Among the Freedmen's Bureau records for Shenandoah County, Va, there is a letter from Winchester written in November 1865 stating that the War Department furnished a circular from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in October of 1865 that required local authorities to provide for pauper freedmen. It quotes this circular: " 'Vagrant laws made for free people and now in force in the Statute Books of the State now embraced in the operations of this Bureau, will be recognized and extended to the freedmen.' " The letter continues: "Furnish them with lists of the dependent residents before the war within their respective jurisdictions, and any other information requisite to enable all such persons to receive the care and support which they are entitled."
The purpose of the Bureau was to offer care and support so that African Americans could gain an equal footing in a unified United States of America. A circular from the Winchester office written July 12, 1866 mentions the importance the U.S. government placed on helping African Americans reach a state of independence, noting a "necessity of exercising the greatest care in the issue of Rations to Refugees and Freedmen in their respective sub divisions with the view of reducing the number of persons dependent upon the Government for subsistence as rapidly as is consistent with the prevention of actual suffering." The sub division officers were noted to focus on those "actually in a destitute condition and unable to support themselves" despite the 1866 woodcut political cartoon that was in circulation regarding what was perceived as the real purpose of the Freedmen's Bureau. This racist depiction of African Americans highlights the already negative opinion of many people, especially in southern states like Virginia.
A letter from a refugee in Orkney Springs, Va, addressed subdivision officer Hall with his concerns: "I will inform you that I had sent a man for my Ration and was disappointed in getting them, you must excuse me for not sending at the right time but when a Refugee must depend on Rebels he is disappointed sometimes. I also understood that no one draws rations, only the needy. Now if I am not needy I don't know who those are that are needy for I am sick and can't work anything and lost what I had left in the hands of the Rebels: now I must depend on other people for my support. Now I can make oath to this or lend you a number of witnesses that will state the same. I would be very glad if you would come and see me, if you think I can't draw my rations, I will try the General freemans Bureau. If you please write so soon as possible and let me know when I can send for my rations." This refugee served as a private in Company E of the 136th Virginia Militia Regiment and was listed as crippled in 1870. He was not a freedman, but was requesting rations and, at least up until this letter, was receiving aid. It's important to note this because it proves the racist cartoon shared above as being unfounded in truth, at least according to records from Shenandoah County, Virginia. African Americans were not the only ones receiving help; and according to the Vagrancy Act of 1866, could be forced into unpaid employment if they proved as vagrants.
As we have been reading and will continue to notice, unified community wasn't happening here or in many of the formerly Confederate States' communities. A circular from Richmond, Va, written on May 1, 1867 was sent to all the officers and agents of the Freemen's Bureau, reminding them to "take care that the Freedmen, within their respective jurisdictions, are made acquainted with their rights under the Act of Congress 'to provide for the more efficient government of the Rebel States.' " and continues "all Freedmen... will also be instructed that, as they will not be allowed to suffer from the honest exercise of the right of suffrage, they should disregard all threats or undue influence tending to prevent or restrain the same. Prompt report will be made to the President of the local Board of Registration of any case in which the rights of a Freedman... are withheld or interfered with" (Mallery, 1867).
This is exactly the sort of thing happening in Shenandoah County, Virginia, with the intimidation of African American, Celina Jackson, when she witnessed a flag pole burning in Woodstock, VA on 28 May, 1868 and was assaulted by white men threatening her if she gave evidence to authorities on 9 July, 1968 (case number 28 and 36). And the assault and robbery of African American Hiram Turner in Shenandoah County on 24 April, 1868 by two white men (case number 16).
A Freedmen's Bureau letter from October 31, 1867 gives the testimony of a man who was beaten for being part of the Union League, which his assailant titled "that dammed nigger league." He states: "being in fear of my life and of the opinion that justice will not be rendered me on account of the circumstances" he sought the protection of the Military Authorities when he went to vote for the Union ticket, as he describes it. (Hall, October 31, 1867)
Peter Armstrong, a freedman, made a sworn statement on February 20, 1866 in Woodstock, Va, to Hall, that "while at New Market two white men used threatening language, saying they would 'shoot him, the old villain if it takes 5 years' and soon after a colored man came to him and warned him of his danger, saying that some men were inquiring after said Peter... and it would be dangerous for him to be seen there after light" (Hall, February 20, 1866).
In addition, a letter from March 12, 1866 from agent Hall in Woodstock, VA, shares a sworn statement of a man that lived on little Stony Creek that witnessed an incident - not long after the surrender of Lee in spring of 1865 - in which "soldiers in the Rebel Army... attacked and robbed three U.S. soldiers... and afterwards took them on towards an old ore bank," where they were subsequently found dead some time later.
It is evident that the Freedmen's Bureau officers were working extremely hard to benefit and make better the plight of African Americans in our communities. They sought to bring justice to people that were not accustomed to receiving justice in the courts or via civil authorities in Shenandoah County, Va. And, based on a letter written by Kendrick in Mt Jackson, Va, on February 6, 1866, who was trying to secure the debt of an African American man, without his knowledge, to give him more time to pay off $40 that the African American owed another person, officers and agents of the bureau made personal efforts to aid those neglected and struggling in our community. In this letter, he states, "the people in our village are law-abiding." But were they - our ancestors - compassionate? And are we compassionate enough today to make sure our public spaces hold inclusion for everyone in our community, not just those with Confederate ancestors?
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over eight years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.
47 / Maintaining Public Peace
46 / Brown v. Board
45 / Rebuilding a Pro-Confederate South
44 / An Out-of-area Education
43 / Where's the 'Common Sense Consideration'?
42 / Education Without Heart
41 / Self-Preservation
40 / Free Public Schools
39 / The Mask of Defiance
38 / The Golden Door of Freedom
37 / Prejudicial to our Race
36 / Are We Compassionate?
35 / Community
34 / Need for Radical Change
33 / Bitter Prejudice
32 / Fear of 'Negro Equality'
31 / Rachel, Lashed to Death
30 / The Whim of the Court: A Look at Jacob, Stacy, Lett; March & Peter; Jeffrey & Peter
29 / Ben, Tom, Ned, Clary, & two men from the furnace
28 / The Loss of Fortune
27 / James Scott, A Free Man
26 / The Unremembered, The Unheard
25 / The American Cause
24 / Tithables for the County & Parish
23 / Satisfactory Proof of Being Free
22 / Building Community Takes Trust
21 / Jacob's Case
20 / Whose Control?
19 / Racial Classifications
18 / The Cost of Freedom in 1840
17 / Sale of Children
16 / Bequeathal of Future Increase
15 / The First Annual
14 / From a Descendant of a CSA Soldier
13 / True Americanism
12 / Slavery. A Hot Topic.
11 / Real Character
10 / Real Apologies
9 / Freedom from Fear
8 / 250 Years
7 / The Courage of Christ
6 / Whose Narratives?
5 / The 13th Amendment
4 / Symbolic Act of Justice
3 / Giving Thanks
2 / Confederate Congress
1 / Veteran's Day