Elliott: Remembering the Freedmen's Bureau in Chattanooga

A Freedmen's Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and freedmen in this 1868 drawing from Harper's Weekly. (Contributed photo/Library of Congress)

The final Confederate defeat on Missionary Ridge on Nov. 25, 1863, ushered in a new era for Chattanooga. What was once a strategic location important to the Confederate war effort became the same for that of the Union, and even more so, as a vast military complex developed. Blue-clad soldiers flooded into the town, and their presence helped create a new demographic reality. In 1860, the census recorded just over 1,600 free and enslaved blacks in Hamilton County. But the Union presence brought hundreds of refugee self-emancipated slaves, seeking protection for their newly freed status, food and shelter.

On March 3, 1865, the U.S. Congress passed a bill establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, more popularly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau was tasked with clothing and feeding the freed people, and to oversee "all subjects" relating to their condition in the South. The Bureau was authorized to divide abandoned and confiscated lands for rental and eventual purchase by the freedmen, to assist with their employment and labor contracts, and provide, where needed, a system of courts. Ultimately, the goal was to feed, educate and give jobs to as many freed blacks as possible.

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The Bureau's first commissioner was Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, whose troops participated in the Union attack on Missionary Ridge, and for whom the Howard School is named. Howard (the school) was established by the Rev. E.O. Tade, a black educator who started the school with funds from the American Missionary Association. Howard (the commissioner) named Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk as the commissioner for the area that included Tennessee. Fisk established his headquarters in Nashville in July 1865 and initially organized the state into three districts: Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga, logically the places where the most freedmen were concentrated.

Currently, very few records of the Bureau's operations in Chattanooga are available online, and newspaper coverage for the years the bureau operated in the Chattanooga area (1865-1869) is spotty. Nonetheless, there is sufficient information to conclude the Freedmen's Bureau effectively functioned in the area.

A newspaper report in late April 1866 reflected what was effectively a health inspection by the Bureau in an area of old buildings used by entrepreneurs to sell amenities to soldiers, known as "Sutler's Row." Anticipating an outbreak of cholera, the inspector found in one place a decomposing body, in another was "a woman dying with the small-pox, without attendance or morsel of food in the house." In another place, he found a blind woman, "with her daughter sick with small-pox and in a similar destitute condition." His report abounded "with similar instances of poverty, sickness and suffering." Hopefully, the Bureau was able to provide relief to those unfortunates.

An account in March 1867 reflected the suffering brought about by the flood that struck Chattanooga on March 7, 1867. The sub-commissioner here was authorized to draw from the Bureau's commissary any provisions that could be obtained for distribution among those made destitute by the flood. Also in 1867, the Bureau restored several properties in the county to their former owners, including a house and lot to industrialist Robert Cravens.

Protection for the freedmen was also an issue. On Nov. 6, 1866, Capt. M.H. Church, the acting superintendent of the Chattanooga sub-district, reported on an incident in McMinn County whereby two white men, Lewis and Farmer, beat a black farmer by the name of Swafford, intimidated his family and destroyed his property. Church further reported: "Lewis is a resident of Hamilton County and I forward[ed] a warrant to Capt. Gomer Sheriff of that county for his arrest. Lewis has threatened to kill me for having the warrant issued for his arrest, and kill the colored man for reporting him." He added: "[r]eports from McMinn County are to the effect that the freedmen cannot get anything like their rights under the laws."

As might be anticipated, native whites were not very supportive of the Bureau, particularly in secessionist areas, and officers of the Bureau were threatened and intimidated much as Lewis threatened Church. Notwithstanding Church's problems, as the area around Chattanooga was Unionist, and as there was a large influx of northern whites, the Bureau's employees here did not face nearly the difficulties they did elsewhere in Tennessee. Eventually, the operations of the Bureau in Tennessee ceased in 1869 as native whites regained control of the state government.

Attorney and historian Sam D. Elliott is a member of the law firm of Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.