Title Reviewed:
A History of the Freedmen's Bureau

Author Reviewed:
George R. Bentley

Willis D. Boyd


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 52, Issue 2, pp 197-198

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of the Freedmen's Bureau. By George R. Bentley. ( Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania, 1955, pp. x, 298. Appendix, bibliography, and index. $5.00.)

The basic problem that permeated the Reconstruction Era—how to absorb the Negro into the American body politic—is today more pertinent than at any time since 1877 when a North, weary of radicalism and sympathetic to the plight of the white southerner, agreed to drop the whole unpleasant mess in exchange for acquiescence in the election of Hayes. Since then, the Negro has made monumental gains in all parts of the nation, many of them through his own efforts, and many through federal government intervention on his behalf. But the Supreme Court rulings on school segregation rekindled deep prejudices and created situations that are alarming thinking people everywhere.

George R. Bentley's calm, straightforward account of the Freedman's Bureau is especially welcome, therefore, as it illuminates the working of an organization that was of central importance in the initial period of adjustment after emancipation. This is by no means a simple task, for the bureau became immeshed in much of the sordid politics of the day and served as a tool of the radical carpetbag interests who hoped thereby to insure Republican political supremacy, and even to revolutionize the social and economic bases of society in the South. It was idealistic, humanitarian, eminently practical, and also partisan, irresponsible, and corrupt at the same time.

The author begins with the issue of "contraband" as it arose in the early part of the war and traces the increasing need for centralized government control as abolitionist sentiment and military necessity combined to destroy the South's peculiar institution. Organized under General Oliver O. Howard in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands had an almost impossible task from the start: limited funds, local officials too few in number and often inexperienced and unsympathetic, a hostile white population, a hostile President, to say nothing of serious doubts as to the constitutionality of the entire undertaking. Yet it was supposed to protect Negro rights, cultivate friendly relations between the races, encourage good work habits, assist in organizing schools, give rations and medicines, operate a bank, and supervise settlement of its wards on confiscated lands.

A History of the Freedmen's Bureau is a valuable addition to the literature of the Civil War period and the only thorough study of this aspect since Paul S. Peirce in 1904. It is regrettable that Bentley did not provide a clear picture of General Howard himself, who remains a shadowy figure throughout. The same could be said for other members of the bureau, no one of whom is given anything beyond the briefest possible appraisal. Otherwise, the documentation is excellent, and the delineation of the narrative flows smoothly despite the intricate nature of the various issues involved. Even those most familiar with the main problem will find new insights; and for the general reader, this will prove a book both timely and rewarding.

The volume was prepared and published under the Direction of the American Historical Association from the income of the Albert J. Beveridge Memorial Fund.

Valparaiso University Willis D. Boyd

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.