The image on left is a famous Thomas Nast drawing illustrating Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmens Bureau in 1866.
It shows him kicking the “Bureau” and little black people falling out. The drawing may be a funny caricature, but what black people were experiencing was no laughing matter.
Violence: The Order of the Day
Often overlooked by researchers is the absolute terror of the Reconstruction period.
Although they were no longer enslaved, most former slaves still lived in the South. They lived amidst a very angry populace that lost the War.
The North eventually added the destruction of slavery as a war objective, much to the disgust of many white Southerners (and some Northerners too).
Most whites (North and South) did not consider black people worthy of anything close to equal treatment. Even minor displays of independence by blacks could and did invite deadly responses.
It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded during this period and that former Confederate soldiers were often guilty of much of the violence.
Freedmens Bureau Records
The Freedmens Bureau was created by Congress to assist the four million former slaves with work, food, schools, pensions and health care. In some places, they adjudicated crimes and disputes, since much of the local structures were in chaos.
Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes committed in their districts, often termed “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs. These records usually captured crimes against everyone, black and white.
However, a quick read show that the newly freed black population was the victim of the vast majority of crimes.
I still remember the first time I read one of these documents, shortly after I started doing genealogy. The records show freedmen and their families working under labor contracts, then beaten or otherwise forced off the farm without any pay when the crops arrived.
Cases show black men and women beaten, whipped or raped. Many of the perpetrators were “parties unknown,” which became a familiar refrain used during the era of lynchings.
Even filing a complaint with the Bureau could expose one to more retribution.
Union soldiers, teachers, preachers, landowners and blacks who voted became targets. Most Southern whites were intent upon keeping blacks in their socially inferior and economically dependent status.
Reading through these outrages, one sees the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under. Some areas were worse than others.
But when I think about the joy that freedom bought, I also think about the violence and terror that was to come.
Many of the murdered victims weren’t named. The records only show a “colored man” or “colored woman.”
I wonder how many of them were our ancestors?
Freedmens Bureau.com has some transcriptions of Outrages, shown below.
District of Alabama, 1866
March – Bradley killed freedwoman with an axe. Montgomery.
April 27 – Freedman shot by Confed. Soldier wantonly [killed] near Livingston, Sumter Co.
May 30 – Mulatto hung by grapevine near roadside between Tuscaloosa & Greensboro.
May 29 – Richard Dick’s wife beaten with club by her employer. Richard remonstrated – in the night was taken from his house and whipped nearly to death with a buggy trace by son of the employer & two others.
June 16 – Mr. Alexander, colored preacher, brutally beaten & forced to leave his house at Auburn, Ala.
July – Band of armed men came to house of Eliz. Adams, threatened to kill her & her sister if they did not leave the county, abused & beat them. (illegible) Franklin & (illegible) started to report outrage, not heard from afterward.
Sept. 3 – Murderous assault upon returned black Union soldier in Blount Co.
Dec. 17 – Enoch Hicks & party burned school house in Greenville in Sumner – assaulted Union soldier &c. Judge Bragg & son mercilessly beat wife & daughter of James, freedman & drew pistol on James. Kell Forrest beat wife of colored man George.
July 16 – Mrs. Prus beat Eve & her children. Henry Calloway beat freedwoman Nancy with buck, wounding her severely in the head. J. Howard & nephew beat & shot at Frank. Jno. Black attempted to kill Jim Sneethen with an axe. Jack McLeonard whipped his freedwoman mercilessly.
Lee Davidson tied freedwoman up by wrists & beat her severely. Frank Pinkston cutting freedman Alfred with knife. Louisa’s husband murdered by unknown white man.
July 18 – One Yerby set fire to colored [church] Near Tuscaloosa, threatened to kill black man who saw him do it.
June 1866 – Freedman shot while at his usual work by his employer for threatening to report his abusive conduct to the authorities of the Bureau – Mobile.
December 1866 – Freedman killed by parties unknown, brought to hospital in dying condition, shot through brain.
Murfressboro, Tennessee 1866
July 28th 1865 – Ben (col’d) Plaintiff vs. Beverly Randolph. Ben says ” on the 29th of June Randolph beat my wife with his fists then caught her by the chin threw back her head pulled out his knife swore he would cut her throat—
His brother-in-law stopped him, he then went to his house got his pistol and swore he would kill some dam nigger—-fired of his pistol and went to Mr. Harris’s (the woman was large with child at the time).”
Aug. 1st. Egbert (col’d) vs. J. Irvin. Egbert says “Irvin returned from the Reb. Army & found I had a crop growing (I staid on the place and took care of his family house and stock ever since the war begun).
When I began to gather the crop (I was to have the 1/3) he drove me and my family off and would not give us a bit of anything to eat and said he did not care a dam for the Bureau.”
Aug. 2nd. Sam Neal (col’d) vs. Andrew B. Payne. Sam says “Payne hired myself and family 10 altogether to work for the season, he has made several base attempts on my daughter, has ordered me off without pay or share of the crop & because I did not go he got his pistol & threatened to shoot me—-he got Miles Ferguson to beat me & the both together beat me badly.”
Aug. 4th. Anthony (col’d) vs. Bill Murray. Anthony says “Mr. Murray did on the 1st severely beat my wife and daughter with a stick because we were singing a union song.”
These are a sad but informative set of records that paint a picture of what our ancestors endured.
A note to white researchers: don’t neglect these records, as thousands of whites are documented in various capacities. You stand a far chance of finding some mention of one of your ancestors if they lived in the South.
Most of these records are not online, but they can be located by referring to the Freedmens Bureau pamphlets on the National Archives website. (Update, 2018: Some series of Freedmens Bureau records are now digitized.)
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.