Freedmen's Bureau

1865–1872

Created by an act of Congress in March 1865, the bureau grew out of efforts by northern Republicans and reformers to bring the free labor society and culture of the antebellum North to the post-emancipation South.

The Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands dispensed poor relief, administered lands abandoned during the Civil War, organized education for freed people, and most importantly, resolved land and labor disputes during the early years of Reconstruction. Created by an act of Congress in March 1865, the bureau grew out of efforts by northern Republicans and reformers to bring the free labor society and culture of the antebellum North to the post-emancipation South.

The structure, goals, and accomplishments of the bureau in South Carolina mirrored those in other states. The institution, the first federal social welfare bureaucracy in American history, functioned under the War Department. Under the leadership of Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard in Washington, D.C., each state had an assistant commissioner, with subassistants under him. In South Carolina, General Rufus Saxton opened the state bureau in July 1865. As a prominent Massachusetts attorney and career army officer, Saxton brought the liberal ideas of northern reformers to the state. Additionally, he had headed the Port Royal Experiment with free labor in the Sea Islands during the war. Saxton focused on land distribution and jobs for freed slaves, and he spoke highly of freed people and pursued policies in their interests. This stance brought him into conflict with Commissioner Howard as well as President Andrew Johnson, who revoked General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, through which many freed people in the lowcountry had obtained land.

In January 1866 General Robert K. Scott replaced Saxton as bureau chief in the state and immediately instituted stricter policies on land and labor. Scott came to the position as a typical middle-class northerner, a man who had studied medicine, dabbled in real estate, and tried his hand at merchandising. A political moderate who favored gradual abolition but also supported civil rights for former slaves, Scott enforced a policy of binding labor contracts between freed people and white planters. This system was preferred by Howard as well as planters who were bringing pressure to bear on the bureau. Nonetheless, Scott and his officers sought to balance the interests of former slaves with those of their employers, frequently using Union troops to enforce orders aimed at settling disputes between whites and blacks. Scott resigned the position in July 1867 to enter state politics, one of the few officers in the state to do so. In the following years bureau operations wound down, ending entirely by 1872.

The real work of the bureau in the state was done by its local agents. Usually veterans of the Union army and hailing from the North, these men faced the daunting challenge of adjudicating the frequent and sometimes fundamental disputes between former slaves and former masters. They pursued a variety of policies, a fact that might help explain the widely divergent views of the bureau held by contemporaries and more recent observers. Some agents, such as A. J. Willard in Georgetown, clearly favored the planters. Others, such as the African American Martin R. Delany in the Sea Islands, worked for the benefit of former slaves. Most tried to balance competing interests in the manner pursued by Scott. The Prussian-born émigré Frederick W. Liedtke was typical; for example, he arrested freed people for breach of contract but also strongly sponsored their cases for wages against employers.

Any assessment of the bureau’s success or failure must inevitably consider short-term versus long-term consequences as well as possible alternatives. In the short term, if judged by the idealistic goals of its founders, the bureau in South Carolina largely failed. Its educational efforts remained limited, its poor-relief efforts fell vastly short of need, and its aim of bringing peaceful land and labor relations gave way to violence and the descent into formal segregation. In a broader sense, the bureau’s mission was limited by the vision of its officers. Firmly entrenched in northern middle-class individualism, their attempts to help former slaves often contradicted freed people’s desires for social autonomy and economic self-sufficiency.

Nevertheless, the Freedmen’s Bureau did alter the social relations of freedom. Planters did not get all they wanted; physical coercion sanctioned by law did not return. The bureau established the notion of rights for African Americans, even if it took years for those rights to be fully realized. The institution helped provide the limited safety required for black political activism. Perhaps most importantly, by enforcing labor contracts and establishing the beginning of a free labor culture, the bureau nurtured aspirations that would come to fruition many decades later.

Abbott, Martin. The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, 1865–1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

Saville, Julie. The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Schmidt, James D. “‘A Full-Fledged Government of Men’: Freedmen’s Bureau Labor Policy in South Carolina, 1865–1868.” In The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall M. Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Freedmen's Bureau
  • Coverage 1865–1872
  • Author
  • Keywords dispensed poor relief, administered lands abandoned during the Civil War, Created by an act of Congress in March 1865, leadership of Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard in Washington, D.C., General Rufus Saxton, General Robert K. Scott, black political activism
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 30, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 11, 2016
Go to Top