The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color

line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in

Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a

phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much

they who marched south and north in 1861 may have fixed on the

technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all

nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery

was the deeper cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, how

this deeper question ever forced itself to the surface, despite

effort and disclaimer. No sooner had Northern armies touched

Southern soil than this old question, newly guised, sprang from

the earth,--What shall be done with slaves? Peremptory military

commands, this way and that, could not answer the query; the

Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the

difficulties; and so at last there arose in the South a government

of men called the Freedmen's Bureau, which lasted, legally, from

1865 to 1872, but in a sense from 1861 to 1876, and which sought

to settle the Negro problems in the United States of America.

It is the aim of this essay to study the Freedmen's Bureau,--the

occasion of its rise, the character of its work, and its final

success and failure,--not only as a part of American history, but

above all as one of the most singular and interesting of the

attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of

race and social condition.

No sooner had the armies, east and west, penetrated Virginia and

Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They

came at night, when the flickering camp fires of the blue hosts

shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon: old men,

and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women with frightened eyes,

dragging whimpering, hungry children; men and girls, stalwart and

gaunt,--a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and

pitiable in their dark distress. Two methods of treating these

newcomers seemed equally logical to opposite sorts of minds. Said

some, "We have nothing to do with slaves." "Hereafter," commanded

Halleck, "no slaves should be allowed to come into your lines at

all; if any come without your knowledge, when owners call for

them, deliver them." But others said, "We take grain and fowl;

why not slaves?" Whereupon Fremont, as early as August, 1861,

declared the slaves of Missouri rebels free. Such radical action

was quickly countermanded, but at the same time the opposite

policy could not be enforced; some of the black refugees declared

themselves freemen, others showed their masters had deserted them,

and still others were captured with forts and plantations.

Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to the

Confederacy, and were being used as laborers and producers. "They

constitute a military resource," wrote the Secretary of War, late

in 1861; "and being such, that they should not be turned over to

the enemy is too plain to discuss." So the tone of the army

chiefs changed, Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, and

Butler's "contrabands" were welcomed as military laborers. This

complicated rather than solved the problem; for now the scattering

fugitives became a steady stream, which flowed faster as the

armies marched.

Then the long-headed man, with care-chiseled face, who sat in the

White House, saw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of

rebels on New Year's, 1863. A month later Congress called

earnestly for the Negro soldiers whom the act of July, 1862, had

half grudgingly allowed to enlist. Thus the barriers were

leveled, and the deed was done. The stream of fugitives swelled

to a flood, and anxious officers kept inquiring: "What must be

done with slaves arriving almost daily? Am I to find food and

shelter for women and children?"

It was a Pierce of Boston who pointed out the way, and thus became

in a sense the founder of the Freedmen's Bureau. Being specially

detailed from the ranks to care for the freedmen at Fortress

Monroe, he afterward founded the celebrated Port Royal experiment

and started the Freedmen's Aid Societies. Thus, under the timid

Treasury officials and bold army officers, Pierce's plan widened

and developed. At first, the able-bodied men were enlisted as

soldiers or hired as laborers, the women and children were herded

into central camps under guard, and "superintendents of

contrabands" multiplied here and there. Centres of massed

freedmen arose at Fortress Monroe, Va., Washington, D. C.,

Beaufort and Port Royal, S. C., New Orleans, La., Vicksburg and

Corinth, Miss., Columbus, Ky., Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere, and the

army chaplains found here new and fruitful fields.

Then came the Freedmen's Aid Societies, born of the touching

appeals for relief and help from these centres of distress. There

was the American Missionary Association, sprung from the Amistad,

and now full grown for work, the various church organizations, the

National Freedmen's Relief Association, the American Freedmen's

Union, the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission,--in all fifty or

more active organizations, which sent clothes, money, school-

books, and teachers southward. All they did was needed, for the

destitution of the freedmen was often reported as "too appalling

for belief," and the situation was growing daily worse rather than


And daily, too, it seemed more plain that this was no ordinary

matter of temporary relief, but a national crisis; for here loomed

a labor problem of vast dimensions. Masses of Negroes stood idle,

or, if they worked spasmodically, were never sure of pay; and if

perchance they received pay, squandered the new thing

thoughtlessly. In these and in other ways were camp life and the

new liberty demoralizing the freedmen. The broader economic

organization thus clearly demanded sprang up here and there as

accident and local conditions determined. Here again Pierce's

Port Royal plan of leased plantations and guided workmen pointed

out the rough way. In Washington, the military governor, at the

urgent appeal of the superintendent, opened confiscated estates to

the cultivation of the fugitives, and there in the shadow of the

dome gathered black farm villages. General Dix gave over estates

to the freedmen of Fortress Monroe, and so on through the South.

The government and the benevolent societies furnished the means of

cultivation, and the Negro turned again slowly to work. The

systems of control, thus started, rapidly grew, here and there,

into strange little governments, like that of General Banks in

Louisiana, with its 90,000 black subjects, its 50,000 guided

laborers, and its annual budget of $100,000 and more. It made out

4000 pay rolls, registered all freedmen, inquired into grievances

and redressed them, laid and collected taxes, and established a

system of public schools. So too Colonel Eaton, the

superintendent of Tennessee and Arkansas, ruled over 100,000,

leased and cultivated 7000 acres of cotton land, and furnished

food for 10,000 paupers. In South Carolina was General Saxton,

with his deep interest in black folk. He succeeded Pierce and the

Treasury officials, and sold forfeited estates, leased abandoned

plantations, encouraged schools, and received from Sherman, after

the terribly picturesque march to the sea, thousands of the

wretched camp followers.

Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman's raid

through Georgia, which threw the new situation in deep and shadowy

relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all

significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the

bitter sufferers of the lost cause. But to me neither soldier nor

fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark and human

cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns,

swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking

them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn

from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged,

until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens

of thousands. There too came the characteristic military remedy:

"The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned ricefields along

the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country

bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and set

apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war."

So read the celebrated field order.

All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound to attract

and perplex the government and the nation. Directly after the

Emancipation Proclamation, Representative Eliot had introduced a

bill creating a Bureau of Emancipation, but it was never reported.

The following June, a committee of inquiry, appointed by the

Secretary of War, reported in favor of a temporary bureau for the

"improvement, protection, and employment of refugee freedmen," on

much the same lines as were afterward followed. Petitions came in

to President Lincoln from distinguished citizens and

organizations, strongly urging a comprehensive and unified plan of

dealing with the freedmen, under a bureau which should be "charged

with the study of plans and execution of measures for easily

guiding, and in every way judiciously and humanely aiding, the

passage of our emancipated and yet to be emancipated blacks from

the old condition of forced labor to their new state of voluntary


Some half-hearted steps were early taken by the government to put

both freedmen and abandoned estates under the supervision of the

Treasury officials. Laws of 1863 and 1864 directed them to take

charge of and lease abandoned lands for periods not exceeding

twelve months, and to "provide in such leases or otherwise for the

employment and general welfare" of the freedmen. Most of the army

officers looked upon this as a welcome relief from perplexing

"Negro affairs;" but the Treasury hesitated and blundered, and

although it leased large quantities of land and employed many

Negroes, especially along the Mississippi, yet it left the virtual

control of the laborers and their relations to their neighbors in

the hands of the army.

In March, 1864, Congress at last turned its attention to the

subject, and the House passed a bill, by a majority of two,

establishing a Bureau for Freedmen in the War Department. Senator

Sumner, who had charge of the bill in the Senate, argued that

freedmen and abandoned lands ought to be under the same

department, and reported a substitute for the House bill,

attaching the Bureau to the Treasury Department. This bill

passed, but too late for action in the House. The debate wandered

over the whole policy of the administration and the general

question of slavery, without touching very closely the specific

merits of the measure in hand.

Meantime the election took place, and the administration,

returning from the country with a vote of renewed confidence,

addressed itself to the matter more seriously. A conference

between the houses agreed upon a carefully drawn measure which

contained the chief provisions of Charles Sumner's bill, but made

the proposed organization a department independent of both the War

and Treasury officials. The bill was conservative, giving the new

department "general superintendence of all freedmen." It was to

"establish regulations" for them, protect them, lease them lands,

adjust their wages, and appear in civil and military courts as

their "next friend." There were many limitations attached to the

powers thus granted, and the organization was made permanent.

Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the bill, and a new conference

committee was appointed. This committee reported a new bill,

February 28, which was whirled through just as the session closed,

and which became the act of 1865 establishing in the War

Department a "Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands."

This last compromise was a hasty bit of legislation, vague and

uncertain in outline. A Bureau was created, "to continue during

the present War of Rebellion, and for one year thereafter," to

which was given "the supervision and management of all abandoned

lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and

freedmen," under "such rules and regulations as may be presented

by the head of the Bureau and approved by the President." A

commissioner, appointed by the President and Senate, was to

control the Bureau, with an office force not exceeding ten clerks.

The President might also appoint commissioners in the seceded

states, and to all these offices military officials might be

detailed at regular pay. The Secretary of War could issue

rations, clothing, and fuel to the destitute, and all abandoned

property was placed in the hands of the Bureau for eventual lease

and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels.

Thus did the United States government definitely assume charge of

the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a

tremendous undertaking. Here, at a stroke of the pen, was erected

a government of millions of men,--and not ordinary men, either,

but black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of

slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly, violently, they come

into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, in the midst

of the stricken, embittered population of their former masters.

Any man might well have hesitated to assume charge of such a work,

with vast responsibilities, indefinite powers, and limited

resources. Probably no one but a soldier would have answered such

a call promptly; and indeed no one but a soldier could be called,

for Congress had appropriated no money for salaries and expenses.

Less than a month after the weary emancipator passed to his rest,

his successor assigned Major General Oliver O. Howard to duty as

commissioner of the new Bureau. He was a Maine man, then only

thirty-five years of age. He had marched with Sherman to the sea,

had fought well at Gettysburg, and had but a year before been

assigned to the command of the Department of Tennessee. An honest

and sincere men, with rather too much faith in human nature,

little aptitude for systematic business and intricate detail, he

was nevertheless conservative, hard-working, and, above all,

acquainted at first-hand with much of the work before him. And of

that work it has been truly said, "No approximately correct

history of civilization can ever be written which does not throw

out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks of political and

social progress, the organization and administration of the

Freedmen's Bureau."

On May 12, 1865, Howard was appointed, and he assumed the duties

of his office promptly on the 15th, and began examining the field

of work. A curious mess he looked upon: little despotisms,

communistic experiments, slavery, peonage, business speculations,

organized charity, unorganized almsgiving,--all reeling on under

the guise of helping the freedman, and all enshrined in the smoke

and blood of war and the cursing and silence of angry men. On May

19 the new government--for a government it really was--issued its

constitution; commissioners were to be appointed in each of the

seceded states, who were to take charge of "all subjects relating

to refugees and freedmen," and all relief and rations were to be

given by their consent alone. The Bureau invited continued

cooperation with benevolent societies, and declared, "It will be

the object of all commissioners to introduce practicable systems

of compensated labor," and to establish schools. Forthwith nine

assistant commissioners were appointed. They were to hasten to

their fields of work; seek gradually to close relief

establishments, and make the destitute self-supporting; act as

courts of law where there were no courts, or where Negroes were

not recognized in them as free; establish the institution of

marriage among ex-slaves, and keep records; see that freedmen were

free to choose their employers, and help in making fair contracts

for them; and finally, the circular said, "Simple good faith, for

which we hope on all hands for those concerned in the passing away

of slavery, will especially relieve the assistant commissioners in

the discharge of their duties toward the freedmen, as well as

promote the general welfare."

No sooner was the work thus started, and the general system and

local organization in some measure begun, than two grave

difficulties appeared which changed largely the theory and outcome

of Bureau work. First, there were the abandoned lands of the

South. It had long been the more or less definitely expressed

theory of the North that all the chief problems of emancipation

might be settled by establishing the slaves on the forfeited lands

of their masters,--a sort of poetic justice, said some. But this

poetry done into solemn prose meant either wholesale confiscation

of private property in the South, or vast appropriations. Now

Congress had not appropriated a cent, and no sooner did the

proclamations of general amnesty appear than the 800,000 acres of

abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau melted

quickly away. The second difficulty lay in perfecting the local

organization of the Bureau throughout the wide field of work.

Making a new machine and sending out officials of duly ascertained

fitness for a great work of social reform is no child's task; but

this task was even harder, for a new central organization had to

be fitted on a heterogeneous and confused but already existing

system of relief and control of ex-slaves; and the agents

available for this work must be sought for in an army still busy

with war operations,--men in the very nature of the case ill

fitted for delicate social work,--or among the questionable camp

followers of an invading host. Thus, after a year's work,

vigorously as it was pushed, the problem looked even more

difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning. Nevertheless,

three things that year's work did, well worth the doing: it

relieved a vast amount of physical suffering; it transported 7000

fugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best of

all, it inaugurated the crusade of the New England schoolma'am.

The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written, the tale

of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the

quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and

rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the

hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the

alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved

now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they

came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses

among the white and black of the South. They did their work well.

In that first year they taught 100,000 souls, and more.

Evidently, Congress must soon legislate again on the hastily

organized Bureau, which had so quickly grown into wide

significance and vast possibilities. An institution such as that

was well-nigh as difficult to end as to begin. Early in 1866

Congress took up the matter, when Senator Trumbull, of Illinois,

introduced a bill to extend the Bureau and enlarge its powers.

This measure received, at the hands of Congress, far more thorough

discussion and attention than its predecessor. The war cloud had

thinned enough to allow a clearer conception of the work of

emancipation. The champions of the bill argued that the

strengthening of the Freedmen's Bureau was still a military

necessity; that it was needed for the proper carrying out of the

Thirteenth Amendment, and was a work of sheer justice to the ex-

slave, at a trifling cost to the government. The opponents of the

measure declared that the war was over, and the necessity for war

measures past; that the Bureau, by reason of its extraordinary

powers, was clearly unconstitutional in time of peace, and was

destined to irritate the South and pauperize the freedmen, at a

final cost of possibly hundreds of millions. Two of these

arguments were unanswered, and indeed unanswerable: the one that

the extraordinary powers of the Bureau threatened the civil rights

of all citizens; and the other that the government must have power

to do what manifestly must be done, and that present abandonment

of the freedmen meant their practical enslavement. The bill which

finally passed enlarged and made permanent the Freedmen's Bureau.

It was promptly vetoed by President Johnson, as

"unconstitutional," "unnecessary," and "extrajudicial," and failed

of passage over the veto. Meantime, however, the breach between

Congress and the President began to broaden, and a modified form

of the lost bill was finally passed over the President's second

veto, July 16.

The act of 1866 gave the Freedmen's Bureau its final form,--the

form by which it will be known to posterity and judged of men. It

extended the existence of the Bureau to July, 1868; it authorized

additional assistant commissioners, the retention of army officers

mustered out of regular service, the sale of certain forfeited

lands to freedmen on nominal terms, the sale of Confederate public

property for Negro schools, and a wider field of judicial

interpretation and cognizance. The government of the un-

reconstructed South was thus put very largely in the hands of the

Freedmen's Bureau, especially as in many cases the departmental

military commander was now made also assistant commissioner. It

was thus that the Freedmen's Bureau became a full-fledged

government of men. It made laws, executed them and interpreted

them; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime,

maintained and used military force, and dictated such measures as

it thought necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its

varied ends. Naturally, all these powers were not exercised

continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, as General

Howard has said, "scarcely any subject that has to be legislated

upon in civil society failed, at one time or another, to demand

the action of this singular Bureau."

To understand and criticise intelligently so vast a work, one must

not forget an instant the drift of things in the later sixties:

Lee had surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress

were at loggerheads; the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the

Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870.

Guerrilla raiding, the ever present flickering after-flame of war,

was spending its force against the Negroes, and all the Southern

land was awakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social

revolution. In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and

streaming wealth, the social uplifting of 4,000,000 slaves to an

assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic and economic

would have been an herculean task; but when to the inherent

difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added

the spite and hate of conflict, the Hell of War; when suspicion

and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger wept beside Bereavement,--

in such a case, the work of any instrument of social regeneration

was in large part foredoomed to failure. The very name of the

Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and

better men had refused even to argue,--that life amid free Negroes

was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments. The agents

which the Bureau could command varied all the way from unselfish

philanthropists to narrow-minded busybodies and thieves; and even

though it be true that the average was far better than the worst,

it was the one fly that helped to spoil the ointment. Then, amid

all this crouched the freed slave, bewildered between friend and

foe. He had emerged from slavery: not the worst slavery in the

world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable,--rather, a

slavery that had here and there much of kindliness, fidelity, and

happiness,--but withal slavery, which, so far as human aspiration

and desert were concerned, classed the black man and the ox

together. And the Negro knew full well that, whatever their

deeper convictions may have been, Southern men had fought with

desperate energy to perpetuate this slavery, under which the black

masses, with half-articulate thought, had writhed and shivered.

They welcomed freedom with a cry. They fled to the friends that

had freed them. They shrank from the master who still strove for

their chains. So the cleft between the white and black South

grew. Idle to say it never should have been; it was as inevitable

as its results were pitiable. Curiously incongruous elements were

left arrayed against each other: the North, the government, the

carpetbagger, and the slave, here; and there, all the South that

was white, whether gentleman or vagabond, honest man or rascal,

lawless murderer or martyr to duty.

Thus it is doubly difficult to write of this period calmly, so

intense was the feeling, so mighty the human passions, that swayed

and blinded men. Amid it all two figures ever stand to typify

that day to coming men: the one a gray-haired gentleman, whose

fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless

graves, who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition

boded untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of

life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes. And the

other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black

with the mists of centuries, had aforetime bent in love over her

white master's cradle, rocked his sons and daughters to sleep, and

closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife to the world; ay, too,

had laid herself low to his lust and borne a tawny man child to

the world, only to see her dark boy's limbs scattered to the winds

by midnight marauders riding after Damned Niggers. These were the

saddest sights of that woeful day; and no man clasped the hands of

these two passing figures of the present-past; but hating they

went to their long home, and hating their children's children live


Here, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen's Bureau; and

since, with some hesitation, it was continued by the act of 1868

till 1869, let us look upon four years of its work as a whole.

There were, in 1868, 900 Bureau officials scattered from

Washington to Texas, ruling, directly and indirectly, many

millions of men. And the deeds of these rulers fall mainly under

seven heads,--the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing of

the beginnings of free labor, the buying and selling of land, the

establishment of schools, the paying of bounties, the

administration of justice, and the financiering of all these

activities. Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had

been treated by Bureau physicians and surgeons, and sixty

hospitals and asylums had been in operation. In fifty months of

work 21,000,000 free rations were distributed at a cost of over

$4,000,000,--beginning at the rate of 30,000 rations a day in

1865, and discontinuing in 1869. Next came the difficult question

of labor. First, 30,000 black men were transported from the

refuges and relief stations back to the farms, back to the

critical trial of a new way of working. Plain, simple

instructions went out from Washington,--the freedom of laborers to

choose employers, no fixed rates of wages, no peonage or forced

labor. So far so good; but where local agents differed toto coelo

in capacity and character, where the personnel was continually

changing, the outcome was varied. The largest element of success

lay in the fact that the majority of the freedmen were willing,

often eager, to work. So contracts were written,--50,000 in a

single state,--laborers advised, wages guaranteed, and employers

supplied. In truth, the organization became a vast labor bureau;

not perfect, indeed,--notably defective here and there,--but on

the whole, considering the situation, successful beyond the dreams

of thoughtful men. The two great obstacles which confronted the

officers at every turn were the tyrant and the idler: the

slaveholder, who believed slavery was right, and was determined to

perpetuate it under another name; and the freedman, who regarded

freedom as perpetual rest. These were the Devil and the Deep Sea.

In the work of establishing the Negroes as peasant proprietors the

Bureau was severely handicapped, as I have shown. Nevertheless,

something was done. Abandoned lands were leased so long as they

remained in the hands of the Bureau, and a total revenue of

$400,000 derived from black tenants. Some other lands to which

the nation had gained title were sold, and public lands were

opened for the settlement of the few blacks who had tools and

capital. The vision of landowning, however, the righteous and

reasonable ambition for forty acres and a mule which filled the

freedmen's dreams, was doomed in most cases to disappointment.

And those men of marvelous hind-sight, who to-day are seeking to

preach the Negro back to the soil, know well, or ought to know,

that it was here, in 1865, that the finest opportunity of binding

the black peasant to the soil was lost. Yet, with help and

striving, the Negro gained some land, and by 1874, in the one

state of Georgia, owned near 350,000 acres.

The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in the planting

of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary

education among all classes in the South. It not only called the

schoolmistress through the benevolent agencies, and built them

schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of

human development as Edmund Ware, Erastus Cravath, and Samuel

Armstrong. State superintendents of education were appointed, and

by 1870 150,000 children were in school. The opposition to Negro

education was bitter in the South, for the South believed an

educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not

wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had,

and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of

dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.

It was some inkling of this paradox, even in the unquiet days of

the Bureau, that allayed an opposition to human training, which

still to-day lies smouldering, but not flaming. Fisk, Atlanta,

Howard, and Hampton were founded in these days, and nearly

$6,000,000 was expended in five years for educational work,

$750,000 of which came from the freedmen themselves.

Such contributions, together with the buying of land and various

other enterprises, showed that the ex-slave was handling some free

capital already. The chief initial source of this was labor in

the army, and his pay and bounty as a soldier. Payments to Negro

soldiers were at first complicated by the ignorance of the

recipients, and the fact that the quotas of colored regiments from

Northern states were largely filled by recruits from the South,

unknown to their fellow soldiers. Consequently, payments were

accompanied by such frauds that Congress, by joint resolution in

1867, put the whole matter in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau.

In two years $6,000,000 was thus distributed to 5000 claimants,

and in the end the sum exceeded $8,000,000. Even in this system,

fraud was frequent; but still the work put needed capital in the

hands of practical paupers, and some, at least, was well spent.

The most perplexing and least successful part of the Bureau's work

lay in the exercise of its judicial functions. In a distracted

land where slavery had hardly fallen, to keep the strong from

wanton abuse of the weak, and the weak from gloating insolently

over the half-shorn strength of the strong, was a thankless,

hopeless task. The former masters of the land were peremptorily

ordered about, seized and imprisoned, and punished over and again,

with scant courtesy from army officers. The former slaves were

intimidated, beaten, raped, and butchered by angry and revengeful

men. Bureau courts tended to become centres simply for punishing

whites, while the regular civil courts tended to become solely

institutions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks. Almost every

law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the

legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,--to make them the

slaves of the state, if not of individual owners; while the Bureau

officials too often were found striving to put the "bottom rail on

top," and give the freedmen a power and independence which they

could not yet use. It is all well enough for us of another

generation to wax wise with advice to those who bore the burden in

the heat of the day. It is full easy now to see that the man who

lost home, fortune, and family at a stroke, and saw his land ruled

by "mules and niggers," was really benefited by the passing of

slavery. It is not difficult now to say to the young freedman,

cheated and cuffed about, who has seen his father's head beaten to

a jelly and his own mother namelessly assaulted, that the meek

shall inherit the earth. Above all, nothing is more convenient

than to heap on the Freedmen's Bureau all the evils of that evil

day, and damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was


All this is easy, but it is neither sensible nor just. Some one

had blundered, but that was long before Oliver Howard was born;

there was criminal aggression and heedless neglect, but without

some system of control there would have been far more than there

was. Had that control been from within, the Negro would have been

reenslaved, to all intents and purposes. Coming as the control

did from without, perfect men and methods would have bettered all

things; and even with imperfect agents and questionable methods,

the work accomplished was not undeserving of much commendation.

The regular Bureau court consisted of one representative of the

employer, one of the Negro, and one of the Bureau. If the Bureau

could have maintained a perfectly judicial attitude, this

arrangement would have been ideal, and must in time have gained

confidence; but the nature of its other activities and the

character of its personnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the

black litigants, and led without doubt to much injustice and

annoyance. On the other hand, to leave the Negro in the hands of

Southern courts was impossible.

What the Freedmen's Bureau cost the nation is difficult to

determine accurately. Its methods of bookkeeping were not good,

and the whole system of its work and records partook of the hurry

and turmoil of the time. General Howard himself disbursed some

$15,000,000 during his incumbency; but this includes the bounties

paid colored soldiers, which perhaps should not be counted as an

expense of the Bureau. In bounties, prize money, and all other

expenses, the Bureau disbursed over $20,000,000 before all of its

departments were finally closed. To this ought to be added the

large expenses of the various departments of Negro affairs before

1865; but these are hardly extricable from war expenditures, nor

can we estimate with any accuracy the contributions of benevolent

societies during all these years.

Such was the work of the Freedmen's Bureau. To sum it up in

brief, we may say: it set going a system of free labor; it

established the black peasant proprietor; it secured the

recognition of black freemen before courts of law; it founded the

free public school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to

establish good will between ex-masters and freedmen; to guard its

work wholly from paternalistic methods that discouraged self-

reliance; to make Negroes landholders in any considerable numbers.

Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented by the

aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its

failures were the result of bad local agents, inherent

difficulties of the work, and national neglect. The Freedmen's

Bureau expired by limitation in 1869, save its educational and

bounty departments. The educational work came to an end in 1872,

and General Howard's connection with the Bureau ceased at that

time. The work of paying bounties was transferred to the adjutant

general's office, where it was continued three or four years


Such an institution, from its wide powers, great responsibilities,

large control of moneys, and generally conspicuous position, was

naturally open to repeated and bitter attacks. It sustained a

searching congressional investigation at the instance of Fernando

Wood in 1870. It was, with blunt discourtesy, transferred from

Howard's control, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary

of War Belknap in 1872, on the Secretary's recommendation.

Finally, in consequence of grave intimations of wrongdoing made by

the Secretary and his subordinates, General Howard was court-

martialed in 1874. In each of these trials, and in other attacks,

the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau was exonerated from any

willful misdoing, and his work heartily commended. Nevertheless,

many unpleasant things were brought to light: the methods of

transacting the business of the Bureau were faulty; several cases

of defalcation among officials in the field were proven, and

further frauds hinted at; there were some business transactions

which savored of dangerous speculation, if not dishonesty; and,

above all, the smirch of the Freedmen's Bank, which, while legally

distinct from, was morally and practically a part of the Bureau,

will ever blacken the record of this great institution. Not even

ten additional years of slavery could have done as much to

throttle the thrift of the freedmen as the mismanagement and

bankruptcy of the savings bank chartered by the nation for their

especial aid. Yet it is but fair to say that the perfect honesty

of purpose and unselfish devotion of General Howard have passed

untarnished through the fire of criticism. Not so with all his

subordinates, although in the case of the great majority of these

there were shown bravery and devotion to duty, even though

sometimes linked to narrowness and incompetency.

The most bitter attacks on the Freedmen's Bureau were aimed not so

much at its conduct or policy under the law as at the necessity

for any such organization at all. Such attacks came naturally

from the border states and the South, and they were summed up by

Senator Davis, of Kentucky, when he moved to entitle the act of

1866 a bill "to promote strife and conflict between the white and

black races . . . by a grant of unconstitutional power." The

argument was of tremendous strength, but its very strength was its

weakness. For, argued the plain common sense of the nation, if it

is unconstitutional, unpracticable, and futile for the nation to

stand guardian over its helpless wards, then there is left but one

alternative: to make those wards their own guardians by arming

them with the ballot. The alternative offered the nation then was

not between full and restricted Negro suffrage; else every

sensible man, black and white, would easily have chosen the

latter. It was rather a choice between suffrage and slavery,

after endless blood and gold had flowed to sweep human bondage

away. Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a

Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern

legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a

system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there was

scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard

emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a

duty. In such a situation, the granting of the ballot to the

black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could

grant a wronged race. Had the opposition to government

guardianship of Negroes been less bitter, and the attachment to

the slave system less strong, the social seer can well imagine a

far better policy: a permanent Freedmen's Bureau, with a national

system of Negro schools; a carefully supervised employment and

labor office; a system of impartial protection before the regular

courts; and such institutions for social betterment as savings

banks, land and building associations, and social settlements.

All this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed a

great school of prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we

have not yet solved the most perplexing and persistent of the

Negro problems.

That such an institution was unthinkable in 1870 was due in part

to certain acts of the Freedmen's Bureau itself. It came to

regard its work as merely temporary, and Negro suffrage as a final

answer to all present perplexities. The political ambition of

many of its agents and proteges led it far afield into

questionable activities, until the South, nursing its own deep

prejudices, came easily to ignore all the good deeds of the

Bureau, and hate its very name with perfect hatred. So the

Freedmen's Bureau died, and its child was the Fifteenth Amendment.

The passing of a great human institution before its work is done,

like the untimely passing of a single soul, but leaves a legacy of

striving for other men. The legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau is

the heavy heritage of this generation. Today, when new and vaster

problems are destined to strain every fibre of the national mind

and soul, would it not be well to count this legacy honestly and

carefully? For this much all men know: despite compromise,

struggle, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the

backwoods of the Gulf states, for miles and miles, he may not

leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh the whole rural

South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an

economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the

penitentiary. In the most cultured sections and cities of the

South the Negroes are a segregated servile caste, with restricted

rights and privileges. Before the courts, both in law and custom,

they stand on a different and peculiar basis. Taxation without

representation is the rule of their political life. And the

result of all this is, and in nature must have been, lawlessness

and crime. That is the large legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau, the

work it did not do because it could not.

I have seen a land right merry with the sun; where children sing,

and rolling hills lie like passioned women, wanton with harvest.

And there in the King's Highway sat and sits a figure, veiled and

bowed, by which the traveler's footsteps hasten as they go. On

the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries' thought has been

the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now,

behold, my fellows, a century new for the duty and the deed. The

problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.

THE CASE OF THE NEGRO THE FRUITS OF INDUSTRIAL TRAINING facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail