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O. O. Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau

Written by: Barton A. Myers, Washington and Lee University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the effects of government policy during Reconstruction on society from 1865 to 1877

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative after the Cartoon Analysis: The “Rail Splitter” at Work Repairing the Union, 1865 Primary Source and with the Comparing Views of the Freedmen’s Bureau, 1866 Primary Source, the Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast on Reconstruction, 1869-1874 Primary Source, The Ku Klux Klan and Violence at the Polls Narrative, and the To What Extent Did American Principles Become a Reality for African Americans during Reconstruction? Point-Counterpoint to provide students with a full picture of what Reconstruction was like.

As the Civil War came to a close, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln considered various plans for Reconstruction, both to restore the Union and to ensure equal rights and provide for formerly enslaved African Americans. The Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress in January 1865 and was ratified by the requisite number of states by the end of the year, declaring that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude. . . shall exist within the United States.” Although emancipation had been achieved, the difficult struggles for political, civil, and economic equality loomed large. The ability of the federal government to produce favorable outcomes for African Americans, and its role in doing so, evolved gradually and often with frustratingly mixed results. O. O. Howard, leader of the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau, understood the challenges of securing personal liberty and equal rights for African Americans.

Born in Maine on November 8, 1830, Oliver Otis Howard graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850 and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1854. Before the Civil War, he was a professor of mathematics at West Point and a staunch abolitionist. He served in the Seminole War in 1857 and, already a religious man, became a convert to evangelical Christianity. He became known throughout his life as “the Christian General,” a phrase sometimes used with disdain because of his many failures as a commanding officer.

Howard was personally brave. He lost an arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in June 1862 and eventually received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic service there. His command decisions during some difficult situations during the war, however, left him open to intense criticism.

Photograph of General Oliver Otis Howard.

This image of General Oliver Otis Howard was taken after he lost his arm in combat.

Howard led the hard-luck Eleventh Corps of the Union Army during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. This group of predominantly German immigrants was virtually destroyed by “Stonewall” Jackson’s famed flank attack. On the extreme left of the Union army at the time and not backing up to any natural obstacle, Howard’s force was easily surprised by Jackson’s Confederates. Howard was sometimes called “Uh-oh Howard” after this successful attack on his corps.

Two months later, Howard’s Eleventh Corps was again criticized, this time for the collapse of the defense north of Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. Howard was also questioned for his subsequent decision to select Cemetery Hill, a key point south of town, for the Union defense, and for his quarrel with General Winfield Hancock over who was in charge of that defense. After the Union victory, Howard’s corps was transferred to the western theater, where he participated in the Battle of Missionary Ridge. In July 1864, he became commander of the Army of the Tennessee. He later led the right wing of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s invasion of Georgia, fighting in the Atlanta Campaign as well as in the March to the Sea and in the Carolinas.

After the Civil War, Howard became the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands and served from May 1865 to July 1874. Congress originally established this Freedmen’s Bureau to address the problem of former slaves and free blacks in the former Confederate and slaveholding states, with a broad mission of ensuring equality for African Americans in work, labor, landownership, contract negotiation, and education. In July 1865, Howard issued Circular No. 13 directing the bureau to distribute Confederate lands under its control to freed people. President Andrew Johnson stymied Howard’s diligent and well-meaning attempts to promote African American education and economic advancement, however. He quickly reversed Howard’s order and ensured that the former landowners recovered their property. Many of the Southern schools taught freed people to accept their new freedom on the terms white society dictated. Thus, in many places, the Bureau’s original radical aim of securing land for the freed people was subverted by the work of their own schools during Howard’s tenure.

Three white men sit facing each other in the foreground. One man leans back with his hat in his lap, relaxed. A crowd of African American men stand outside the circle, looking on.

This 1866 drawing from Harper’s Weekly shows a Freedman’s Bureau office in Memphis, Tennessee.

Howard’s commission initially had far-reaching powers to address the plight of the freed people and focused on delivering rations and medical care and setting up judicial courts, banks, and schooling. His Bureau worked to mobilize African American men politically when, in 1867, they received the right to vote. A coalition of freed people, white northern Republicans who came south and were derisively called “carpetbaggers,” and white southern “scalawags” (seen as southerners who betrayed the white supremacy of their region) supported Reconstruction and the activities and agenda of the Bureau. These same agents and activities were opposed and subverted by white supremacist and paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of White Camelia, and the White Leagues across the southeastern states.

Both civil and military authorities were concentrated under Howard’s direction. But even though he was backed by Radical Republicans in Congress, Howard faced stiff resistance from President Johnson and white southerners opposed to the Bureau’s policies. His administration of the bureau helped with literacy and political organization. But Howard and his advisors focused primarily on eliminating de jure discrimination, without recognizing that white southern Democrats, who had returned their states to conservative rule, were continuing to discriminate against blacks, even without many of the black codes that forced freed people into peonage.

The Freedmen’s Bureau ultimately had localized successes and left a legacy of educational reform among southern blacks, especially literacy, but it did not succeed in the most critical of its aims, which was to bring about widespread land redistribution and the promotion of equal rights. The movement in 1867 to give more responsibility to the generals governing the five military Reconstruction districts in the South largely usurped the central authority of Howard’s Bureau, which never succeeding in placing an agent in every county of the former Confederacy. Although individual Bureau agents did work to address the myriad problems freed people faced – including mass famine, poor access to due process through the local courts, and the struggle to conduct fair labor contract negotiations with planters – the real authority to implement Reconstruction was left in the hands of the U.S. Army as the guardian of personal liberty when it occupied the South. The lightly staffed military occupation was overwhelmed, and military leaders became the final arbiters in a complex web of social problems. By the early 1870s, white planters and southern elites had reestablished firm control over the local courts, southern state governments, and labor conditions. In 1872, Congress withdrew its support for the Bureau, and Republicans were abandoning their support for Reconstruction in favor of other national concerns.

The illustration shows a school room full of African American children. The two white women teachers listen to the children read.

Classrooms for black children, depicted in this 1866 drawing, were sponsored by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Howard was a lifelong champion of education, especially for African Americans, and in 1867, he helped establish Howard University in Washington, DC. The school was founded as a nonsectarian theological school, originally with a goal of training black ministers. Howard served as its president from 1869 to 1873. Between 1881 and 1882, he became the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Howard had relatively little to show for his work at the Freedmen’s Bureau beyond the educational and social organization that the Reconstruction period fostered for African Americans. Contentious national politics over Reconstruction, white resistance to equal rights for blacks, and a weak commitment to the Bureau by the federal government resulted in a legacy of mostly failure. It took more than a century of struggle for some of the Bureau’s aims for equality for African Americans to be realized.

Review Questions

1. Union General Oliver Otis Howard was given the nickname “Uh-oh Howard” after his troops were easily defeated in a surprise attack by “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of

  1. Gettysburg
  2. Shiloh
  3. Chancellorsville
  4. Missionary Ridge

2. While serving as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Oliver Otis Howard was hindered by whom in his attempts to promote African-American education and economic advancement?

  1. Gettysburg
  2. Shiloh
  3. Chancellorsville
  4. Missionary Ridge

3. White southerners who were supporters of the Union governments established in the South were known as

  1. carpetbaggers
  2. scalawags
  3. Copperheads
  4. Yankees

4. A carpetbagger most likely worked with a member of which group?

  1. Ku Klux Klan
  2. Knights of the White Camellia
  3. Republicans
  4. White League

5. The Freedmen’s Bureau was most successful at which stated goal?

  1. Advancing African American literacy
  2. Redistributing land to African Americans
  3. Creating a strong Radical Republican political machine
  4. Organizing labor unions in the South

6. Other than his military service during the Civil War, Oliver Otis Howard is noteworthy for his support of

  1. the spread of Christianity
  2. granting the franchise to African Americans
  3. equal access to education
  4. the permanent reform of southern politics

Free Response Questions

  1. Describe the main accomplishments of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
  2. Despite the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the leadership of Oliver Otis Howard, much of the work of Reconstruction was given to the military. Explain the impact of the military on Reconstruction in the South.

AP Practice Questions

The left figure, Pardon, shows Columbia sitting in a judges chair, surrounded by kneeling men. They clasp their hands and lay down their swords and flags. The caption reads Shall I trust these men . . . The right figure, Franchise, shows Columbia standing next to an African American man who has lost a leg. She gestures to him, and the caption finishes, . . . And not this man?

“Pardon and Franchise” by Thomas Nast, 1865. (Left) Former Confederates begging for pardons and the right to vote. (Right) An African American soldier who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The character of Columbia asks, “Shall I trust these men. . .and not this man?

Refer to the image provided.

1. The artist who produced this political cartoon is most clearly arguing for

  1. citizenship for immigrants
  2. citizenship for former Confederate leaders
  3. the right of African American men to vote
  4. equal rights but segregation of the races

2. The creation of the cartoon was most likely a response to

  1. the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution
  2. the passage of the first Black Codes in the post-Civil War South
  3. the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau
  4. the development of public schools in the South

3. Which of the following would have been most likely to support the cause promoted in this cartoon?

  1. Robert Gould Shaw
  2. Jefferson Davis
  3. P. G. T. Beauregard
  4. Mary Chesnut

Primary Sources

“Letters from the South, relating to the condition of freedmen, addressed to Major General O. O. Howard, Commissioner, Bureau R., F., and A. L.” Library of Congress. 1870.

Suggested Resources

Carpenter, John A. Sword and the Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

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