GENERALS STEEDMAN AND FULLERTON
Condition of the Freedmen's Bureau
Generals Steedman and Fullerton, the Commissioners appointed by the President to investigate the operations of the Freedmen's Bureau in the Southern States, have presented the following report for the States of Virginia and North Carolina:
Wilmington, N. C., May 8, 1866.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
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EVERYTHING DEPENDS UPON THE AGENTS.
In those districts of Virginia where the affairs of the Bureau have been faithfully and impartially administered by men of sound judgment and discretion, there has been no conflict between the agents of the Bureau and the citizens. In all such districts the agents are acting in harmony with the civil officers of the State, and are assisted and supported in the performance of their duties by the citizens. But in many places where the agents are not men of capacity and integrity a very unsatisfactory condition of things exist. This originates in the arbitrary, unnecessary, and offensive interference of the agents of the Bureau with the relations between the planters and their hired freedmen, causing vexatious delays in the prosecution of labor, and imposing expense and costs in suits before themselves of trivial matters that could readily be adjusted by the friendly advice of a sensible man. The effect produced by the action of this class of agents is bitterness and antagonism between the whites and the freedmen, a growing prejudice against the Government among the planters, and expectations on the part of the freedmen that can never be realized. Where there has been no such interference or bad advice given to the freedmen by the agents of the Bureau, there is a growing feeling of kindness between the races, and good order and harmony prevail.
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GENERAL BROWN'S ADMINISTRATION.
The Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau for Virginia, Brevet Brigadier General O. Brown, is laboring faithfully and zealously to harmonize and protect the interests of both races. We discovered no hostility among the white people of Virginia to the education of the freedmen. In several localities, more especially at Lynchburg and and Charlottesville, where we thoroughly examined into this subject, the people were taking much interest in the establishment of schools for their education, giving as a reason for their efforts in this direction that educated labor was preferable to uneducated labor, which sentiment we believe prevails throughout the State.
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From Raleigh we proceeded to Salisbury, where we found Major Clinton A. Cilley, Superintendent in the Bureau, having Charge of the Western District, embracing fifty-one counties of the State. This efficient and competent officer has administered the affairs of the Bureau within his district with much ability and impartiality. We conferred with the leading white citizens, embracing both those who had formerly been Rebels and those who had been Union men, and also with a delegation of intelligent colored people representing the Freedmen, all of whom agreed in the statement that the Freedmen were at work, were perfectly satisfied, and that good feeling and harmony prevailed between the whites and blacks throughout the district. Major Cilley is not interested in the cultivation of any plantation, or in any other business not directly connected with his official duties, and he has prohibited all officers serving under him within his district from engaging in any enterprise which would enable them to appropriate or control the labor of Freedmen under their jurisdiction to advance their private interests. We attribute much of the order and contentment of the Freedmen in the Western District to Major Cilley's judicious and honest administration.
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THE CRUELTIES OF REV. MR. FITZ.
Opposite Newbern, on the south bank of the Trent river, there is a settlement composed exclusively of freedmen, and containing a population of about four thousand, whose condition is truly deplorable. These unfortunate people came within our lines and were located there during the war. They are living in small huts, built by themselves of lumber manufactured by hand; these huts, generally containing but a single room, each of which is occupied, in most cases, by large families. The appearance of this settlement, recently scourged with the small-pox, is well calculated to excite the deepest sympathy for the helpless condition of its inhabitants. The decrepid and helpless among them are supported by the Government of the United States, and the remainder procure an uncertain and scanty living from little jobs about Newbern--from fishing from small boats, huckstering, &c. The Rev. Mr. Fitz, formerly an array chaplain, presides over this colony as assistant superintendent of the Bureau for the Trent river settlement. This agent has exercised the most arbitrary and despotic power, and practiced revolting and unheard-of cruelties on the helpless freedmen under his charge. The outrageous conduct of this man was brought to our attention by a delegation of freedmen from the settlement, who called upon us and made statements in relation to his oppressions and outrages which we could scarcely credit. After hearing their statements we visited the settlement, convened the freedmen, investigating the charges against this man, and ascertained that he had been guilty of even greater wrongs and oppressions than had been complained of. In addition to the testimony of the freedmen, we took the statements of four intelligent ladies from the North, who are teaching school in the settlement. Among the many acts of cruelty committed by Superintendent Fitz, we found that he had in two instances suspended freedmen with cords around their wrists, their feet not touching the floor, and kept them in this position, in one case four, in the other case six hours; that he sentenced a freedman to an imprisonment of three months for a trivial offence--that of wrangling with his wife. He kept another man, who was arrested for debt, shut up in the black house--the prison--for months, while his wife and children, reduced to abject destitution, died with the small-pox, and took him from the prison under guard and compelled him to bury his last child in the cradle in which it died. On another occasion, when one of his guards reported to him that a colored woman had spoken disrespectfully of him, without even inquiring what the woman had said, he ordered her to be imprisoned until the next morning at nine o'clock, when she would be brought before him to answer for the indignity. In one instance he imprisoned six children for ten days for playing in the streets on the Sabbath day. He imposed a fine of sixty dollars upon an aged freedman for having told another freedman that he was about to be arrested by Mr. Fitz. This poor old man not having the money to pay the fine, was imprisoned until the next day, when his son paid the same, with three dollars additional as jail fees.
The land upon which the huts in this settlement are built is owned by certain heirs in North Carolina, and is held by the Freedmen's Bureau as abandoned property. A tax, which Superintendent Fitz says goes to the support of the Bureau, is imposed upon the owner of each hut for ground rent. If the occupants fail to pay this tax promptly, they are either turned out into the streets or imprisoned, and in some instances huts have been torn down by order of the Superintendent for non-payment of the tax. All business transacted by these people are taxed for the same purpose. Five dollars per month are levied upon every little shop; two dollars on each fishing-boat; five dollars on each horse and cart, &c. The failure to pay those taxes when due at once subjects the property taxed to confiscation. We were unable to obtain what amount of money had been collected by Superintendent Fitz, or what disposition had been made of it. The imperfect manner in which the books were kept would have rendered a lengthy and detailed examination necessary to arrive at even an approximate idea of the amount of money collected. In answer to a question as to what justification there was for the oppressive burdens he had imposed upon these people, Superintendent Fitz replied that Captain Seeley told him, "I must have a thousand dollars a month from that settlement." He also furnished us with a sworn statement, herewith forwarded, marked "E," in which he attempts to defend his conduct by stating that he acted in obedience to the orders of his superior officers in the Bureau.
CAPTAIN SEELEY SCREENING HIS SUBORDINATES.
In an interview we had with Captain Seeley, that officer evinced a desire to shield Superintendent Fitz by stating that a great deal of what was said against him resulted from prejudice, notwithstanding he had the sworn testimony before him that the charges against Fitz were true.
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ONE WAY OF INDUCING INDUSTRY.
Major Charles I. Wickersham, Sub-Agent of the Bureau, whose Headquarters are at Wilmington, is also interested in the cultivation of a rice plantation within his Sub-District, and he is to receive one-fourth of the crops from the same for compelling the freedmen employed on said plantation to work faithfully. He explained the manner in which he compelled freedmen to comply with their contracts, by stating that he put them to work with ball and chain on the streets of Wilmington.
EVILS OF THE SYSTEM.
Without attempting to discuss the propriety of officers of the Bureau in the military service of the United States, who are paid by the Government for the performance of their duties, engaging in private business, and employing freedmen for such purposes, while controlling through their official positions that class of labor, we deem it our duty to state some of the effects produced, both upon the officers themselves and upon the planters with whom they come in competition, by such conduct. Major Wickersham, in contracting to furnish forty labors to work on a rice plantation, becomes at once interested against the laborers, whom he compels to labor, perhaps unjustly, when unfairly dealt with by the person working them on the plantation; and, on their refusing to work, he inflicts upon them unlawful, and, for a breach of contract, unheard of punishment, putting them on chain-gangs, as if they were convicted criminals. Colonel Whittlesey, or any other officer of less rank and influence in the Bureau, who is engaged in working plantations rented for cash or on shares, becomes interested in securing a low rate of wages and in making the most stringent labor regulations, to the great detriment of the freedmen. They thereby give the sanction of the Government to the establishment of wages far below what the labor is really worth. Officers of the Quartermaster's and Commissary Departments who are thus engaged are subjected to the temptation of appropriating to their own use Quartermaster's stores and rations to supply and pay their own laborers. Complaints have been made to me by the planters that these Agents of the Bureau use the power of their positions to obtain and control the best labor in the State. There is no doubt that some of the ill-feeling manifested toward the Bureau on the part of the planters is attributable to this fact.
ARBITRARY POWER OF THE BUREAU.
The arbitrary power exercised by some of the Officers and Agents of the Bureau in making arrests, imposing fines, and inflicting punishments, disregarding the local laws and especially the statute of limitations, creates prejudice against the Government. If the Officers were all honest and intelligent, with even limited legal information, it might be safe to trust them with this extraordinary power; but in many instances the Officers do not possess the slightest knowledge of law. At Goldsboro', the Agent, Captain Glavis, imposed a fine of $25 on one freedman for stabbing another so severely as to endanger his life, and when interrogated by us relative to this case, he stated that he did not know enough about law to distinguish a civil from a criminal case.
We are satisfied that the recommendation which we made in reference to the withdrawal of the Officers of the Bureau in Virginia, and the transference to the Officers commanding the troops of such duties as it may still be necessary to perform in connexion with the freedmen, is equally applicable to North Carolina.
Very respectfully, your obedient servants,
- JAS. B. STEEDMAN, Maj. Gen. Volunteers,
- J. S. FULLERTON, Brig. Gen. Volunteers