Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995 Page: 76
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Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal
The assistance that the Freedmen's Bureau provided the freedmen would be
regarded as a "temporary necessity." Its supervision would be "provisional only, and
advisory in its character." This organization would "secure to them the means of making
their own way" and give them, "to use the familiar phrase, 'a fair chance.'" The law that
created the agency was "extremely vague." Congress conferred upon the bureau
"control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen in the rebel States." According
to Donald G. Nieman, the bureau was not explicitly authorized to educate blacks, provide
medical care, supervise their labor, or ensure legal protection, but it performed all these
functions and many more.17
As part of the War Department, the bureau had an organizational structure
similar to the army. From Washington, D. C., a national commissioner, Oliver Otis
Howard, directed the overall affairs of the agency. Each former Confederate state where
the bureau was instituted was administered by an assistant commissioner. Although
each assistant commissioner established a different administrative structure within his
respective state jurisdiction, the majority of the bureau's work was performed by
individuals assigned to the major cities and towns in the state where they served. Known
as agents, sub-assistant commissioners, or "Bureau men," they came into intimate
contact with the white and black communities across the South.18
Though Kirby Smith had surrendered in late May 1865, the Freedmen's
Bureau did not exist in the Lone Star State until September. Commissioner Howard had
assigned Edgar M. Gregory to head the Texas organization because he was "so fearless
of opposition or danger" and the state "seemed at the time of his appointment to be the
post of greatest peril." Gregory did not arrive in Galveston until September 5. He imme-
diately began to implement the bureau's organization at the local level by appointing sub-
assistant commissioners. He also sought harmonious relations with Provisional Gover-
nor Hamilton, negated some of the more severe army strictures aimed at the freedmen,
and attempted to protect blacks against the many outrages perpetrated upon them.19
Even before Gregory arrived in Texas, he received applications from
Colorado County residents for positions in the Freedmen's Bureau. In early August,
William D. Jones presented his request to be named superintendent of freedmen or any
other position in the new agency Gregory was empowered to confer on a civilian. Jones
17 OR, series III, vol. 4, pp. 381-382; Statutes at Large, vol. XIII, pp. 507-509; Donald G. Nieman,
To Set the Law in Motion: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Legal Rights of Blacks, 1865-1868 (Millwood,
N. Y.: KTO Press, 1979), pp. xiv-xv.
18 On Howard and the Freedmen's Bureau in general see George R. Bentley, A History of the
Freedmen's Bureau (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955); John A. Carpenter, Sword and
Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964); William S. McFeely,
Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); John
and LaWanda Cox, "General O. O. Howard and the 'Misrepresented Bureau,'" Journal of Southern History,
vol. 19 (November 1953) pp. 427-456; Victoria Marcus Olds, "The Freedmen's Bureau as a Social Agency"
(D. S. W. diss., Columbia University, 1966); Louis Henry Bronson, "The Freedmen's Bureau: A Public Policy
Analysis" (D. S. W. diss., University of Southern California, 1970).
19 [Oliver Otis Howard], The Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard (2 vols.; New York: Baker and
Taylor, 1908), vol. II, pp. 217-218. Two quite opposite perceptions of the Texas bureau are William L. Richter,
Overreached On All Sides: The Freedmen 's Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868 (College Station:
Texas A & M University Press, 1991) and Barry A. Crouch, The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1992).
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Nesbitt Memorial Library. Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995, periodical, May 1995; Columbus, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth151394/m1/8/?q=nesbitt%20memorial%20library%20journal: accessed June 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nesbitt Memorial Library.