Muster rolls in my great, great grandfather Union Pvt. Arthur Bull’s pension file show he remained in Virginia with the 6th New York Heavy Artillery through the summer of 1865. Was he involved in the early days of Reconstruction? If so, what role might he have played? And where can I search for answers?
While my ancestor was still in the service, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a. the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established by the U.S. War Dept. on 3 March 1865.
Freedman’s bureau role and records
Documentation about the Freedmen’s Bureau is contained in its records, housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The broad scope of the Freedman’s Bureau is summarized on the website of the National Museum of African American History & Culture — which has collaborated on indexing names found in the bureau’s records.
The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created by Congress in 1865 to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship.
The Bureau provided food, clothing, medical care, and legal representation; promoted education; helped legalize marriages; and assisted African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, enlistment bounties, and pensions. In addition, the Bureau promoted a system of labor contracts to replace the slavery system and tried to settle freedmen and women on abandoned or confiscated land. The Bureau was also responsible for protecting freedmen and women from intimidation and assaults by Southern whites.
Union Army’s role
Until the Freedman’s Bureau was fully operational — beginning around June 1865 — it appears that Union Army soldiers like my ancestor, who remained in the South after the Civil War’s end, may have handled some of this relief work.
On 25 May 1865, in the Dept. of Virginia — where my ancestor was stationed with the 6th NYHA in Sub-District of the Roanoke, District of the Nottoway — the Army of the James issued orders that directed the safeguarding of emancipated African Americans, which likely included relief efforts.
The commanders of districts and sub-districts are made superintendents of negro affairs within their respective limits.
Union troops stood as a bulwark that protected the emancipated African American population from former slave owners, overseers and others who had directly or tacitly supported the brutal system of slavery.
The Army of the James, which my ancestor’s unit was part of, was noteworthy for the large number of African American troops in its ranks — who were among the first Union troops to enter Richmond after it fell.
At war’s end: 6th NY Heavy Artillery’s duties
In a diary entry dated 26 May 1865, Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA gave a snapshot of the regiment’s tasks in a hostile environment.
[O]ur duties were to keep order and enforce the laws and sanitary regulations and to administer the oath of allegiance to the Citizens. We also issued the destitute rations nine tenths of the applicants were white and a more helpless set of people would be difficult to imagine they were perfectly destitute of all principle or honesty and would willingly take the oath every hour and violate it with every breath.
On 27 May 1865, Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds of the 6th NYHA — a farmer in civilian life — described the desolate landscape in a letter to his wife from Lunenburg Court House, Va., underscoring the need for Union Army relief efforts.
This is a poor forsaken looking country and our boys say we are only 18 miles from where the sun sets.
With no correspondence from my ancestor to refer to, more research is needed to narrow down his specific duties in Virginia during the summer of 1865. NARA’s federal records on the Freedman’s Bureau and related military records may help me learn more.
But for now I am satisfied that my great, great grandfather Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed at a time and place where he “kept order” and likely assisted with relief efforts in the early days of Reconstruction.
Next post: New information from the U.S. Sanitary Commission records on my Civil War ancestor’s time in hospital in July 1864.
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