Summary Objective 19

Students will examine the ways that the federal government’s policies affected the lives of formerly enslaved people. Maps to Key Concepts 8, 9 & 10


What else should my students know?

19.A The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) was a large bureaucracy created after the Civil War to help African Americans who had been enslaved. It provided services including legal aid, food, housing and education. The Freedmen’s Bureau also tried to reunite separated families and oversaw the attempts to settle formerly enslaved people on confiscated or abandoned Confederate lands.

19.B Access to land was one of the main issues to affect the lives of formerly enslaved African Americans. During the war, the Union Army relocated formerly enslaved people onto confiscated Confederate land. However, most of those resettled were kicked off their farms in 1866 when President Andrew Johnson ordered the land returned to the former enslavers.

19.C By passing the 14th and 15th Amendments during Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction, the federal government made a commitment to protect the legal and political rights of African Americans. Federal troops enforced the civil and political rights of African Americans in the South during Congressional Reconstruction.

19.D None of these Reconstruction efforts applied to formerly enslaved Indigenous people, whose lands and rights continued to be taken away after the end of the Civil War.

19.E The 1877 Dawes Severalty Act divided tribal lands into allotments meant for private ownership. The act, which was an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people and undermine tribal governance, offered citizenship to Indigenous people who accepted and held allotments for 25 years. Other land was sold to non-Indigenous people. Although Indigenous people successfully challenged the Act in court, it took 90 million acres of Indigenous land by 1934.


How can I teach this?

  • A wealth of primary documents are available through the website of The Freedmen and Southern Society Project.
    • A Georgia planter complained to the Freedmen’s Bureau about free women who preferred to take care of their families instead of working in the fields.
    • Demonstrating the persistence of forced servitude, a free man in North Carolina appealed to the Freedmen’s Bureau when his children were apprenticed to his former enslaver. 
    • A Tennessee free man expressed his worry that his rights to federally controlled land would disappear if the land were returned to former Confederates. 
  • William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 (1865) confiscated 400,000 acres of land from enslavers in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and distributed it to people who had been enslaved. The land was returned during Presidential Reconstruction, when Andrew Johnson restored most former Confederates’ political rights and property.
  • The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 gave individual grants of 80 acres of publicly owned land to settlers who resided there for five years. No one who supported the Confederacy could file a claim before 1867. However, the land was of poor quality, and few formerly enslaved people had the money necessary to move or to buy farming supplies. Landless white people and white speculators benefitted the most from this program.
  • Students can read the Dawes Act and examine maps of its effect on Indigenous landholdings on the National Archives website. Indian Country Today published a 2017 article that offers an in-depth examination of the Act’s causes and consequences.
  • Efforts to assimilate Indigenous people included forcibly placing children into boarding schools. Students can read the words of Carlisle School founder Richard Pratt and examine the resources offered by the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. To make connections with the present, students can study the Indian Child Welfare Act and current efforts to eliminate it.



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