Tag Archives: Freedmans Bureau

Early days of Reconstruction

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?

Lee surrenders to Grant, General Grant National Memorial, New York, NY (2015). My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull remained on duty in Virginia for several months after the end of the U.S. Civil War during the very early days of Reconstruction. Photo by Molly Charboneau
May 2015: Lee surrenders to Grant, General Grant National Memorial, New York, NY. My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull remained on duty in Virginia for several months after the end of the U.S. Civil War during the early days of Reconstruction. Photo by Molly Charboneau

While my ancestor was still in the service, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established by the U.S. War Dept. on 3 March 1865.

Background information about the Freedmen’s Bureau records on the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website captures the broad scope of its mission.

[The Bureau] provided assistance to tens of thousands of former slaves and impoverished whites in the Southern States and the District of Columbia. The war had liberated nearly four million slaves and destroyed the region’s cities, towns and plantation-based economy. It left former slaves and many whites dislocated from their homes, facing starvation, and owning only the clothes they wore. The challenge of establishing a new social order, founded on freedom and racial equality, was enormous.

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 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 newly-free 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 also stood as a bulwark that protected the African American population from former slave owners, overseers and others who had directly or tacitly supported the brutal slave system. The Army of the James — which my ancestor’s unit was part of — was noteworthy for the large number of U.S. Colored Troops in its ranks, who were among the first Union troops to enter Richmond after it fell.

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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