evidently a reign of terror in portions of the State. . . .

The inspectors complain of expenses and recommend reduction in Louisiana. They allege that the main part of the money has been expended for schools. Had they inquired of General Baird he would have told them that as soon as the taxes were suspended by your order, the schools were closed or continued as private enterprises, or by employers of freedmen under their contract stipulations.

The admirable system of education in New Orleans was established by military commanders long prior to the existence of the Bureau. No facts have been presented to me to prove the statement that the money under Mr. Conway, the late assistant commissioner, was squandered as charged.

The corruption of a few officers under his administration may possibly be true; but whether so or not it does not affect the present administration of the Bureau in that State.

It is a little singular that officers long ago relieved from duty should be chosen as exponents of the present management of the Freedmen's Bureau.

The report with reference to Texas rather commends than censures the administration in that State.

One officer, Captain Sloan, is condemned for perjury, and for his conduct in office. A subsequent examination of his case has furnished a more favorable report. The case will have a thorough investigation.

Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee were not visited by the inspectors, and it is fair to suppose that the administration of the Bureau in those States is as [303] it has been represented by the assistant commissioners and other officers and by reliable citizens.

It should be noted, with regard to expenses, that aside from commissary, quartermaster, and medical issues, the entire expenses of the Freedmen's Bureau have been defrayed, from its organization up to July 1st, without an appropriation, and without incurring a debt. The quartermaster, commissary, and medical issues were being made by the army proper when I took charge of the Bureau, and have been reduced as much as possible, consistent with the present necessities of the people, whites and blacks.

I now come to by far the most important part of what the inspectors have to say — the summing up of their conclusions after four months inspection of the Bureau, in which they assert that there is an entire absence of system or uniformity in its constitution. They have never asked me for a word of information with reference to records, reports, and orders!

They have made no examination of my office, asked no reason for any action taken. The records or information they desired that could not be found in the offices of the South may be found here. What would be the result if they should make a general inspection of the quartermaster, commissary, or other departments in the same way t Those officers who have been relieved or were beyond their reach, are supposed to have made improper dispositions of all records or papers connected with their offices. This is all wrong.

There is not a bureau in Washington with a more complete set of reports, books, and records, than can be produced in this office at any time for inspection. They attempt to prove their assertion by the statement that in one State its officers exercised judicial powers; [304] in one adjoining, all cases were referred to civil authorities, while in a third State Bureau officers collect the cases and turn them over to military courts. Their own inspection reports will refute this. In the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, Bureau agents do not exercise judicial powers of any kind, and in the other States the powers exercised by the officers of the Bureau are modified by the feelings and conduct of the people toward the freedmen. They admit there is a great difference in the feelings of whites toward the blacks. What other principle more uniform is it possible to adopt than to regulate the power of agents of the Bureau by the disposition and conduct of the people, favoring them as they approximate equal justice?

It will be seen by referring to the regulations from this Bureau (Circular 5, Series 1865), approved by yourself, that a gradual transfer of jurisdiction was implied; and just as soon as practicable we have made trial of the civil courts in every State. I have sought the provost courts, as well as the civil, to relieve me of the exercise of judicial powers.

Bureau officers have never attempted to regulate wages, and no order ever existed making regulations on the subject. Demand and supply controlled this matter. Of course wages, manner of payment, and all the questions entering into the labor subject differed widely throughout the South, and, from the nature of things, could not be uniform.

Although importuned from all parts of the South to take some action about wages, I steadily refused. The following has been the standing order for all the States: “No fixed rate of wages will be prescribed for [305] a district; but in order to regulate fair wages in individual cases, agents should have in mind minimum rates for their own guidance.”

Assistant commissioners are required to furnish me with copies of all orders and circulars issued by them, and a close examination of all they have written on the subject fails to produce any attempt upon their part to regulate wages or contracts. The freedmen and employer have been left to manage the matter for themselves.

They say that schools in Louisiana have been supported by the Government. Their report shows, however, that they were supported by a military tax, and perhaps to some extent from the income from abandoned property.

They say that agents interfere in an arbitrary manner in favor of freedmen sometimes, and at others in favor of the planters. This is simply a crime, according to Bureau regulations, and the inspectors should have preferred charges against these officers that they might have been tried and punished. ... It is not justice to the officers of the Bureau to charge them with crimes that were committed against the freedmen in time prior to its organization, and to suppress dates and the location of grave charges so as to shift the responsibility upon those not guilty. This was just what these inspectors did.

The inspectors next admit the necessity of the Bureau last year, and acknowledge that it did much good for all classes. If this be true, it is bad logic to condemn the workings of the Bureau for mistakes and errors that were committed last year, and more particularly for the year before its organization. Nearly every charge made against officers in this final report [306] is for acts of last year, and upon which these officers have already been called to account by the Bureau or the War Department.

I cannot agree with the inspectors altogether as to a complete revolution in the sentiment of the Southern people which insures sufficient protection to the freedmen, when United States officers and freedmen are murdered, and the freedmen abused and mutilated, as is reported by the inspectors themselves.

They say the good feelings of the whites toward the blacks are owing to their interest in securing their labor. This I regard as insufficient security when trusted to absolutely without some other principle, e. g., the guarantee of equal laws. For years slaveholders have deemed compulsory measures the best security for labor.

The inspectors declare that the Bureau has been in the aggregate productive of more harm than good, and give as their reasons, substantially, the reliance upon it of the negroes, and their consequent distrust of the property holders, and the provocation of espionage creating mutual suspicion and bitterness.

I deny the whole statement. It is not founded upon fact, but upon theories constantly put forth by the enemies of good order. A few bad agents have been sent, and have doubtless done much harm, yet this Bureau agency has been mediatorial and pacific as a whole. It has relieved this very suspicion and bitterness that existed when it was first organized. Riots, murders, and wicked deeds have recently sprung up, but these are in no way initiated or caused by the officers of the Government. . ...

The principles that apply to wages induced the present contract system. I would have been glad to [307] have adopted precisely the same methods of regulating labor as have obtained in the Northern States, but neither the planters nor the freedmen were yet prepared for this.

Planters complained that freedmen under a free system of labor would not work till the crop was harvested, but would remain only till they obtained money to keep them a short time, and then would desert the crops at a most critical period. Nearly every Southern State had provided laws by which the freedmen are to be contracted with for one year. Planters refused to employ freedmen at all unless they would agree to remain one year. Of course, freedmen were driven into those obligations by the same force that compelled them to work for low wages. Anyone who will recall the current news of the day, as reported during the months of last January and February, will remember that all the power that capital could exercise was brought to bear upon the laborers of the South to make them contract.

We then labored earnestly and successfully to elevate wages and defended the interest of the freedmen in their contracts, being constantly resisted by the inertia of the peculiar opinions of Southern property holders. The evils in the contracts will disappear just as soon as free labor shall have a permanent foothold under its necessary protection of equal and just laws properly executed.

From the course pursued by the inspectors, I have good reason to suspect the object of the inspection, as they understood it, was to bring the Freedmen's Bureau into contempt before the country, and, to do this, they have endeavored to prove maladministration.

On the contrary, I am prepared to prove to yourself [308] or any other candid mind that I have fulfilled with care, conscientiousness, and faithfulness the trust you committed to me; I have obeyed your orders and instructions, making no other objections than those I have made directly to yourself and the Secretary of War; my system has been a thorough one, and as complete and uniform as was possible in an institution intended to be temporary and to meet a transient necessity. Could the Freedmen's Bureau be now administered with your full and hearty sanction, and with the cooperation of other branches of the Government, it would fulfill the objects of its creation in a short time, and be made, while it existed, to conduce for all classes of the people to industry, enlightenment, and justice. The work committed to it may doubtless be done by the army, without a bureau, but not with much less expense. Yet, if the Government would keep good faith with its new-made citizens, some sort of a United States agency must be maintained in the Southern States until society shall have become more settled than it now is.

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