On May 20, 1865, Howard appointed Brigadier General Rufus Saxton to oversee the bureau's efforts in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Saxton had spent the better part of the war on the Sea Islands of South Carolina as part of a Union occupation force that supervised abandoned plantations and their African American residents. As the bureau's assistant commissioner, he largely continued his wartime efforts, encouraging freedpeople to resettle on abandoned or confiscated properties and touting land acquisition as an essential step on the path to self-sufficiency.
Though not insensitive to freedpeople's aspirations, Tillson was unmoved by the spirit of egalitarianism that characterized his predecessor's administration. Above all else he prized stability, particularly with regard to labor and occasionally at the expense of the freedpeople's interests. On Tillson's order, healthy adult males were denied rations to promote self-sufficiency, and bureau officials were instructed to vigorously enforce the state's vagrancy laws, which allowed authorities to pair indigent or idle workers with employers in need of labor.
Tillson meanwhile solicited support from white Georgians, most of whom were initially hostile to the bureau's efforts. His proposal to enlist judicious white community leaders as bureau agents received support from delegates attending the state's constitutional convention in October 1865, thereby conferring a measure of legitimacy on bureau policies while also swelling the agency's understaffed ranks.
If contract reform was Tillson's most constructive contribution to the bureau's experiment in Georgia, land restoration was arguably his most memorable. In January 1865, as the Civil War neared its end, Union general William T. Sherman issued his famous Field Order No. 15, which granted possessory title of abandoned lands along the southern coastline to emancipated slaves. Freedmen worked the land on Sherman's reservation until the fall of 1865, when U.S. president Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman's order and instructed bureau officials to arrange "mutually satisfactory" agreements between planters and freedpeople holding competing claims to coastal properties.
When Tillson retired from the agency in January 1867, Howard appointed Colonel Caleb C. Sibley to assume control of the bureau's efforts in Georgia. To improve efficiency and accountability, Sibley reorganized the Georgia agency into ten subdistricts shortly after taking office, and appointed salaried army officers to oversee the agency's work in each locale.
Sibley's reorganization imposed a degree of order on the unwieldy agency, but corruption persisted among rank-and-file agents despite his reforms. Under Tillson's administration civilian agents had collected fees from planters when sanctioning labor contracts with freedmen, an arrangement that relieved the financially distressed agency of onerous labor costs but also fostered corruption among agents whose sympathies lay with planters rather than the bureau. At the behest of officials in Washington, D.C., Sibley abolished the fee system and relieved the vast majority of civilian agents of their duties.
Apart from those structural reforms, Sibley largely maintained the course set by his predecessors until October 1868, when he retired from the agency. His successor, Colonel John R. Lewis, inherited a leaner organization with fewer agents and dwindling resources but nonetheless carried on the bureau's work energetically, particularly in the field of education.
In the first year alone, this arrangement provided for the establishment of more than sixty schools, and by 1868 teachers at bureau-sponsored schools had taught some 30,000 freedpeople to read. Even as other projects were winding down, Lewis reinforced the bureau's commitment to education, stepping up oversight and assistance and encouraging the organization of local education societies capable of administering freedmen schools long after the bureau's closure.
When Lewis left the agency in April 1870 to become the state's first school superintendent, the bureau's work was all but over in Georgia. The bureau's initial charter lasted for only one year, but Congress extended its authorization in 1866; it remained a federal agency until 1872, though operations in Georgia and other states ceased by 1870.
Along with insufficient resources and white intransigence, the agency's indefinite future at times stymied its effectiveness and limited its scope of reform. Those limitations notwithstanding, the bureau was an import source of support for Georgia's freedpeople, providing educational opportunity, furnishing rations for the sick and indigent, ensuring a measure of justice, and perhaps most important, bringing some stability for Georgians of both races as they adjusted to the realities of postbellum life.
Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
Paul A. Cimbala, Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999).
William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968; reprint, New York: Norton, 1970).
Denise E. Wright, "Civil War and Reconstruction Welfare Programs for Georgia’s White Poor: The State, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Northern Charity, 1863-1868" (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 2005).
Edward A. Hatfield, New Georgia Encyclopedia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.