Brevet Major John J. Knox, head of the Athens Georgia Sub-District of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867-68
Part 1 of 2

    In 1867, two years after Emancipation, slavery wasn’t dead in Athens, Georgia. It was only “lying doggo”—existing in a little-diluted manner causing untold hardships for “freed persons” and also for former slave owners.

    The South—and the nation—had a lot of unfinished business. Bearing much of the brunt of this unprecedented effort at change was the formidably named federal agency,  the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. It was commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. With its many offices throughout the South, some border states and Washington, D. C., the Bureau was ceaselessly dealing with whites and blacks. It might be considered the “oil” which tried to make the wheels turn to set up new relations between whites and former slaves. For much of its existence, the Bureau could call upon  limited Union armed force against recalcitrant citizens in the occupied South. Yankee civilian workers and military men  were trying to drag Southern whites by the scruff of their necks to accept ideas that African Americans were not slaves any more.

    The Civil War was lost, which Southerners could reluctantly admit. But the social fabric of life hadn’t necessarily meant equality and justice for all. The idea that blacks could marry, choose their own employment, try to get an education and even vote was exceedingly difficult to understand by the many white citizens of Athens, Georgia, and elsewhere.

    The field office reports of the Freedmen’s Bureau give us a ringside seat at this imperfect search for getting along between the races throughout much of the South, and specifically in the Athens Sub-District of the Bureau. The Bureau heard complaints of many former slaves, and from many whites—both sides felt they were mistreated. What assurance did blacks have their former master's would actually pay them to work? Were the ex-slaves willing to work for former masters? How could former slave owners make a buck to keep their farms or plantations alive?How would they get their crops taken care of?  What kind of labor contracts could make all this possible? How did the Bureau deal with instances of physical beatings, kidnappings of black children, and even murder of the freedmen?

    In Athens, a doughty brevet major, John J. Knox, was named the Athens  Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Sub-Commissioner in 1867, and we have a thorough record of much of his duties with whites and blacks in 1867 and 1868. Freedmen’s Bureau operations started in Athens in 1865, but Major Knox was one of the most active sub-commissioners to hold the job.  Major Knox, from Michigan, was respectful to the community, but he did not suffer fools gladly and rose to protect destitute blacks. Also, Knox’s period is one of the better-documented in existing records.

    A lot of the details of this Civil War veteran’s work become plain to us in his field office reports and letters. A bantam of a man, not weighing 100 pounds, he was nearly killed in battle near Richmond, Virginia, and was seriously disabled. He was the the Union reserve officer's corps. He was naturally a likable guy, and even un-reconstructed Athens area residents had to admire his bravery in battle.  

    The records of the Bureau can reward the user with a detailed day-by-day account of what the Freedmen’s Bureau was trying to do in the Athens Sub-District. You can get to these records via the partnership of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and Ancestry.com, the tremendously useful genealogical site on the Internet. Of  great importance to genealogists and African-American history fans and genealogists are the thousands of names of ex-slaves and where they lived in the Athens Sub-District, as well as how they lived their lives during Reconstruction. These details are reflected in Freedmen's Bureau letters sent and received and in many reports.  Thousands of these sources are available on-line.

    The Athens Sub-District covered the following counties: Clarke, Jackson, Gwinnett, Walker, Hart, Franklin, Banks, Habersham, Rabun, Hall, Oglethorpe, Elbert,  and Madison. Other Bureau sub-district headquarters in Georgia were at Savannah, Albany, Brunswick, Thomasville, Macon, Columbus, Augusta, Atlanta and Rome. Each sub-district employed agents at smaller towns or villages as well.

    But your hunt may not be easy. There’s no decent index to these records. You have to hunt information like prospectors hunted nuggets of gold—expecting to get very little and then hitting a bonanza from time to time.  Many African-Americans, however, have successfully traced their ancestors in the years immediately following the Civil War and Emancipation. They are often able to find their labor contracts with planters, their complaints about violence and unfair treatment, their depth of destitution, and even their hospitalizations and illnesses.

    The field reports of Georgia and other Southern states give us tons of information including labor contracts, education efforts, court cases,  and violence against freedmen.  They also frequently portray actions of whites and their complaints against African Americans or the Freedmen's Bureau. Of course, we are seeing through the lens of a camera held by the Yankee bureau.  Major Knox, for example, never hid his belief that the Bureau should help destitute blacks and try to make their lives better.  But he proceeded with quite a bit of caution, courtesy and fairness. Several times, however, he faced death threats, although no actual assassination attempt was made.

    The overall Freedmen’s Bureau site on Ancestry.com can be found at U.S., Freedmen Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1865-187, compiled by the National Archives. Records of the Field Offices for the State of Georgia, on-line are the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1903, 90 rolls); Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105; National Archives, Washington, D.C.  The  on-line address for Athens sub-district records is:


    Athens" specific records address includes hundreds of letters received and sent :


    If you don’t have your own access to Ancestry.com, many public libraries have it free. Or if you prefer, many libraries have the microfilm National Archives records of the bureau for their area and state. Check with the genealogy and local history departments. Sometimes it seems faster to use the microfilms to browse.

    The current online records for the Bureau in other Southern and a few non-Southern locations include: Washington, D. C., Florida, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. See ancestry.com for further information for what records are available for individual states. The regional branches of the National Archives have all the microfilmed records. The National Archives in Washington has the original paper records of the Freedmen's Bureau.  Not all have been microfilmed or placed on-line.

    Here’s the microfilm listing: Alabama, M1900, 34 rolls; Arkansas, M1901, 23 rolls; District of Columbia, M1902, 21 rolls; Florida, M1869, 15 rolls; Georgia, M1903, 90 rolls; Kentucky, M1904, 133 rolls; Louisiana, M1905, 111 rolls; Maryland/Delaware, M1906, 42 rolls; Mississippi, pre-Bureau Records, M1914, 5 rolls and Freedmen’s Bureau, M1907, 65 rolls; Missouri, M1908, 24 rolls; North Carolina, M1909, 78 rolls; South Carolina, M1910, 106 rolls; Tennessee, M1912, 28 rolls; Texas, M1912, 32 rolls; and Virginia, M1913, 203 rolls.

    In Part 2 of this blog article to follow soon, we’ll give specific examples of Freedmen’s Bureau records which hold high genealogical, historical and cultural interest concerning the Reconstruction period after Emancipation.

An letter sent by the Freedmen's Bureau to a private lawyer thanking him for reporting efforts to rid Elbert County, GA, of Union troops.

   Augustus Longstreet Hull, one of Athens, Georgia’s most respected citizens, chronicled much of Athens and Clarke County history in his well-known book, Annals of Athens. His testimony of the Civil War years in the area is very valuable, because he himself witnessed these years and Reconstruction that followed.

   Trying to delineate the anger, grief and wracking Civil War changes in the lives of the residents of Athens and Clarke County is a difficult task. Almost every family had a member who fought, died, or was wounded in many of the most horrific battles fought between the North and the South.  Few men were left at home who did not see military service from 1861 to 1865.

   A compilation of the deaths of Clarke County troops shows they suffered heavy casualties fighting in many of the major battles fought. Lists of those killed in action in some major battles are as follows: Seven Days Battles, June 25-July 1, 1862, 23; Crampton’s Gap, September 14, 1862, 10; Sharpsburg, Sept. 17, 1862, 9; Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862, 5; Chancellorsville, May 2-3, 1863, 12; Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, 3; Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, 18; Knoxville, November 29, 1863, 3; The Wilderness, May 4-21, 1864, 14;  and Siege of Petersburg and The Crater, June, 1864-April, 1865, 20. This list is in Kenneth Coleman’s Confederate Athens.

    Athens and its county suffered no damage by military action, although there were a few close calls, as Union units operated near the town. Sherman’s march of devastation from Atlanta to Savannah and into the Carolinas missed Athens. But the loss of life in military action, the wounding of many others and the death by disease or imprisonment in Northern prisons left the majority of Athens and Clarke County families shattered.  On the home front, deprivation of supplies of food, goods and services took a severe toll on the population. And many well-off families sank into poverty. Not only did most of the county’s men serve in Confederate units, but their families made great sacrifices to supply the fighting forces with supplies, clothing, and food.

   Many books could be written solely about the war and its effects just on Athens and Clarke County, but this blog will deal with some questions commonly asked by those seeking to know the cost to those serving in various Athens area Confederate units—the numbers killed in battle or by disease, or wounded.

   Augustus Hull wrote in his Annals that listing the names of those killed or wounded might seem “not interesting” to some of his readers. But, as to most residents, it was a personalized war in which they knew well their fathers, sons, and brothers who sacrificed in a heart-felt cause, he said.

   “Many of those men I knew and the mention of their names bring up memories of other days which throw a halo about them. I recall how they looked as they marched, new uniformed, with alert step, full of life and vigor, and how they stopped to speak the good-bye word; how, afterwards, they toiled on the forced march tattered, half-shod, half starved; how they went bravely into battle and how some came out bloody and faint, and some lay dead,” Hull wrote.

  The casualty totals make it achingly clear to us even 150 years later the catastrophic losses of the Civil War. These numbers aren’t precise for the totals, but estimates are accurate enough to show the magnitude of battle.  It’s estimated that somewhat more than one million men fought for the Confederacy. Of these, about 94,000 died from wounds, while disease killed off an estimated 164,000 more. Those wounded came to approximately 100,000. The Union put more than 1.5 million men into battle. Of this number about 110,000 were mortally wounded; almost a quarter of a million died from disease, and more than 275,000 received non-fatal wounds. These figures come from the respected site at the University of Houston, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/us20.dfm.

   We can be somewhat more precise when we look at the fearsome cost involving troops from a specific area such as Athens and Clarke County, Georgia. Thorough rosters have been compiled of the units from this area seeing Civil War service. Military records, accounts in local newspapers and personal knowledge of the families have been used to keep track of the casualties from here. One of the most thorough casualty tabulations has been done by Joseph H. Kitchens, Jr., preparing the listing for Prof. Kenneth Coleman in his readable Confederate Athens, re-issued in a 2009 paperback edition by the University of Georgia Press.

   A total of 1,649 men were on the rosters of military units from Athens and Clarke County. Of these, 197, or 11.9 per cent, were killed in battle. Disease was even more deadly than battle, killing 214 or 13.0 per cent. Of the men serving from Athens and Clarke County 364 were wounded, or 22.1 per cent.  All told, approximately 46 per cent, or nearly half of those listed on the rosters were killed in battle, killed by disease or wounded.

The table below, based on Kitchens’ work, shows the figures for those from Athens area units killed in battle, dying from disease or wounded.  It doesn’t include 10 men who were termed “missing.” He based his work on Athens newspapers, The Watchman and The Banner 1861-65 issues, and rosters in a manuscript, “Roster of Companies Furnished by Clarke County Georgia, to the Confederate Army in the War Between the States, 1861-1865,” compiled by Albert L. Mitchell by authority of Clarke County Commissioners T. P. Vincent, W. H. Morton and S. M. Herrington, in 1903. A similar list is used by Hull in his Annals.

Military Unit                             Total Killed in Battle                 Dying from Disease                  Wounded

Athens Guards (143)                                30                                       30                                            63

Troup Artillery (287)                                 15                                       34                                             59

Clarke Rifles (150)                                  28                                        35                                             77

Johnson Guards (145)                           27                                        19                                             69

Cobb’s Legion Cav. (316)                    30                                         30                                             28

Mell Rifles (136)                                     31                                         25                                             42

Highland Guards* (136)                      15                                             9                                             23

Other Units **(75)                                 20                                             9                                             28

Factory Guards*** (110)                        1                                             4                                               3

Lumpkin Artillery*** (151)                     0                                             0                                               0

Grand Totals             1649            197 214              364

* The Highland Guards had troops from Athens, Northeast Georgia and Western North Carolina. Casualties may have been heavier, but were not all reported in local Athens newspapers.

** Athens area men serving in Confederate units other than those from the immediate area.

*** The Factory Guards and Lumpkin Artillery were “home guard” units and did not participate in any major fighting.

   Although it’s difficult to believe,  Athens area residents apparently only learned of the April  9 surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee  on April 26, 1865. Issues of The Watchman and The Banner for that date carried details of Lee’s surrender and of the assassination of President Lincoln. If residents knew earlier, there is no public record of it that we can find.

   Union troops from the 13th Tennessee Regiment raided the town on May 3. Brigadier General William J. Palmer and his troops stopped the raiding and stayed in Athens for several days in May as they hunted for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The official occupation of Athens by a small number of Union troops began on May 29—the 22nd Iowa Volunteers under the command of Capt. A. B. Cree.

   Kenneth Coleman puts it quite bluntly in his book: “Henceforth Confederate Athens existed only in the memories of her people.”


Benjamin of Mell suffered mortal wounds at the Battle of Crampton's Gap, Maryland. This photo shows him as a Corporal, but later he was promoted to First Sergeant.