The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 by Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some 4 million slaves gained their freedom as a result of the Union victory in the war, which left many communities in ruins and destroyed the South’s plantation-based economy. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. However, the bureau was prevented from fully carrying out its programs due to a shortage of funds and personnel, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. In 1872, Congress, in part under pressure from white Southerners, shut the bureau.
America’s Reconstruction era (1865-77) was a turbulent time, as the nation struggled with how to rebuild the South and transition the 4 million newly freed blacks from slavery to a free-labor society. “There was no tradition of government responsibility for a huge refugee population and no bureaucracy to administer a large welfare, employment and land reform program,” according to “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction,” edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller. “Congress and the army and the Freedmen’s Bureau were groping in the dark. They created the precedents.”
From the start, the Bureau faced resistance from a variety of sources, including many white Southerners. Another leading opponent was President Andrew Johnson (1808-75), who assumed office in April 1865 following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809-65). When Congress introduced a bill in February 1866 to extend the bureau’s tenure and give it new legal powers, Johnson vetoed the proposed legislation on the grounds that it interfered with states’ rights, gave preference to one group of citizens over another and would impose a huge financial burden on the federal government, among other issues. In July of that same year, Congress overrode the president’s veto and passed a revised version of the bill. However, Johnson became embroiled in a bitter fight with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who viewed the president’s Reconstruction policies as too lenient, and the Freedmen’s Bureau suffered as a result. Johnson’s actions, which included pardoning many former Confederates and restoring their land, as well as removing bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to blacks, served to undermine the bureau’s authority.
The bureau’s mission was further muddled by the fact that even among the agency’s supporters in Congress and its own personnel, there was disagreement over what type of assistance the government should provide and for how long.http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedmens-bureau
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