An Investigation on the Success of the Freedmen's Bureau from 1865 to 1872

Categories: History

This investigation will focus on the successes of the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1865 through 1872. To analyse the successes of the Freedmen’s Bureau, events from 1865 through the end of 1872 will be investigated through the perspectives of Bureau agents, freedmen, and southerners to explain the Bureau’s aims of creating an education system for the freedmen, providing jobs to the freedmen, and mediating violence and crimes between freedmen and white southerners. Letters, editorials, and historian analyses, will be used to showcase the successes in the Bureau’s aims.

Sources, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner, and A Rights to the Land, Essays on the Freedmen’s Community by Edward Magdol, give justified accounts of the successes of the Bureau, yet showcase contrasting views in regards to Bureau’s involvements in respected fields. On March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s’ Bureau’ was created by the federal government. The Bureau’s main aim in 1865 was to set up an education system for freedmen.

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De to low funding, the Bureau looked to Northern white middle aged women to help educate the freedmen in the South. By 1869, there were 3,000 freedmen educators in the south4 and by 1866, the number of school houses doubled and an average of 6,000 black students per state were enrolled in a school house.”

Mathematics, basic english, and reading were taught to children as adults were being educated on into becoming “self reliant and self disciplined” in their transition from slave to citizen. The freedmen’s “strong desire” in their quest for education however came to a close in 1870 as low funding ment the discontinuation of the Bureau education system.

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Along with the Bureau’s intent of educating the freed youth, they insisted on educating the adult freed men on tasks such as how to apply for a job or how to provide for their families. In 1865, along with the rise of the Bureau, military officials had requested all “able bodied” freedmen to find a form of employment immediately. The Bureau’s Agents aimed at finding the freedmen fitting jobs, but most still “persuaded them (the freedmen) to return to their plantations.” In order for the freedmen to gain employment, and wages from their labour, the Bureau had set up a system of labour contracts in which the freedmen had to sign. These labour contracts were put into effect in 1865, but was soon ended in 1868 as freedmen felt that these contracts restricted them when it came to finding jobs while planters felt that the contracts had hindered their ability to force “corporal punishment” on their workers as they used to in the past. In 1866, Bureau Agents investigated freedmen working conditions.

The agents had described the conditions “far worse” than it was before the Civil War ended. Because of the growing numbers of black citizens in white southern territories, crimes inside the workplace and outside of the workplace increased in 1865. The Freedmen’s Bureau had then been named the “law enforcers” in these newly integrated states and this meant the Bureau was to mediate and protect the freedmen from crime. From the start of the Bureau in 1865, the Bureau agents strived to “minimize or eliminate” violence between the white landholders and the freedmen, but also to decrease disputes between local authority and the Bureau agents themselves in light of prosecuting southerners who committed crimes against freedmen.

Due to the lack of local support in prosecuting southerners, the Bureau found themselves adjudicating complaints and started to open up Bureau run courts in 1866 which were later disbanded in the same year.  However, Bureau agents were then granted the rights to monitor local court proceedings “on the behalf of blacks” and to defend the freedmen in prosecuting whites. The Bureaus aims in mediating violence, had lasted until the defunding of the Bureau in 1872. Evaluation of Sources Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 – 1877, published in 1988 by Louisiana State University Press, discusses the Reconstruction period as a whole but showcases heavy emphasis on the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1865 to 1872. The main purpose of Foner’s explanation behind the Bureau is to introduce the “responsibilities” of the Bureau and their aims in “establishing school systems, providing aid to the destitute… and adjudicating disputes.” The purpose is valuable as it gives reasoning and explanation into the Bureau’s “welter of contradicting” activities in their involvement in education, employment and abilities in mediating violence.

The purpose of Foner’s focus on the Bureau, discusses the outcomes of their involvement within the scope of the start and end of the Bureau. The origin, however is limited as public records of the Freedmen’s Bureau were sparse, and as Foner states “affected the project’s development. ” The majority of the records made by Bureau officers from 1865 to 1871 were not released until 2001, due to the Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Act in 2000. This is a heavy limitation as it can be implied that Foner did not have the availability to view nor had access to these needed documents in lieu to his nine year research process. However, A right to the Land, Essays on the Freemen’s Community by Edward Magdol published by Greenwood Press in 1977, gives a different retrospective account on the Freedmen Bureau’s involvement and effectiveness within the scope of investigation. The purpose of this source is to examine the topic of “the freed black lower class” and the “institutions” that were created to better progress the freed community. One institution that was the primary focus of the source was the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The specific essays in which were extracted from 1865 to 1872 were the most valuable as they gave a valid and a large amount of evidence within the processes of freedmen’s working conditions, and the Freedmen’s Bureau role in progressing the freedmen.  The purpose is also valuable because it highlights the success of the Freedmen’s Bureau, as opposed to their failures. Magdol emphasizes the Bureau aims in, “providing compromise” to the freed people and the planters and described the Bureau’s goals as “well intentioned.” The origin, in contrast to the purpose, is limited as although we know Magdol was a professor at Potsdam College in New York where he taught History, there is still very little information on Edward Magdol and his process of creating his writings.

The lack of information can be an implication of questioning the amount of credibility within his work. The Freedmen’s Bureau can be seen as a success in terms of reinforcing the principles of free labour. and the idea of free access to the law in the South. The significance of the Bureau’s actions, was that the Bureau had accomplished the overall aim of Reconstruction which was to runite the North and South. In 1865, the initial aim of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to create freedmen school houses in the south which started bleakly as “low funding” affected by the agents’ outreach to the young freedmen. However, their aim of educating the freedmen, and the freed community can be viewed as a success as seen with the growing numbers of freed youth in schoolhouses. The success of the freedmen’s education system lies within the growing number of freedmen students and schoolhouses throughout the south. 3,000 freedmen teachers were employed and an average of 6,000 black students were enrolled in a schoolhouse per state from the year 1866 to 1869. The growth explains the push the Bureau had on educating the freed youth in the south.

The Bureau had accomplished their aims in building and educating freed youth, yet there was low funding for the education system. This was a disadvantage as needed materials were not being supplied and school houses were built poorly, which in turn affected the education of the students attending.  In sum, the Bureau education system was as success to the extent that it allowed the freedmen to take control over their newly formed citizenship and to reorganize the segregated culture in the south. Along with the rise of the education system, came the rise work, needed labour and jobs in 1865. The premise of freedmen finding and working independently was considered progress at the time. However, many of the freedmen had no choice but to go back and work of the plantations that they were freed from 36 which had setback the freedmen rather than progressed them. The main problem seen within the Bureau labour policies and aims was that the freedmen had retreated back to the plantations to work. Agent John E. Bryant had claimed that it was imperative that freedmen worked wherever they needed to, in order to establish a successful “free labour economy.”

Although the establishment of the free labour system was successful in a larger scope, the act of freedmen working in plantations was an example of a failed Bureau attempt. Although the freedmen had jobs, they were succumb to a time of harsh working conditions, low wages and very small probabilities of gaining their own land. Ultimately, this led to the end of the Bureau in establishing jobs in 1868. In 1866, the immediate movement of freedmen back to the plantations meant an increase in violence between planters and freedmen. In order for the Bureau to mediate these disputes, they made small three people courthouses that offered freedmen the right to fair trial yet, the Bureau agents still had found themselves failing in mediating immediate crime. The failure of the Bureau in mediating violence was shown with the given circumstances to the Bureau, rather than their ineffectiveness to mediate violence and disputes. At the beginning of Reconstruction, the Bureau was presented the tasks of mediating hate crimes made by the Ku Klux Klan 49, regulating an unequal legal system, and battling bias local authority.

The Bureau was not competing with just the racist oppositions in the south, but the sheriffs and judges of the towns in which they were stationed in. This created a larger problem as a majority of the criminals were white landowners that local authorities refused to arrest. If these criminals were prosecuted, judges would rule in favor of the proprietor. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 where the Bureau was able to arrest criminals if local authorities refused to. The cases were then taken to Bureau courthouses where the freedmen were given a fair enough trial. This was a success to the extent that for the first time freedmen were given the right to a fair trial; however, this did not decrease the growing crime rate in the south as courts were disbanded in 1872. The KKK was responsible for most of the violence in the south, however the arrests made for Klan members went undetected as the crimes were set at night with no witnesses.

Proving the failure of the Bureau in mediating violence was shown with the given circumstances to the Bureau, rather than their ineffectiveness to mediate violence and disputes as they did succeed in establishing Bureau run courthouses which allowed fair trials to be carried out. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau succeeded in establishing stable education systems in the south, reinforcing the principles of free labour, and the idea of free access to the law, the Bureau can be seen as a failure in terms of completing their aims in providing jobs and mediating violence between planters and freedmen. In 1865, the success of the freedmen’s education system can be seen within their aim of creating schoolhouses. However in 1865, the Bureau labour policies and aims were considered failures because it had sent the freedmen back to the plantations to find work. This lead to the end of the Bureau establishing jobs in 1868. In 1866, the failure of the Bureau in mediating violence was shown with the given circumstances to the Bureau, rather than their ineffectiveness to mediate violence and disputes. Their success however fell in their creation of Bureau run courthouses, which was later disbanded in 1872.


  1. Butchart, Ronald E. Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2010. Print.
  2. Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham UP, 1999. Print
  3. Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Act: Are These Reconstruction Era Records Being Protected, U.S. Printing Office 60 (House of Representatives October 18, 2000). Serial No. 106-277
  4. Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988. Print.
  5. Kaczorowski, Robert J. The Politics of Judicial Interpretation: The Federal Courts, Department of Justice and Civil Rights, 1866-1876. New York: Fordham, 2004. Print.
  6. “Letter from Edward Magdol, April 15, 1975.” Letter to Irving Louis Horowitz. April 15, 1975. Accessed February 1, 2016. http://collection
  7. Magdol, Edward. A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen’s Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977. Print.
  8. Nieman, Donald G. To Set the Law in Motion: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Legal Rights of Blacks 1865-1868. New York: Millwood, 1979. Print.
  9. Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978. Print.
  10. Shlomowitz, Ralph. “The Transition from Slave to Freedman Labor Arrangements in Southern Agriculture, 1865–1870.” J. Eco. History The Journal of Economic History 39.01 (1979): 333-36. Web.
  11. S. Rep. No. 39th-2 at 140 (1865). Print.
  12. Documents Accompanying the Report of Major General Carl Schurz, Hilton Head, SC. Wright, George C. Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “legal Lynchings” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996. Print.

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An Investigation on the Success of the Freedmen's Bureau from 1865 to 1872. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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