History of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina

Freedmens Bureau

The Freedmen’s Bureau, by Alfred R. Waud. Source: Library of Congress
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c05555, No known restrictions on publication.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). The life of the Bureau was extended twice by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83).

The Bureau was responsible for the supervision and management of all matters relating to refugees and freedmen, and of lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner of the Bureau, and Howard served in the position until June 30, 1872, when activities of the Bureau were terminated in accordance with an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366). While a major part of the Bureau’s early activities involved the supervision of abandoned and confiscated property, its mission was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient. Bureau officials issued rations and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, and supervised labor contracts.

In addition, the Bureau managed apprenticeship disputes and complaints, assisted benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, helped freedmen in legalizing marriages entered into during slavery, and provided transportation to refugees and freedmen who were attempting to reunite with their family or relocate to other parts of the country. The Bureau also helped black soldiers, sailors, and their heirs collect bounty claims, pensions, and back pay.

The act of March 3, 1865, authorized the appointment of Assistant Commissioners to aid the Commissioner in supervising the work of the Bureau in the former Confederate states, the border states, and the District of Columbia. While the work performed by Assistant Commissioners in each state was similar, the organizational structure of staff offices varied from state to state. At various times, the staff could consist of a superintendent of education, an assistant adjutant general, an assistant inspector general, a disbursing officer, a chief medical officer officer, a chief quartermaster, and a commissary of subsistence. Subordinate to these officers were the assistant superintendents or subassistant commissioners as they later became known, who commanded the subdistricts.

The Assistant Commissioner corresponded extensively with both his superior in the Washington Bureau headquarters and his subordinate officers in the subdistricts. Based upon reports submitted to him by the subassistant commissioners and other subordinate staff officers, he prepared reports that he sent to the Commissioner concerning Bureau activities in areas under his jurisdiction. The Assistant Commissioner also received letters from freedmen, local white citizens, state officials, and other non-Bureau personnel. These letters varied in nature from complaints to applications for jobs in the Bureau. Because the assistant adjutant general handled much of the mail for the Assistant Commissioner’s office, it was often addressed to him instead of the Assistant Commissioner.

In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard in July 1865, the Assistant Commissioners were instructed to designate one officer in each state to serve as “general Superintendents of Schools.” These officials were to “take cognizance of all that is being done to educate refugees and freedmen, secure proper protection to schools and teachers, promote method and efficiency, correspond with the benevolent agencies which are supplying in his field, and aid the Assistant Commissioner in making his required reports.”

zion school for colored children

Image: Zion School for Colored Children, Charleston, South Carolina, by Alfred R. Waud. Source: Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17666, No known restrictions on publication.

In October 1865, a degree of centralized control was established over Bureau educational activities in the states when Rev. John W. Alvord was appointed Inspector of Finances and Schools. In January 1867, Alvord was divested of his financial responsibilities, and he was appointed general Superintendent of Education.

An act of Congress approved July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), ordered that the Commissioner of the Bureau “shall, on the first day of January next, cause the said bureau to be withdrawn from the several States within which said bureau has acted and its operation shall be discontinued.”

Consequently, in early 1869, with the exception of the superintendents of education and the claims agents, the Assistant Commissioners and their subordinate officers were withdrawn from the states.

For the next year and a half the Bureau continued to pursue its education work and to process claims. In the summer of 1870, the superintendents of education were withdrawn from the states, and the headquarters staff was greatly reduced. From that time until the Bureau was abolished by an act of Congress approved June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366), effective June 30, 1872, the Bureau’s functions related almost exclusively to the disposition of claims. The Bureau’s records and remaining functions were then transferred to the Freedmen’s Branch in the office of the Adjutant General. The records of this branch are among the Bureau’s files.

The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina

Bvt. Maj. Gen. Rufus Saxton, who directed the “Port Royal Experiment,” was appointed Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida on June 10, 1865. Shortly after Saxton assumed his new duties, Howard appointed Assistant Commissioners for Georgia and Florida. Thus, by September 1865 Saxton was, for all practical purposes, Assistant Commissioner solely for South Carolina. Generally, the records pertaining to Georgia and Florida among those of the Assistant Commissioner of South Carolina were created during this period.

The organization of the Bureau in South Carolina was similar to that of the Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC. Saxton’s original staff included an assistant adjutant general, an inspector general, a superintendent of education, an assistant quartermaster, a chief commissary of subsistence, and an aide-de-camp.

Officers subordinate to Saxton were responsible for administering the policies of the Bureau in the subdistricts of south Carolina. These subdistricts, as they finally evolved in February 1867, were Anderson, Beaufort, Columbia, Charleston, Lynn, Darlington, Edisto, Greenville, Hilton Head, the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, Unionville, and Williamsburg. The subdistricts were administered by subassistant commissioners. Officers or civilians serving under the subassistant commissioner were called agents.

During the period of the Bureau’s existence in South Carolina, there were three Assistant Commissioners operating from three different cities. Gen. Rufus Saxton established his headquarters in Beaufort, but in September 1865 he moved his headquarters to Charleston. Bvt. Maj. Robert K. Scott succeeded Saxton in January 1866 and carried out the duties of the Assistant Commissioner until July 1868 when he resigned to become Governor of South Carolina. Just before Scott resigned, the headquarters was moved to Columbia. Bvt. Col. John R. Edie assumed the position of Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina in August 1868 and served until may 1869. Bvt. Maj. Horace Neide, superintendent of education for South Carolina, acted as Assistant Commissioner until May 31, 1869, when the office was abolished in South Carolina.

Neide and his successor, Bvt. Maj. Edward L. Deane, served as superintendent of education until June 1870 when that office was discontinued. Many of the series of records begun by Assistant Commissioners that were continued by superintendents of education will be found with those of the Assistant Commissioners. The Bureau functioned in South Carolina until June 1872, but its activities after June 1870 were mainly in the area of military claims.


The major activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations and provided medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools.

plowing in sc

Plowing in South Carolina, From a Sketch by Jas. E. Taylor. Source: Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph 3c34227, No known restrictions on publication.

When Rufus Saxton assumed office as the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, he found tens of thousands of freedmen and white refugees in dire need of relief. By mid-summer 1865, with help from the offices of the Commissary General of the Army, the Quartermaster General, and the Surgeon General, Saxton provided more than 300,000 rations, clothing, and medical supplies to nearly 9,000 destitute persons. In 1866, in an effort to encourage self-sufficiency and adhere to Commissioner Howard’s policy of supplying relief only to the needy, Saxton’s successor, Gen. Robert K. Scott, drastically reduced the number of rations issued and limited them to blacks and whites in hospitals and orphan asylums. Despite Scott’s efforts, however, persistent crop storages and crop failures in 1866-67 required the agency to provide aid and other forms of relief to ward off large-scale starvation and destitution. In 1868, the Bureau adopted a crop-lien system in which planters (both black and white) were given rations to distribute to laborers, and a lien was placed against their crops as collateral for repayment for the value of the rations. While the crop-lien plan was well-conceived and helpful for both the employers and their employees, many planters were unable, and in some cases unwilling, to repay their loans. By 1870, when the Bureau’s relief program ended in South Carolina, most of the monies associated with the loans remained outstanding [1].

To further aid and provide medical relief to the “sick and suffering,” the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina established a medical department during the summer and fall of 1865. Under the guidance of the surgeon-in-chief, W.R. De Witt, the Bureau established several camps, dispensaries, and hospitals with a staff of 16 contract physicians and 29 attendants. In spite of limited funding resources, the agency treated more than 8,000 freedmen and white refugees, and by the end of 1866, it provided care for close to 5,000 whites and more than 40,000 blacks. In the latter part of 1868, Bureau hospitals were either closed or turned over to local officials, and dispensaries were discontinued. From its beginning in the summer of 1865 to 1868, the Bureau’s medical department in South Carolina provided medical assistance to about 150,000 blacks and 20,000 whites [2].

The regulation of written labor agreements between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina. In orders issued on August 28, 1865 (General Orders Number 11), Assistant Commissioner Saxton charged his subordinated with seeing that “fair and liberal” contracts were made between planters and freedmen. Officers were told that agreements that called for a share of the crop were best suited for both landlords and laborers.

Many freedmen who believed that the Federal Government planned to divide their former owners’ land among them, were reluctant to sign contracts. This was especially true among freedmen on the Sea Islands who had been issued possessory titles under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders Number 15, which set aside for the settlement of blacks “Islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the Saint John’s River, Fla.” Nonetheless, with the Bureau’s insistence and the threat of being forcibly removed from the land they occupied, some 8,000 contracts were signed, and nearly 130,000 freedmen worked under labor contracts between the years 1865 and 1866.

On January 1, 1867, Saxton’s successor, Gen. R.K. Scott, issued a circular (Circular Number 1) publishing model contracts for a share of the crop and wages. Under the terms of the contracts, blacks were entitled to housing, rations medical attention, fuel, and at least half of the crop. Freedmen who worked for wages were generally paid between $8 and $12 per month and were responsible for supplying their own rations. By the end of 1868, the Bureau closed its operations in South Carolina and thus brought an end to the free labor system [3].

Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was also a priority of the Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states, including South Carolina, enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes” that restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. Freedmen were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and in some instances were unable to get their cases heard in state courts. In a circular issued by Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard on May 30, 1865 (Circular Number 5), Assistant Commissioners were authorized, in places where civil law had been interrupted and blacks’ rights to justice were being denied, to adjudicate cases between blacks themselves and between blacks and whites [4].

However, before the Freedmen’s Bureau’s involvement in South Carolina, provost courts and special military commissions served as the primary institutions for administering justice. Established by the Department of the South in the summer of 1865, under General Orders Number 102, provost courts could impose fines up to $100 and sentences of two months (later increased to $500 and six months, respectively). These courts, although subject to change, consisted of one military officer and two civilians who handled cases generally involving larceny and assault and battery. Military commissions were responsible for overseeing more serious cases involving burglary and murder, and functioned under rules similar to those for military courts-martial. In an agreement reached in September 1865 with South Carolina’s provisional governor Benjamin F. Perry, military courts were given responsibility over all cases involving blacks, and state courts were to handle cases involving whites. The Freedmen’s Bureau courts, which began to assume a greater role in these issues after the passage of the second Freedmen’s Bureau law (July 1866), were thus limited in their efforts to protect the rights of the freedmen. After the South Carolina Legislature adopted a measure in October 1866 recognizing freedmen’s rights and making black testimony admissible in state courts, all cases involving freedmen were turned over to state courts [5].

When Reuben Tomlinson became superintendent of the education division of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina in early summer 1865, he found more than nine schools with about 9,000 students already in operation along the coastal region. Tomlinson sought to expand the number of schools throughout the state and increase enrollment. In the summer of 1866, he reported that freedmen schools had increased to 54 with 130 teachers providing instruction for a daily average of more than 5,000 pupils. By June 1867, an additional 19 schools had been added to the system, along with 10 new teachers. During the 1866-67 school year, the Bureau provided nearly $25,000 (primarily for rent and school repairs) of the $107,000 spent on freedmen schools. However, by the end of the 1868 school term, the Bureau’s educational efforts were on the decline. Limited funds, waning support from Northern benevolent societies, and a steady decrease in freedmen contributions reversed some of the early progress made in the establishment of the freedmen school system. The number of schools in operation during the 1868 and 1869 school terms dropped from 73 to 49. By the summer of 1870, with all funds exhausted, the Bureau’s educational program in South Carolina came to a close, and its buildings were turned over to benevolent societies [6].

The major activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations and provided medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools.

References Cited

[1] Martin Abbott, The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, 1865-1872 (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967), esp. pp. 37-48; see also Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial vol. 1276, pp. 112-13.

[2] Abbott, The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, pp. 10-50.

[3] Howard C. Westwood, “Sherman Marched—and Proclaimed Land for the Landless,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 85 (1984): pp. 33-50; For a discussion of the “free labor” system in South Carolina, see Abbott, The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, pp. 66-81; Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial Vol. 1276, pp. 113-15.

[4] House Ex. Doc. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess. Serial vol. 1255, p. 45.

[5] Abbott, The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, pp. 99-105; Thomas D. Morris, “Equality, ‘Extraordinary Law,’ and The South Carolina Experience, 1865-1866,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 83 (1982), pp. 15-33.

[6] Abbott, The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, pp. 85-98; Senate Ex. Doc. 6, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Serial vol. 1276, p. 115.

Terms of Use

The article presented above is a verbatim transcription from National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 2005 Records of the Field Offices for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872. Micropublication M1910, Reel Guide, Introduction. Washington, D.C.: NARA.

As a work product of the NARA the text resides in the public domain and may be reproduced elsewhere without seeking permission from Lowcountry Africana. You may read the text in its original context here on Lowcountry Africana: Records of the Field Offices for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872. This article was transcribed by Lowcountry Africana Co-Director Alana Thevenet.

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