Andrew Johnson, 14 April 1866, from Harper’s Weekly [Wikipedia]

The image above 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 and brutality of the Reconstruction period for former slaves. It was the former slaves themselves who forced emancipation to finally become a Union war objective, when they ran away from their masters, provided critical intelligence on the ground to Union officials, and ultimately became Union soldiers.

Here’s the problem: although they were no longer enslaved, most former slaves still lived in the South. They lived amid a very angry populace that lost the War.

Moreover, most whites (North and South) did not consider black people worthy of anything close to equal treatment. Their fervor to vote and their determination to participate as full citizens was met with extra-legal violence by Southerners and former Confederates. Even minor displays of independence by blacks could and did invite deadly responses.

Keep in mind that large-scale retribution by former slaves that drove white enslavers almost insane with fear never came. The formerly enslaved went about trying to reclaim loved ones, educate their children, worship, buy, and work the land. For lifetimes of labor, most were given absolutely nothing at emancipation. Forty acres and a mule never came.

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. In 1871 and 1872, Congress decided to investigate the violence and those documents are also now online. Hundreds testified to the rampant murder, theft, rape and destruction.

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.

Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes committed in their districts, often termed “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs. Though some whites, especially Union whites were victims of crime, it is primarily the newly freed black population who suffered the worst.

I still remember the first time I read one of these documents, shortly after I started my research. 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. My ancestor Perry did just that in Maryland.

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. If they could not practice slavery as it was, many whites insisted on the continuance of White Supremacy ideals.

Reading through these outrages, one sees the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under.

So when I think about the joy that emancipation brought,  I also think about the violence and terror that was to come.

Here are some of the Outrages that can be found in Freedmens Bureau records:

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.”

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?

A note to white researchers: don’t neglect these records, as thousands of whites are documented in various capacities. You stand a fair 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: Many Freedmens Bureau records are now digitized.)

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