The Nitty-Gritty Operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Athens, Georgia
During Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau was a busy place at its Athens headquarters for overseeing a 13-county area in Northeast Georgia. The Bureau was supposed to see to it that whites and African-Americans got along in a fairly equitable manner—not an easy task soon after the Civil War.
There are records which spell out the complaints made by members of each race as they searched for some reasonable co-existence after the Civil War ended. One of the best ways to get a ringside seat on the action in a South generally still under occupation by Yankee troops is to look at the day-to-day reports, letters, contracts, etc. fashioned by the Freedmen’s Bureau. These files give in vivid detail the adjustments necessary for life to go on in the South.
The Bureau field office records for the Athens Sub-District contain literally hundreds of names and events concerning African-Americans newly freed from slavery. They also frequently furnish details of the lives and relationships of white and black Athenians.
These records can be extremely important to family historians and genealogists. The records of the Bureau are available through Ancestry.com, or as microfilm from the National Archives in Washington. The Athens Regional Library has the microfilms and also free access to Ancestry.com. A link to Letters Sent by the Athens Sub-District office during 1867-68 is as follows: A subscription to Ancestry. com is needed, unless you have free use at your library.
See Part 1 of this article for other links to the online records.
The field records are not usually indexed very helpfully. The online search capabilities of these digitized records do not allow much key-word searching. The records are handwritten. But information from the field office records on daily operations of the Bureau is not available elsewhere. Browsing may turn up good stuff!
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Looking over hundreds of letters and reports to and from the Athens area Freedmen’s Bureau office, I was hit by the dedication Brevet Major John J. Knox and his agents showed to protect ex-slaves and help them to live as free citizens. Major Knox was the assistant commissioner for the Athens Sub-District during 1867 and part of 1868. Records exist for other periods of the Freedmen’s Bureau operations in Athens, beginning in 1865 and continuing on into the 1870’s. But Major Knox and his Athens area agent Howell C. Flournoy make a good study, since they were plain-spoken in their correspondence and efficient. Knox was a Union veteran, as were many other Freedmen’s Bureau leaders. Flournoy was a Southerner who was completely loyal to the Union. Prior to the war, he had been a town commissioner of Athens. After the war he was an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau and later a deputy postmaster of Athens.
The Freedmen’s Bureau’s office in Athens was in the old Franklin House on Broad Street—a historic building still standing and restored in downtown Athens. It was a bustling, leading hotel in Athens during the 19th Century. The Bureau’s office took up only a small portion of the brick building. A constant stream of blacks and whites trooped into the office to get the Bureau to side with them or to mediate a solution to complaints, labor contracts, education matters, and many other points of disagreement. Typically the Bureau referred many complaints to Clarke County civil authorities—the Athens intendant (Mayor), black leaders and justices of the peace. The white power structure frequently didn’t do what the Bureau wanted, but relations were generally respectful, although strained.
When push came to shove, the Bureau could call on the small garrison of Union troops in Athens to nudge recalcitrant planters and to discourage violence in the area.
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So how do you begin accessing Freedmen’s Bureau field office records to see what your Athens area relatives, either white or black, were doing during Reconstruction?
The files of letters sent and received by the Bureau’s Athens Sub-District Headquarters are roughly divided chronologically. There are, however, overlaps in time periods in the digitized files, and there are several volumes of records, just on the correspondence of the Bureau in Athens. Letters Sent originate from the Bureau, and Letters Received may come from within the Bureau or from ex-slaves or white citizens. But letters received and letters sent are in different ledgers, so if you wish to see the complete correspondence you’ll have to look in both files. This correspondence filing system mirrors the traditional military record system used for generations by American military forces. It can be frustrating.
The names of the senders and receivers are on each piece of correspondence, and frequently there may be a brief summary of the subject. In some cases, registers or roughly alphabetical indices of the volumes are available, which will tell you the page number in the correspondence ledgers. But the indices don’t give you the Image Number of the digitized microfilm frame of the correspondence, which is also a key to the digitized files. Fortunately, as you browse the letters you can see the page numbers as well as the image numbers—both at the top of each page digitized.
Some of the letters paint vivid pictures of conflicts between the races or between the federal government and local citizens.
Jackson County, immediately north of Clarke County and Athens was known for its strong resistance to federal actions during Reconstruction. This was of great concern to Agent Flournoy, who warned Bvt. Brig. Gen. Sibley, assistant commissioner in Georgia for the Bureau. If you’d like to see the digitized letter from Flournoy, see the following:
The handwriting is somewhat difficult to read: Here is the text of the long letter written on Oct. 15, 1868:
I have the honor to call your attention to very great excitement in Jackson Co. Ga. Reports have come to me that both white and colored citizens are arming themselves. The whites say the colored citizens are arming themselves to murder all the whites at a certain time not particularly specified. This, as they pretend, has caused them to arm themselves for self-defence. On the other hand, the colored citizens contend that they are desirous of living in peace with the white people and attend to their daily work, that large bodies of armed white citizens [are] roving through the district of Newtown and Harmony Grove [now Commerce] in Jackson County, halting and hailing every colored man they see and compelling them with threats of violence and drawn weapons upon them to make them sign certain written articles of agreement which they term as an association of peace between them. The articles are nothing more or less than that they, the colored people, solemnly pledge themselves with an oath that they will vote the Democratic ticket in November, 1868! If they sign these, they are let alone with warning. If the colored people violate their pledge, death is their doom, and, if they refuse to sign, they are driven out of the county, their lives threatened and many of them have been driven from their homes. Such are the reports that reach me.
“I am daily looking for an outbreak in that section and nothing can prevent it, unless U. S. troops are sent here. The excitement appears to be intense in these two districts. I am afraid it will extend through the whole of Jackson County and the adjoining counties and this place [Athens]. No white Radicals or colored men will be allowed to vote at the next election for President unless he votes the Democratic ticket. If the government don’t give us protection we will be at the mercy of a lawless band. I have lived here for nearly fifty years. I was here during the rebellion. I was more than forty times reported for arrest for my Union sentiments. But I have never seen such times in my life as a Union man’s life was so insecure as at this time.”
Flournoy signed the letter as agent in Athens.
While I haven’t yet found General Sibley’s reply, the Nov. 2, 1868, issue of the Southern Banner in Athens may refute the idea of violence in Athens during the election, although nothing is mentioned about Jackson County:
“As we go to press voting is progressing quietly at the Town Hall. So far as we know, it is pretty much a question of race here—all the whites, except about a half dozen, voting for Seymour & Blair, and the great mass of the negroes for Grant and Colfax.”
Georgia statewide gave Seymour and Blair 64 per cent and Grant and Colfax nearly 35 per cent.
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Turning to a complaint filed by an African American in Athens, Mrs. Sarah Nesbit, alleged to the Bureau that Yankee troops posted at Athens stole her shoes. Agent Flournoy wrote their commanding officer, Major R. E. Naly[?] and complained:
I have the honor to call your attention to an outrage that was committed by some four or five of your men. Last night Mrs. Sarah Nesbit (cold [colored]) of Athens. She states that they taken from her one pair of shoes, and two shawls and threatened to blow her brains out.
Yours Very Respectfully
Howell C. Flournoy
Agt. Bureau. . .”
Showing a Freedmen’s Bureau attempt to “keep the peace” with civil authorities in Athens was this letter sent Oct. 12, 1868, by Agent Flournoy to Hon. J. D. Pittard, the Athens intendant (mayor). Flournoy wrote:
I have the honor to inform you on behalf of the (col’d [colored]) people that on Saturday next they are going to have a Republican mass meeting on the lot of Floyd Hill [a leading African-American leader and founder of Hill First Baptist Church] in rear of the Institute [Knox School or Institute]. A part of their program is to form a procession and with national flags and banners march through some of the principal Streets. I can assure you, Sir, that so far as the (col’d) people are concerned they intend no harm to any citizen of this town and have appointed some of their best men to keep order among themselves. Should you have any objections to the above, you will please state it in writing and oblige
Your Most Obt.
Howell C. Flournoy
Agent Bureau. . . .”
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Finally, here is an impassioned letter sent by Columbus, Georgia, freedmen to Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman of the Union Army on Nov. 5, 1865. Although not from the Athens Sub-District, it shows the fears of ex-slaves in Georgia:
Nov. 5th, 1865
Maj. Gen’l Steadman [Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman]
We the undersigned Freedmen, having learned that the Federal Soldiers are soon to be withdrawn from Columbus, feel constrained most respectfully and request in the name of the Lord, to implore you not to leave us unprotected by Federal troops. We firmly believe that the Almighty has ordained our freedom; but at the same time, we wish to inform you that if the Federal Soldiers are withdrawn from us, we will be left in a most gloomy and helpless condition. A number of Freedmen have already been killed in this section of country; and from expressions uttered by prominent men in this community in civil life, we have every reason to fear that others will share a similar fate. We think our commander here might do better than he does. And we do know that there are men here who would protect us if they had the power.
We therefore most humbly and earnestly pray you General, not to leave us to the tender mercy of our enemies—unprotected.
S. W. Love
And 120 others (colored)
[From Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869, “Unbound Miscellaneous Papers,” National Archives Publication M798, Roll 36].
I hope these few examples will give readers an idea of the valuable accounts in Freedmen’s Bureau records, which could be of great help for both African Americans and white citizens tracing family history or genealogy.