Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flashback, March 1865: The Federal Government’s First Failed Try at Helping Blacks

One day before committing himself to “binding up the nation’s wounds” in his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land. The new agency, called the Freedmen’s Bureau for short, was tasked not merely with helping 4 million former slaves transition to freedom, but also with stanching one of the greatest humanitarian crises to afflict America in its first century of existence: hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced during the four years of the Civil War.

Facing all of this, the Freedmen’s Bureau struggled with inadequate staffing and money, a limited time commitment, and the active hostility of white southerners and Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

Not surprisingly, it failed. But it originated in the noblest of impulses—an attempt to coordinate the efforts of more than 50 Freedmen's Aid Societies, a loose private coalition that sent clothes, money, schoolbooks, and teachers to prepare liberated slaves for freedom. And, though its utopian vision of racial equality was undermined in a wave of reactionary Jim Crow legislation that took place following the removal of Federal troops from the defeated South, it educated a cadre of African-Americans who would carry the reform banner into the 20th century.

One of the things that I regret most about my seven years of writing this blog is that I have devoted not nearly enough space to the subject of Reconstruction. This post is an initial attempt to redress that balance and discuss one of the most important and controversial--but little-understood--eras on American History..

In the end, two things convinced me that the time was right to deal with the era that Columbia University historian Eric Foner has called “America's Unfinished Revolution”: 1) my visit this past November to Beaufort, S.C., site of a number of individuals and events (including the Freedmen’s Bureau) crucial in this period; and 2) a C-Span special telecast last month, on the burning of Columbia, S.C.—a fire that threw into high relief the tensions arising among former Confederates, their now-emancipated slaves, and Federal forces deeply ambivalent about dealing with both.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had been proposed two years before the bill reached Lincoln’s desk on March 3, 1865, but it had languished for two years while Capitol Hill lawmakers tried to figure out if it should fall under the Treasury Department or the War Department. In the end, it fell to the latter—perhaps in no small part because Federal army commanders had already been dealing with, ad hoc and piecemeal, the heightened hopes but extraordinary challenges facing former slaves—“contraband” seized from their Confederate plantation owners—who had attached themselves to Union camps.

Plantation owners, even those who regarded themselves as lenient, were stunned to find that their former chattel had no wish to work for them again. A typical scene was recorded by Laura M. Towne, a Northern schoolteacher who had come south to teach freedmen on the South Islands off the coast of South Carolina:

“One of the best and most powerful of the old rebels returned awhile ago, and has been living in his old home on sufferance. His people all went to tell him ‘huddy,’ and he was convinced of their toleration. So he told them he should get back his land and wanted to know how many would be willing to work for him for wages. They said none. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘hadn't you as lief work for me as for these Yankees?’ ‘No, sir,’ they answered through their foreman; ‘even if you pay as well, sir, we had rather work for the Yankees who have been our friends.’”

The bureau was created in the expectation that it would cease to exist in a year. In much the same way that British civil servants a generation before had feared that offering relief to peasants starving in the Irish Potato Famine would only increase their dependence on government, even many most sympathetic to the freedmen worried about their long-term reliance on government.

But one major difference existed between Ireland and the former Confederate states: British bureaucrats stuck stubbornly to their beliefs, turning a potato blight into a full-scale famine, while in America lawmakers quickly saw that the law creating the Freedmen’s Bureau needed to be extended and strengthened.

As they sought to re-impose the control they had exerted over African-Americans before the war, the former Confederates found an unexpected ally in Johnson. During the war, as military governor of Tennessee, he had seemed as vengeful as any Northerner toward secessionists for fomenting the war. 

But after assuming the Presidency, he began to make common cause with his wartime enemies—including by vetoing the bill extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, which he saw as “unconstitutional," "unnecessary," and "extrajudicial."

Congress, now under Republican control, passed a modified version of the bill over Johnson’s veto. The contention over the bill opened a breach between President and Congress that would result in the President’s impeachment by the House and near-removal from office.

The bureau was fortunate in the man that Andrew Johnson appointed as a commissioner to the agency two months after its establishment: General O.O. Howard. A brave soldier who had fought at Gettysburg and with Sherman’s army, conscientious if unimaginative, he personified a quality that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described as “decent not to fail.’

W.E.B. DuBois took the measure of this capable if limited administrator in his groundbreaking history, Black Reconstruction, 1860-1880: “An honest and sincere man, 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.”

As the war ended and white Southerners confronted dire hunger, they were forced to petition the federal government they had once defied for help. Their suppressed sense of humiliation turned into outright resentment when they learned that blacks as well as whites would benefit from this food aid program.

Their defiance was epitomized by Theodore Stark, the mayor of Columbia, S.C., who employed an inventive if deceitful rationale for denying freedmen access to the city alms house. Only taxpayers were entitled to access to this, he claimed—and, for all practical purposes, that constituted whites.

Ex-slave William Beverly Nash, a former waiter at a local hotel who would go on to become a respected state senator, and the Freedmen’s Bureau pointed out some critical holes in this argument: first, that more than 100 freedmen were already paying taxes and their numbers would only swell with time; and second, that if the alms house were only limited to taxpayers, many whites in tax arrears—a considerable number—would face privation as well as blacks.

Among the powers vested in the bureau was its legal authority. In the early years after the war, local officials were loath to put whites on trial for crimes against blacks. The emancipated slaves looked to the Freedmen’s Bureau to help redress the balance.

Unfortunately, just as the Supreme Court has chipped away Lyndon Johnson’s landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, so an earlier incarnation of the high court helped to short-circuit hope for permanent racial equality in the South. Ex parte Milligan (1866) suggested that, with victory secure, the court would increasingly find against extraordinary measures such as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The image accompanying this post, an illustration for Harper's Weekly, captured the way in which administrators from the bureau often found themselves in a near-impossible position as honest brokers between blacks and whites in the defeated former Confederacy. For that reason, all-too-many whites shed no tears over the termination of the bureau in 1872.  

For blacks, it was another story. As the forces of racism and reaction gathered, they saw fewer institutions around that could help them. 

Two years later, another organization signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on the same day as the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Freedmen’s Bank, collapsed, undone by changes in its original charter, the impact of the Panic of 1873, mismanagement and fraud. Together, the loss of these two institutions hamstrung African-Americans’ attempt to gain their rightful place in postwar America.

Despite the overwhelming odds against it, the Freedmen’s Bureau did have some accomplishments, including:

* constructing and staffing more than 1,000 African American schools, and spearheading the rise of the public school system in the South;

* establishing a number of colleges and training schools for blacks, including Howard University (named for General Howard) and Hampton Institute, an institute of industrial education that sought to instill the ideal of economic self-help;

* building hospitals for the freed slaves and giving direct medical aid to more than 1 million of them; and

*distributing food and clothing to freed slaves and Southern white refugees.

In retrospect, with more than 80 years of experience with extensive government programs starting with the New Deal, it’s easy to itemize all the ways in which Reconstruction in general and the Freedmen’s Bureau in particular fell short. But that fails to account for the “unprecedented situation” they faced, as outlined forcefully by historian James M. McPherson in Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction:

“The emancipation of four million slaves and the reconstruction of a society torn apart by civil war were totally new experiences. No model existed to guide those who had to deal with them. 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. Congress and the army and the Freedmen’s Bureau were groping in the dark. They created the precedents. And, in doing so, they had to overcome the determined opposition of the president and the bitter resistance of many southern whites. No other society in history had liberated so many chattel slaves in so short a time at such a cost in lives and property. No other country had established a Freedmen's Bureau to help the transition from slavery to freedom. No other society had poured so much effort and money into the education of freed slaves. If the result fell short of entire success, the alternative might well have been total failure.”

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