In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bureau Of Refugees, Freedmen, And Abandoned Lands (BRFAL)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources

African American Studies Bureau Of Refugees, Freedmen, And Abandoned Lands (BRFAL)
Aaron Astor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0008


“By our Freedmen’s Bureau law,” Pennsylvania’s Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens declared in 1866, “the abandoned lands were ordered to be seized and allotted among the freedmen. This has been done” (p. 147 in Stevens 1998, cited under Primary Sources). Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), or Freedmen’s Bureau, in March 1865 for “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from the rebel states” (p. 115 in Cimbala 2005, cited under General Overviews). But as Stevens noted a year after the Bureau’s inception, President Andrew Johnson’s conservative program of Reconstruction was undermining the Bureau’s work, such that “it is now sought to allow the rebels whose lands we thus seized to come back and expel the men whom the Government allotted these freeholds.” (p. 147 in Stevens 1998). For the duration of its brief existence, the Freedmen’s Bureau served as the Federal government’s primary agency to manage the transition from slavery to freedom across the South. From 1865 until 1872, the Bureau helped freed people establish schools, build churches and benevolent organizations, negotiate wage labor contracts, settle disputes with former masters, sanctify marriages, and gain a semblance of justice in criminal courts, all with varying degrees of success. But its broad and vague mandate was continually hampered by inconsistent military support, presidential disapproval, mixed ideological motives, dubious local management, unrealistic expectations, and, of course, white supremacist violence. Literature on the inner workings of the Freedmen’s Bureau itself is not nearly as extensive as the scholarship related to events influenced by the Bureau. Nevertheless, the availability of easily accessible Bureau records has allowed more and more scholars to flesh out the administrative history of the Bureau and to interpret its complex history with greater nuance. The result has been a flowering of literature on the Bureau in recent decades, especially through studies focused on individual states. Following brief sections on general overviews of the Bureau and collections of primary resources, this article is divided into three thematic sections: the national Reconstruction context, the conditions of newly emancipated people for whom the Bureau was designed to serve, and the workings of the Bureau itself.

General Overviews

As with the study of Reconstruction, the first general works on the Freedmen’s Bureau appeared in the early 20th century from the Dunning School and from its sharpest critic, W. E. B. Du Bois. Columbia University’s Professor William A. Dunning supervised a large number of dissertations exploring Reconstruction in the various Southern states, with each concluding similarly that the empowerment of ex-slaves with equal rights and suffrage was a grave error. Nevertheless, Du Bois 1901 is the first scholarly treatment of the Bureau, produced in an Atlantic Monthly article published in 1901, in which Du Bois generally praised the Bureau for accomplishing so much in the face of virulent hostility. Pierce 1904 is a lengthier monograph, written just a few years after Du Bois 1901, that recognizes Du Bois’s contribution but nevertheless follows the general rubric laid out by William Dunning. Pierce’s monograph is somewhat useful, as it provided a fairly thorough thematic account of the Bureau from start to finish, even if it included Dunning-like references to the unfitness of recently freed slaves for their new status. It would take another half century before the author of Bentley 1954 offered the first thorough reassessment of the Bureau. Though not infused with Dunning-era racial assumptions, Bentley’s interpretation of the Bureau differs little from that of Pierce. Bentley 1954 argues that the Bureau tried to do too much and served mostly as a punitive and exploitative tool of Northern Republicans. Despite decades of revisionist and post-revisionist scholarship on Reconstruction that followed Bentley 1954, no historian took on a full reconsideration of the Bureau nationally until Paul Cimbala, first in an edited collection (Cimbala and Miller 1999) and then in a very usable introductory volume (Cimbala 2005) with documents.

  • Bentley, George. A History of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954.

    Though the first new, general work on the Bureau since Pierce, Bentley remains largely critical of the Bureau for incompetently pursuing Northern political and economic exploitation of the defeated South.

  • Cimbala, Paul A. The Freedmen’s Bureau: Reconstructing the American South after the Civil War. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 2005.

    A highly readable and modern introductory volume perfect for undergraduate students; includes twenty-nine primary documents and a useful selected bibliography.

  • Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller, eds. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

    This edited collection of essays offers scholars an excellent survey of the major themes relating to the Bureau’s work, including presidential politics, labor, land and migration, gender and freed people’s families, and various regional case studies.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” Atlantic Monthly 87.519 (March 1901): 354–365.

    This article offers the first scholarly examination of the Freedmen’s Bureau and generally defends the organization, especially for its planting of schools in the face of vigorous opposition.

  • Pierce, Paul Skeels. The Freedmen’s Bureau: A Chapter in the History of Reconstruction. The State University of Iowa, Studies in Sociology, Economics, Politics and History III, No. 1. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1904.

    A Dunning-era scholarly monograph on the Bureau that provides a baseline interpretation for later revisionists to challenge.

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