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Continuity and Change in the Labor Program of the Union Army and the Freedmen's Bureau /. Thomas May In recent years, American historians have devoted a great deal of energy to the task of reinterpreting the Reconstruction period. Although these writings disdain the older interpretations as a matter of fact, they often incorporate many of the perspectives and assumptions of the earlier schools. The emphasis of revisionist efforts, for example, is very often on political matters. From such a point of view, recent writers have accepted one of the governing assumptions of the earlier studies in depicting a society in flux and turmoil. This theme of political change and disorganization is so widespread that it has spilled over and become axiomatic for those who seek to understand the social and economic facets of the period. Consequently, historians who are interested in the social structure and economic development are often saddled unknowingly with preconceived notions of a society in complete disarray. This approach can be seen in some of the recent studies of the Freedmen 's Bureau. The activities and goals of that agency are interpreted as a fundamental departure from what existed before and the representatives of the Bureau are often cast in the role of radicals who sought political power to enforce social and economic change. Although it is no longer fashionable to depict the freedmen as blind servants of the northern agents, many writers continue to assume an intimate relationship between the former slaves and the Bureau representatives based on mutual interests.1 There is increasing evidence to support an approach which emphasizes stability and continuity in postwar southern society. For one thing, the expanding body of information on the black experience has called into question the earlier notions regarding actual emancipation. In addition, historians are beginning to view social attitudes, values, ß A version of this paper was presented at the meetings of the Southern Historical Association, November 13, 1970, Louisville, Kentucky. Much of the research for this study was carried out during a period when the author held a fellowship from the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. The author also wishes to acknowledge the support received from Contract No. HSM-110-69-255, Health Services and Mental Health Administration, Public Health Service. 1 A few examples are Howard A. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1970); Martin Abbott, The Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina, 1865-1872 (Chapel Hill, 1967); Clifton L. Ganus, Jr., "The Freedmen's Bureau in Mississippi" (Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, 1953). 245 246CIVIL WAR HISTORY and behavior as long-term processes which are impervious to precipitate change. This paper will be concerned with the problem of continuity and change as it was reflected in the federal activities for the freedmen, particularly the labor program. It will trace the development of the labor program in Louisiana from the army of occupation through the Freedmen 's Bureau. Rules and regulations will be considered, as well as the intentions and goals of the reconstructors. In April, 1862, Federal troops under the command of General Benjamin Butler occupied New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana. Almost immediately, Butler organized a system for controlling civilian affairs . His intention was to stabilize the population and thereby prevent it from encumbering military maneuvers. Quite naturally, much of this was concerned with the blacks, for they comprised half of the population of the state and more importantly, their future position in the society was uncertain.2 Initially, Butler's policy was simply to exclude the "contrabands" from the military camps and New Orleans. Those who had sought refuge were periodically apprehended by army patrols, and dispatched under guard to a nearby plantation where workers were needed. In this regard , Butler exhibited none of the radical inclinations attributed to him later by southern polemics. Blacks were to remain on the plantations and military leaders were to help the planters by "giving them every aid in your power, even to returning their own negroes, and adding others if need be to their force."3 The Union Army provided some emergency food and medical care to the refugees but this was strictly limited and only incidentally concerned with the physical needs of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 245-254
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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