A stranger amongst strangers: An analysis of the Freedmen's Bureau subassistant commissioners in Texas, 1865--1868
iii TABLE OF CONTENTS Page MAPS.............................................................................................................................................iv
1. “A STRANGER AMONGST STRANGERS”: WHO WERE THE SUBASSISTANT COMMISSIONERS?..............................................................10
2. “THE POST OF GREATEST PERIL”: THE E. M. GREGORY ERA, SEPTEMBER 1865-APRIL 1866..........................................................................48
3. CONSERVATIVE PHOENIX: THE J. B. KIDDOO ERA, MAY 1866- SUMMER 1866.....................................................................................................97
4. BUREAU EXPANSION, BUREAU COURTS, AND THE BLACK CODE: THE J. B. KIDDOO ERA, SUMMER 1866-NOVMEBER 1866...............................146
5. THE BUREAU’S HIGHWATER MARK: THE J. B. KIDDOO ERA, NOVMEBER 1866-JANUARY 1867.................................................................203
6. “THEY MUST VOTE WITH THE PARTY THAT SHED THEIR BLOOD . . . IN GIVING THEM LIBERTY”: BUREAU AGENTS, POLITICS, AND THE BUREAU’S NEW ORDER: THE CHARLES GRIFFIN ERA, JANUARY 1867- SUMMER 1867...................................................................................................262
7. VIOLENCE, FRUSTRATION, AND YELLOW FEVER: THE CHARLES GRIFFIN ERA, SUMMER 1867.........................................................................313
8. GENERAL ORDERS NO. 40 AND THE FREEDMEN’S BUREAU’S END: THE J. J. REYNOLDS ERA, SEPTEMBER 1867-DECEMBER 1868.............360
Texas Counties in 1860
1. Hardeman 56. Navarro 111. Colorado 2. Wilbarger 57. Anderson 112. Austin 3. Wichita 58. Cherokee 113. Harris 4. Clay 59. Nacogdoches 114. Liberty 5. Montague 60. Concho 115. Jefferson 6. Cooke 61. McCulloch 116. Orange 7. Grayson 62. San Saba 117. Val Verde 8. Fannin 63. Lampasas 118. Kinney 9. Lamar 64. Hamilton 119. Uvalde 10. Red River 65. Coryell 120. Medina 11. Bowie 66. McLennan 121. Atascosa 12. Knox 67. Limestone 122. Karnes 13. Baylor 68. Freestone 123. DeWitt 14. Archer 69. Menard 124. Lavaca 15. Haskell 70. Mason 125. Wharton 16. Throckmorton 71. Llano 126. Fort Bend 17. Young 72. Burnet 127. Galveston 18. Jack 73. Williamson 128. Chambers 19. Wise 74. Bell 129. Maverick 20. Denton 75. Falls 130. Zavala 21. Collin 76. Robertson 131. Frio 22. Hunt 77. Leon 132. Dimmit 23. Hopkins 78. Houston 133. La Salle 24. Titus 79. Angelina 134. McMullen 25. Davis 80. San Augustine 135. Live Oak 26. Jones 81. Sabine 136. Bee 27. Shackelford 82. Kimball 137. Goliad 28. Stephens 83. Gillespie 138. Victoria 29. Palo Pinto 84. Blanco 139. Jackson 30. Parker 85. Hays 140. Matagorda 31. Tarrant 86. Travis 141. Brazoria 32. Dallas 87. Milam 142. Webb 33. Kaufman 88. Burleson 143. Encinal 34. Van Zandt 89. Brazos 144. Duval 35. Wood 90. Madison 145. Nueces 36. Upshur 91. Walker 146. San Patricio 37. Marion 92. Trinity 147. Refugio 38. Harrison 93. Tyler 148. Calhoun 39. Taylor 94. Jasper 149. Zapata 40. Callahan 95. Newton 150. Starr 41. Eastland 96. Edwards 151. Hidalgo 42. Erath 97. Kerr 152. Cameron 43. Johnson 98. Comal 44. Ellis 99. Caldwell 45. Henderson 100. Bastrop 46. Smith 101. Washington 47. Rusk 102. Grimes 48. Panola 103. Montgomery 49.Shelby 104. Polk 50. Runnels 105. Hardin 51. Coleman 106. Bandera 52. Brown 107. Bexar 53. Comanche 108. Guadalupe 54. Bosque 109. Gonzales 55. Hill 110. Fayette
J. B. Kiddoo’s Subdistricts, September 1866
1. Marshall, Harrison Co. 18. Leona, Leon Co. 2. Austin, Travis Co. 19. Sulphur, Springs Wilson Co. 3. Galveston, Galveston Co. 20. Wharton, Wharton Co. 4. Crockett, Houston Co. 21. Marlin, Falls Co. 5. Houston, Harris Co. 22. Meridian, Bosque Co. 6. Sherman, Grayson Co. 23. Livingston, Polk Co. 7. Bastrop, Bastrop Co. 24. Liberty, Liberty Co. 8. Millican, Brazos Co. 9. Victoria, Victoria Co. 10. San Antonio, Bexar Co. 11. Courtney, Grimes Co. 12. Brenham, Wash. Co. 13. Matagorda, Matagorda Co. 14. Houston, Harris Co.
15. Richmond, Fort Bend Co.
16. Seguin, Guadalupe Co. 17. Marshall, Harrison Co. vii
Charles Griffin’s Subdistricts, July 1867
J. J. Reynolds’ Subdistricts, November 1867* (*According to Bureau Records, Subdistrict 51 did not exist in November, 1867.)
Few eras in American history have had a more profound and lasting imprint on this country as the decade or so that followed the Civil War. Reconstruction, as this period is called, was an attempt to wipe away the vestiges of slavery and to reintegrate the former Confederate states into their normal places in the Union. The North’s version of republicanism and democracy shaped its efforts to rebuild the region. Although this effort targeted white southerners in some ways, it primarily focused on the nearly four million freed slaves. The freedmen, as they came to be called, were to carry on the principles of the Republican party and unionism. By infusing the ideals of “free men, free soil, and free labor” into the former Confederate states, northern Republicans hoped the South would be shaped in the image of the victorious Union states. With this infusion, it was hoped, the foundation for a southern Republican party could be laid and all remnants of the old order erased. Central to this restructuring was an organization created with much hope and optimism on March 3, 1865. The first federal social-welfare organization in the United States, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which functioned under the auspices of the War Department, operated in all the former Confederate states and former slave states and had what most historians see as a multipurpose task: easing the transition of the freedmen from servitude to freedom; implanting republican ideals of democracy and free labor in the ashes of the “peculiar institution,” and preventing any further attempts to break up the Union. Legislators wrestled with exactly how to arrange and empower the Freedmen’s Bureau (or the Bureau, which contemporaries commonly called it). Congressmen James Brooks of New York and William D. Kelley from Pennsylvania worried that this organization might create a permanent dependent class and new system of vassalage. A leading Republican senator, Henry 1
Wilson of Massachusetts, was concerned the agency might disrupt the balance between the federal government and the states. Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania saw the Freedmen’s Bureau as a tool to influence and control black votes, while Senator Lazarus Whitehead Powell of Kentucky likened Bureau agents to “overseers” and “negro drivers,” and noted how this agency might “reenslave” and control the freedpeople. Still others, including William Henry Wadsworth of Kentucky, doubted the constitutionality of such an organization, and Samuel Clarke Pomeroy, the Radical Republican senator of Kansas, worried about the Bureau’s permanency. Midwestern politicians, like James W. Grimes and Lyman Trumbull from Iowa and Illinois respectively, hesitated to support the organization because of their suspicion toward northeastern interests. With little consensus and much uncertainty on how to address the needs of the former slaves, Congress was essentially experimenting. Ohio Congressman Robert C. Schenk, contemplating the debate on the organization to oversee the four million former slaves, admitted this “is experimental legislation.” He continued: it is better, from the very nature of the case, as it is a matter which relates to an emergency, to a necessity, to an accident, as it were of the times and the condition of the war in which we are, that the system should build itself up and grow by accretion and development according to the necessities as they arise or are found to exist . . . If you attempt to provide in advance for every particular thing, if you have complicated machinery in this bill, or simple machinery even, running so much into detail, you run the risk of not accomplishing the object you seek, but, on the contrary, the further risk of defeating the very object which you are engaged in by raising endless questions as to the meaning or application of this particular provision of this law. 1
In short, the Bureau “must be left to the discretion of those engaged in [the footwork], as all such things always are.” 2
1 Congressional Globe, 38 th Congress, 2 nd Session (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1866), 692, 689- 691, 959-960, 1308; Ira C. Colby, “The Freedmen’s Bureau: From Social Welfare to Segregation,” Phylon 46 (3 rd
Qtr., 1985): 220-221; George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen’s Bureau (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1959), 35-38. 2 Ibid.
Without rigid guidelines and with less than clear “objectives” and “mandates,” Bureau officials had to fill in the void. Much of their policy, consequently, resembled the Freedmen’s Bureau bill itself – vague and, at times, confusing. Orders, letters, and instructions, which often times were open to interpretation, filtered down the chain of command to the men in the field. In his Autobiography the commissioner of the Bureau, O. O. Howard, wrote that he resisted “one minute system of rules” for the entire South. Instead, he wanted subordinates within each state to improvise and adapt as problems and challenges developed. Superiors created a very decentralized and fluid system, and in the end, how orders would be interpreted, implemented, and enforced generally fell to the Bureau officers in the field, the men in daily contact with local southern civilians. On the one hand, this allowed for quick, decisive moves as well as ingenuity in solving problems. But it also helped create much indecision, confusion, and unnecessary problems for field agents. Within their respective areas, these officials truly were “The Bureau.” “The local agents, whose function it was to apply the general policy of the bureau to concrete cases,” wrote historian William A. Dunning, “displayed, of course, the greatest diversity of spirit and ability. It was from these lower officials that the southern whites formed their general estimate of the character and value of the institution, while the people of the North were guided more by the just and practical policy outlined in the orders from headquarters.” Efficacy and success (or the lack thereof), therefore, rested, to a large extent, with the individual Bureau agents (officially known as subassistant commissioners). 3
3 O. O. Howard, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, 2 vols. (New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1908), 2:363; William A. Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1907), 33; William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1968), 84; Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), xvi; Victoria Olds, “The Freedmen’s Bureau as a Social Agency” (Ph. D. diss., Columbia University, 1966), 82-83, 219; Louis Henry Bronson, “The Freedmen’s Bureau: A Public Policy Analysis” (D.S.W. diss., University of Southern California, 1970), 282-283.
In its brief seven-year existence, the Freedmen’s Bureau became the epicenter of the debate about Reconstruction. Cognizant of the Bureau’s responsibilities and what that meant politically, economically, and, possibly, socially, Republicans and Democrats fiercely debated its necessity. Just below the surface of many Reconstruction frays rested the Bureau issue. Throughout the years, students have highlighted the Bureau’s features, from its general history to relations with planters, from educational efforts to land policy and legal matters. One facet of this organization, however, has received only passing notice by the academic community until recently: the subassistant commissioners (SACs), the agents at the county level. In the last three decades or so, scholars have begun to focus on the men historian Barry Crouch termed the “hearts of Reconstruction.” A number of these writers have examined only the experiences and attitudes of individual subassistant commissioners and have often neglected other significant questions. 4
This dissertation will examine the agents in Texas and show their experiences in the Lone Star State. This work will further focus on questions concerning the agents at a more personal level, adding substance to the usual hollow outline. Were they southern or northern born? Were these men poor, middle-class, or wealthy? Were they married or single? Did the Bureau prefer young, middle-age, or older men as agents? Did these men have military experience or were they civilians? What occupations did the Bureau draw from? The answers to these questions will help us understand the type of man Bureau officials believed qualified – or not qualified – to oversee the freedmen’s transition to freedom. 5
4 Barry A. Crouch, “Guardian of the Freedpeople: Texas Freedmen Bureau Agents and the Black Community,” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 3 (Fall 1992): 185. 5 For studies specifically focusing on the subassistant commissioner, some specifically, others peripherally, see Ted Tunnell, ed., Carpetbagger from Vermont: The Autobiography of Marshall Harvey Twitchell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Ted Tunnell, Edge of the Sword: The Ordeal of Carpetbagger Marshall H. Twitchell in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univesity Press, 2001); William A.
During their time in office, men of the Freedmen’s Bureau elicited varied reactions from the public. This trend continued beyond Reconstruction. Where contemporaries left off, the academic community picked up, and the discussion of the subassistant commissioner’s role and effect, at times, became as heated as any political debate during Reconstruction. The first scholarly treatments concerning the Freedmen’s Bureau began appearing at the turn of the 20 th century. These primarily focused on the Bureau as a whole and dealt with Bureau agents only peripherally. In these works agents were seen as avaricious “carpetbaggers,” ignorant in the ways of a docile black populace. Like vultures, they descended upon a prostrate South in its most vulnerable time and antagonized the freedmen against their former masters, all the while benefitting from this tumult politically. 6
Campbell, ed., “A Freedmen’s Bureau Diary by George Wagner,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 48 (June 1964): 196-214; William A. Campbell, ed., “A Freedmen’s Bureau Diary by George Wagner,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 48 (September 1964): 333-359; Ruth Currie-McDaniel, Carpetbagger of Conscience: A Biography of John Emory Bryant (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Cecil Harper, Jr., “Freedmen’s Bureau Agents in Texas: A Profile” (unpublished manuscript, Texas State Historical Association, 1987); Russell Duncan, Tunis Campbell, Freedom’s Shore: Tunis Campbell and the Georgia Freedmen (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986); James M. Smallwood, “Charles E. Culver, A Reconstruction Agent in Texas: The Work of Local Freedmen’s Bureau Agents and the Black Community,” Civil War History 27 (December 1981): 350-361; James M. Smallwood, “G. T. Ruby: Galveston’s Black Carpetbagger in Reconstruction Texas,” Houston Review 5 (Winter 1983): 24-33; Thomas H. Smith, “Conflict and Corruption: The Dallas Establishment vs. the Freedmen’s Bureau Agent,” Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas 1 (Fall 1989): 24-30; William L. Richter, “The Revolver Rules the Day!”: Colonel DeWitt C. Brown and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Paris, Texas, 1867-1868,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (January 1990): 303-332; William L. Richter, “‘This Blood-Thirsty Hole’: The Freedmen’s Bureau Agency at Clarksville, Texas, 1867-1868,” Civil War History 38 (March 1992): 51-77; William L. Richter, “‘A Dear Little Job’: Second Lieutenant Hiram F. Willis, Freedmen’s Bureau Agent in Southwestern Arkansas, 1866-1868,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 50 (Summer 1991): 158-200; John Edmund Stealey, “Reports of Freedmen’s Bureau Operations in West Virginia: Agents in The Eastern Panhandle,” West Virginia History 42 (Fall-Winter 1981): 94-129; Charles L. Price, “John C. Barnett, Freedmen’s Bureau Agent in North Carolina,” Of Tar Heel Towns, Shipbuilders, Reconstructionists, and Alliancemen: Papers in North Carolina History 5 (Autumn 1981): 51-74; Barry A. Crouch, The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992); Barry A. Crouch, “View From Within: Letters of Gregory Barrett, Freedmen’s Bureau Agent,” Chronicles of Smith County, Texas 12 (Winter 1973): 13-26; Paul A. Cimbala, “On the Front Line of Freedom: Freedmen’s Bureau Officers and Agents in Reconstruction Georgia, 1865-1866,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76 (Fall 1992): 577-611; Paul A. Cimbala, “Making Good Yankees: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Education in Reconstruction Georgia, 1865-1868,” Atlanta Historical Journal 29 (Fall 1985): 5-18; and J. Thomas May, “The Freedmen’s Bureau at the Local Level: A Study of a Louisiana Agent,” Louisiana History 9 (Winter 1968): 5-19. 6 For a complete overview of the historiography of Reconstruction, see Eric Foner, “Reconstruction Revisited,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 82-100; Also see John David Smith, “‘The Work It Did Not Do Because It Could Not’: Georgia and the ‘New’ Freedmen’s Bureau Historiography,” Georgia Historical
Around mid-century, however, a new paradigm arose to challenge this negative version of the Bureau agent. For these revisionists, the Bureau agent was a product of his time and was subject to the whole gamut of human characteristics, from honesty and compassion to greed and nefariousness. Although the results left something to be desired, these students saw the agents’ efforts, for the most part, as kind-hearted and quite progressive for the time. 7 As Revisionists started wiping away all remnants of the traditional argument, challengers appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. To the “post-Revisionists,” the Bureau agent represented not a vehicle of liberation, but an instrument for oppression. Influenced by the civil rights movements and Great Society programs of the 1950s and 1960s and an increasingly pro-active national government, these critics indicted the agents for their lack of commitment to the needs of the freedmen, racial and gender predispositions, and desire for order and profitability at all costs. Harshest criticism,
Quarterly 82 (Summer 1998): 331-349. For early critical descriptions of the Bureau, see John Rose Ficklen, History of Reconstruction in Louisiana Through 1868 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1910); John S. Reynolds, Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865-1877 (Columbia: The State Company Publishers, 1905); John Conger McGraw, “The Texas Constitution of 1866” (Master’s Thesis, North Texas State University, 1959); James W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York: MacMillan Company, 1901); Clifton Lloyd Ganus, Jr., “The Freedmen’s Bureau in Mississippi” (Master’s Thesis, Tulane University, 1953); William B. Hesseltine, A History of the South, 1607-1936 (New York: Prentice Hall Inc., 1936); Honorine Anne Sherman, “The Freedmen’s Bureau in Louisiana” (Master’s Thesis, Tulane University, 1936); C. Mildred Thompson, Reconstruction in Georgia: Economic, Social, Political, 1865-1872 (Savannah: The Beehive Press, 1972); Laura Josephine Webster, The Operation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina (New York: Russell and Russell, 1970); C. Mildred Thompson, “The Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia in 1865-1866: An Instrument of Reconstruction,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 5 (March 1921): 40-49; and E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1947). 7 Some of the best revisionist works on Bureau agents are Edward Longacre, “Brave, Radical, Wild: The Contentious Career of Brigadier General Edward A. Wild,” Civil War Times Illustrated 19 (June 1980): 8-19; Ross Nathaniel Dudley, “Texas Reconstruction: The Role of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870, Smith County, (Tyler) Texas” (Master’s Thesis, Texas A&I University, 1986); Crouch, “Guardian of the Freedpeople,” 185-201; Richard G. Lowe, “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Local White Leaders in Virginia,” Journal of Southern History 64 (August 1998): 455-472; John A. Carpenter, The Sword and the Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1964); and William L. Richter, “Who Was the Real Head of the Texas Freedmen’s Bureau?: The Role of Brevet Colonel William H. Sinclair as Acting Assistant Inspector General,” Military History of the Southwest 20 (Fall 1990): 121-156.
however, was reserved for the agents’ willingness to “bank the fires of freedom” through their alliance with white southern planters. 8
A close examination of Bureau agents in Texas reveals that the typical subassistant commissioner – with exceptions of course – was, for the most part, a genuinely honest man who wanted to better the lives and situations of his charges. Although influenced by widespread attitudes toward labor, dependency, and male-female relations dominant in mid-nineteenth century America, for his time he engaged in work seen as quite philanthropic and out of the ordinary. The country asked these men to do the unprecedented, and, despite falling short of some peoples’ expectations as well as some of their own, they achieved more than many thought possible. The agents in Texas sacrificed to help the freedmen. Some paid financially, some paid socially, and others paid with their lives. Whatever their motives and whatever the great obstacles placed before them, these men’s attempts and sacrifices, in the words of Bureau historian Paul A. Cimbala, deserve “better than a summary dismissal . . . as being no more than the effort of a racist society attempting to define a subordinate kind of freedom for the ex- slaves.” 9
The foundation of any work on the Freedmen’s Bureau is the agency’s voluminous records. This work draws heavily from both the headquarters records (Assistant Commissioner Records), the Subassistant Commissioner Records, and the Superintendent of Education Records for the state of Texas. Since much of the material was written for and by the Bureau men, it
8 For this “post-revisionist” interpretation, see Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1979); Louis Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973); McFeely, Yankee Stepfather; Michael Perman, Emancipation and Reconstruction, 1862-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); George D. Humphrey, “The Failure of the Mississippi Freedmen’s Bureau in Black Labor Relations, 1865-1867,” Journal of Mississippi History 45 (February, 1983): 23-37; and Robert F. Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979). 9 Paul A. Cimbala, Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), xv.
proved all the more important for this work. Overall, this study takes an agent-by-agent, subdistrict-by-subdistrict approach. Thus, a broad and nuanced account of the subassistant commissioners and their attitudes is possible. Almost one hundred reels of Bureau records were scrutinized for opinions and observations – as well as silences – of the SACs concerning their duties, farming, white southerners, politics, violence, freedmen, etc. Since a large part of this dissertation seeks to discover who these agents were, census material, pension records, county court records, and newspapers proved essential. Military records, such as the records of the Fifth Military District, the papers of the Office of Civil Affairs, the correspondence of Governors Andrew Jackson Hamilton, James W. Throckmorton, and Elisha M. Pease, the personal papers and manuscripts of major Reconstruction figures, along with other sources, helped flesh out the picture. This study weaves all these sources around the main subject, the Bureau man. By focusing on the “men on the ground” at the most personal level with the freedpeople, rather than the commanding officials at headquarters, this work seeks to obtain a greater understanding of the men chosen to implement policies, the difficulties in implementing such policies, and, ultimately, the success or failure of those policies. The findings of this approach have significant implications for the Freedmen’s Bureau as a whole and Reconstruction in general. A study of Bureau men in Texas has exceptional potential for scholars and interested readers. The Lone Star State comprises all the major agricultural and geographical features of the southern states except the more mountainous regions of Appalachia. Almost nine in ten (88.2 percent) of all Texas residents were southern born in 1870. The state mirrored the South in other ways as well. Many postwar immigrants moved to Texas from other southern states. Texans displayed as much variation in political opinion as the Confederacy as a whole.
Unionism carried the day in 1860 in several counties along the Red River and in the region near Austin in the south-central part of the state. Finally, of course, white Texans had enthusiastically joined the Confederacy in 1861 and played prominent roles in the Confederate armies of all three theaters of combat. 10
The basic outline of this study follows the tenures of the assistant commissioners. In late 1865, as the Bureau began its work in Texas, its leaders and agents knew nothing of what lay ahead or the consequences of their policies. They knew nothing but the task at hand: helping the former slaves make the transition from bondage to freedom. The story concludes with the Freedmen’s Bureau’s demise at the end of 1868 (although the Freedmen’s Bureau operated until 1872, its field operations, education notwithstanding, ceased at the end of 1868).
10 United States Bureau of the Census, The Statistics of the Population of the United States . . . Compiled from the Original Returns of the Ninth Census, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1:328-334 (hereafter cited Ninth Census, and specific volume title).
“A STRANGER AMONGST STRANGERS”: WHO WERE THE SUBASSISTANT COMMISSIONERS?
Few subjects in Reconstruction history have more differing interpretations than the Freedmen’s Bureau agent. Influenced by the time and events around them, contemporaries and later writers alike have labeled Bureau men “avaricious harpies,” “honest and genuine vehicles of change,” and “racist paternalists.” By doing so, they fail to identify him as anything more than some faceless, abstract entity to be either loathed or applauded. One would not know that a Texas Bureau man went on to lead United States military forces in Cuba in 1898 against the Spanish; that military officials initially had another former agent in Texas scheduled to lead the expedition into Montana where it met its fate at the Little Big Horn; or that many others went on to productive – if less spectacular – lives as doctors, lawyers, politicians, soldiers, and productive citizens. In some earlier studies, the human aspect was often lost. Was the “avaricious harpy” a wealthy man or from more common stock? Was he a Yankee or did he hail from Dixie? Did that “honest and genuine vehicles of change” have a family or was he single? What occupations were those “racist paternalists” drawn from? Was it from the civilian sector or the military? By focusing on these matters and several others, interested readers can address the very important question of who were the subassistant commissioners of the Freedmen’s Bureau. As stated earlier, answers to these questions will suggest the type of man high Bureau officials believed most qualified – or not qualified – to oversee the freedmen’s journey from bondage to freedom. The Bureau operated within all eleven former Confederate states as well as Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. A commissioner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the entire organization. In order to delegate operations and 10
authority, the commissioner appointed subordinates known as assistant commissioners. These men supervised the agency’s actions within a particular state (sometimes several states fell under the jurisdiction of one assistant commissioner). Over time, each state was sectioned into subdistricts, generally comprising one to several counties. A subordinate agent, known as a subassistant commissioner (SAC), headed each subdistrict and served as the agency’s man in most direct contact with the freedmen and local whites. At one time or another, the SACs were called superintendents, subcommissioners, assistant commissioners, or assistant superintendents. Their responsibilities extended to “all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen,” and they were “empowered to exercise and perform within their respective subdistricts all the powers . . . of the Assistant Commissioner.” In effect, subassistant commissioners held full power within their subdistricts. 1
The subassistant commissioner had to be familiar with army regulations, lead troops on occasion, engage in diplomacy, marriage counseling, and education, and serve as judge and jury. He also had to do this with little or no clerical help. As one Bastrop agent stated about his official business for one month, it entailed “[e]xamining, explaining and approving [labor] contracts, settlement of last year[’]s contracts, visiting plantations, addressing the freedmen, hearing complaints, giving advice etc.” In short, the job required the agent to be “an official jack-of-all-trades.” 2
1 Circular letter from [O. O. Howard], April 1867, Box 401-860, Texas Adjutant General’s Office, Texas Adjutant Generals Department, Archives and Information Division, Texas State Archives and Commission, Austin, Texas (hereafter cited TxAGO). 2 Byron Porter, Bastrop, to J. T. Kirkman, A.A.A.G., April 2, 1867, Reports of Operations and Conditions, December 1866-May 1867, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Texas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869, Record Group 105, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (Microfilm M821, reel 20), hereafter cited as AC; John William De Forest, A Union Officer in the Reconstruction, eds. James H. Croushore and David M. Potter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 41; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 143.