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 has little black people falling out. The drawing may be a funny caricature, but what black people were experiencing was no laughing matter.
One of the things sometimes overlooked is the absolute terror of the Reconstruction period for our ancestors. Although they were no longer enslaved, the vast majority of former slaves were still in the South and living amidst a very angry populace that had lost the War. White Southerners lost a war that eventually added the destruction of slavery as a war objective, much to their disgust. 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 Confederate soldiers were often guilty of much of the violence.
Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes that were committed in their districts, what they termed murders or “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs or were written as summaries in letters of the reporting officers. Although these records usually captured crimes against everyone, black and white, a quick read show the vast majority of crimes were committed against the newly freed black population. The Freedmens Bureau in many places replaced the law enforcement of the local area and had the power to arrest and charge individuals, and to hold trials.
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 being beaten or otherwise forced off the farm without any pay when the crops came in. There were also lots of cases of black men and women being randomly beaten, whipped or raped. Many of the perpetrators in the documents are listed as “parties unknown,” which would become a familiar refrain used during the era of lynchings.
These poor people just went from terror to terror. Even filing a charge with the Bureau could expose one to more retribution, so I’m sure many more crimes probably happened than were reported to the Bureau. Union soldiers, teachers, preachers, landowners and those attempting to vote were especially targeted. Most Southern whites were intent upon keeping blacks in their socially inferior and economically dependent status.
When you read these outrages, what comes across is the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under. Surely, some areas were worse than others. But when I think about the joy that freedom bought, I also remember it must have been stunted by the violence and terror that was to come. So many of the people weren’t even named, just “colored man” or “colored woman.” I wonder how many are our ancestors that seem to “disappear” after the 1870 census? I just don’t know how they made it through.
Freedmens Bureau.com has some transcriptions of Outrages. Here are some selections from Alabama in the year 1866:
District of Alabama, 1866
March – Bradley killed freedwoman with an axe. Montgomery.
April 3 – Woman taken by three men out of her house in middle of night to swamp & badly whipped – beaten on head with pistol &c.
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. 14 – Black man picking fodder in a field shot dead — & another who had difficulty with a white man abducted & supposed to have been murdered near Tuscaloosa.
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.
August – Gang of ruffians in Clarke Co. set fire to house & fired on family as they ran from it – one killed, two wounded.
February 1866 – Freedwoman beaten with club by her employer near Selma, head cut in most shocking manner.
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.
Here are a few reported from Murfreesboro, TN in 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).” Defendant admitted the charge—-was fined 50 Dolls. Which was paid to plaintiff.
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.” Got 3 mounted men sent for & brought Irvin who was very penitent under bayonet force and secured by bond. The crop to plaintiff. Since, all paid.
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.” Payne came by a summons & on proof of guilt offered to let them go back gather the crop & have their share & I fined him for beating and ordering Ferguson to beat him 25 Dolls. Paid to Sam—-
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.” Send an order to Murray to appear at this office but was taken with the appoplexy & it is said died from mortal fear of the being put in the Bureau.
These are a sad but informative set of records that paint a picture of what our ancestors endured. Of course, 99.9% of these records are not online, but they can be located by referring to the Freedmens Bureau pamphlets on the National Archives website.