Freedmen records: A glimpse at history

The federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created in 1865 to aid refugees of the Civil War, especially newly freed former slaves. Volunteers at the National Archives today are sifting through hundreds of boxes of records, and many of the reports are a reminder that the transition to freedom was not always smooth.

Many Freedmen moved north and needed help with housing, jobs, food, clothing and education for themselves and their children. The bureau also was asked to find spouses, children and siblings who had been sold away from their families decades before.

There also was the issue of legitimizing slave marriages that had not been considered legal until Congress passed an act on July 25, 1866, that said any man and woman who recognized themselves as married before that date were legal spouses. This also meant their children were legitimate.

John Webb and his wife, Harriet Jackson, former slaves from Prince William County, Virginia, first married in 1841, then had six children. The minister noted in November 1866 that “Webb owns a good house, and his children can read and write.”

Famous names also surfaced in the bureau files. Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose wife, Mary Custis Lee, owned Arlington House in what is now Arlington National Cemetery, freed dozens of Custis slaves on December 29, 1862. George W.P. Custis, Lee’s father-in-law, had made Lee the executor of his will. One of the stipulations was that the Custis slaves be freed within five years of Custis’ death. Even as the war continued, and Lee could not return to Arlington House, he honored the terms of the will.

A copy of the Custis slaves’ emancipation papers was entered into the bureau files in 1868 along with a letter from the agent in charge of the Freedmen’s Village built on the grounds of Arlington House.

Agent J.C. Abeel included a list of seven “names of old and dependent Freedpeople (Late Servants to R.E. Lee) living in vicinity of this Village on land allotted to them by the Lee Estate.”

Rations and fuel had been delivered to them from the bureau, and Abeel wanted to know whether he should continue to help them. The list included Sallie Norris, 78, who was partially blind; Charles Syphax, 78, who was infirm; and Estella Brannin, 60, who had rheumatism.

If Abeel ever got an answer, it wasn’t included in the records at the archives.

Volunteer Budge Weidman keeps copies of what she calls “gems,” special finds within all the archive records her group has prepared. On her desk is a copy of a photograph of Edmund Delaney, of Brownsville, Texas, who served with the U.S. Colored Troops. The 8-by-10-inch print was made from a card-sized photo popular during and after the Civil War called a carte de visite.

His photo was never meant to be a part of any archives files. Delaney had sent it to his former owner, Harvey Graves of Kentucky, with a request to pass it along to an old friend of Delaney’s named John.

Instead, Graves used the image to bolster his application to the federal government for a reimbursement of $300 for allowing Delaney to enter the Union Army. Slave owners in the border states were allowed to apply for compensation when a slave joined the service.

“This owner wasn’t a nice guy,” Weidman said. “He never gave the picture to John — he applied for and got the $300 and never told Edmund about it. But because of him, we now have this photo.”

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