- Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas by Christopher Bean
In a recent examination of the Civil War's ambiguous conclusion, in After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Gregory P. Downs writes, "The government could protect freedpeople or it could return to peacetime, but it could not do both" (5). In Too Great a Burden to Bear, Christopher Bean argues that the Freedmen's Bureau sure tried. Through meticulous attention to sub–assistant commissioners in Texas—the men who over-saw the bureau's daily functioning in the field—Bean portrays a well-intentioned, occasionally successful, but ultimately overwhelmed effort to protect the rights of former slaves as the nation transitioned out of slavery and from military to civil authority. In Bean's telling, the story of the Freedmen's Bureau is one of modest but genuine accomplishments constrained by massive structural forces and ultimately undermined by local white resistance and by the return of civil authority to the former Confederate states.
The book begins with a demographic group portrait of sub-assistant commissioners and then proceeds chronologically from the fall of 1865 through the end of December 1868, when the Bureau ceased all but educational efforts in Texas and closed its local offices. Agents tended to be white, middle-class, northern men in their thirties with Union army experience. With some exceptions, most sub–assistant commissioners were motivated by a mix of patriotism, opportunism, and philanthropic concern for former slaves. Driven out by ill health, local hostility, or outright threats on their lives, few stayed very long, with 82.2 percent remaining at their posts for less than a year (9). Short tenures and hostility from local whites hampered efforts to gain legitimacy, but the bureau in Texas attained a high-water mark, according to Bean, from late 1866 through 1867, when efforts centering on education, labor relations, and voter registration yielded best results.
Bean's story is partly about power. As one sub-assistant commissioner noted, white southerners who "from time 'immemorial' had used the whip lash and stick" were not about to give up total mastery "unless in the presence of a power that is capable of enforcing" (72). The Freedmen's Bureau helped shift away from a situation in which absolute power rested with owners, toward a situation in which power remained asymmetric, but former slaves had higher recourse. For example, labor contracts disappointed freedpeople's aspirations by sometimes heartbreaking margins, but they also replaced planters' absolute power with a legal relationship of mutual (if uneven) obligation. Moreover, freedpeople could—and did—appeal to Freedmen's Bureau courts for assistance in compelling former owners to live up to their sides of bargains. [End Page 104]
Yet former slaves and the Freedmen's Bureau were always up against massive structural forces, and never free from threats of violence. Long distances separating freedpeople from bureau agents and agents from each other, small numbers of personnel, frequent overturn among sub–assistant commissioners, shortages of just about everything, and the sheer, massive size of the job all hobbled efforts to secure a just and lasting peace for freedpeople. But it was violence that ultimately cut those efforts off at the knees.
Violent resistance to black freedom heightened rather than abated when military authority gave way to civil authority. Bean devotes careful attention to the precise mechanisms by which military authority receded, such as General Order No. 40, issued by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in late 1867, which transferred legal disputes from Freedmen's Bureau courts to local courts. General Order No. 40's intent was to phase out martial law, but its effect was to eliminate former slaves' chances of fair hearings, since no court peopled by white Texans would find in favor of a black person over a white one.
In sum, Too Great a Burden to Bear is a...