The Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, just a few weeks before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The Bureau was initially chartered to operate for just one year, but continued until 1868 under the care of commissioner General Oliver O. Howard, who was aided by assistant commissioners in every Southern state and by hundreds of local agents.
As its full name suggests, the Bureau’s work combined care for millions of newly freed slaves and the administration of Southern lands seized by Union forces during the war. The Bureau was authorized to distribute much-needed food, fuel, clothing, and medical supplies to the freedmen; to regulate labor and contracts; to aid in the founding of schools and churches; to ensure justice in all legal cases involving freedmen; and, perhaps most promisingly for freedmen in 1865, to distribute abandoned and confiscated Confederate lands among former slaves for rental and eventual sale.
At the local level, the Bureau was usually bitterly opposed by white Southerners and firmly supported by African-Americans. Its work was hindered by local opposition, inadequate funding from the federal government, and the politics of Reconstruction on the national stage. The restoration of confiscated property to white Southerners under Andrew Johnson in 1866 required the displacement of tens of thousands of freedmen, undermined the work of the Bureau by eliminating its primary source of funding, and doomed the Bureau’s initial policy of promoting black landownership.
W. Storer How arrived in Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia, in July 1865 to open his headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau in the Shenandoah Valley. The office operated continuously until the closing of the Bureau in December 1868, tending to the needs of freedmen in Augusta and Highland Counties.
Initially, Staunton was the location of How’s headquarters for the Sixth District, which comprised most of the counties of the central and northern Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. How, though, found Staunton inconvenient and moved his headquarters to Winchester in October 1865. Nevertheless, an agent (or Assistant Superintendent--later named Assistant Sub Assistant Commissioner) always remained in Staunton, answering to his Superintendent in the District Headquarters.
Five men served as Bureau Agents for Augusta County. Frederick Tukey, a civilian, served twice from August 1865 to May 1866, and again from January to April 1867. Lt. George T. Cook then served as the local agent from June to December 1866. Thomas P. Jackson, a civilian originally from England, enjoyed the longest administration, serving from April 1867 to March 1868. Jackson was replaced by Colonel John W. Jordan, the former Sub Assistant Commissioner in Farmville, Virginia, who served only a few months in Staunton, from March to September 1868. The last man to serve as an agent in Staunton was Roswell Waldo, another civilian who served from September to December 1868
Little is known about the personal lives of these men who served in Augusta County, but through the records left in the Bureau’s files they all showed a dedication to improving the economic condition and social status of the newly freed African-American population of Augusta County Virginia, no matter how they came to Bureau service.
The Freedmen’s Bureau in Augusta County faced the same problems as other offices across the South. Its most pressing concerns included serving as an advocate for the African-American population of the county in matters of employment, contract settlement, legal issues, education, and poor relief. In matters of employment, agents strove to ensure that contracts between freedmen and their former masters were fair and executed properly. Lack of legal justice proved to a significant problem in post-bellum Augusta County for former slaves, and often the Staunton agents found themselves embroiled in the local court system on behalf of the freedmen. The Bureau also tried to serve as a mediator between the black and white communities of the area in an effort to diffuse tempers and tensions that often arose. Knowing that an education would be the most important part of ensuring the freedmen’s futures, Bureau agents spent much of their time setting up and supporting local schools. Finally, the local agents worked tirelessly to reunite freedmen’s families torn apart during slavery, locating family members who had been sold away years before.
Throughout its short life, the work of the Staunton office was hindered by its limited budget, the staggering administrative burden shouldered by its agents, and the antagonism of local whites. Both the local agents and the freedmen fought through resentment and hardship to try and build a life for African-Americans in an Augusta County without slavery.