Emancipation and Military
The Freedmen's Bureau and
Social Control in Alabama
Michael W. Fitzgerald
As THE FIRST MAJOR FEDERAL WELFARE AGENCY in American history, the Freedmen's Bureau of Reconstruction has generated a good deal of controversy. The modern scholarship often presents a critical interpretation of this effort to mediate the social consequences of emancipation. Since the 1960s, many historians have depicted the Bureau as an agent of social control that pressed northern priorities and legalisms on the freedmen.1 Scholars have been particularly skeptical of the Bureau's efforts to oversee the transition from slavery on the plantations. As Leon F. Litwack concluded, the Bureau had been "in a position to effect significant changes in labor relations, particularly during the chaotic aftermath of emancipation."2 Such critiques often depict the Bureau as operating autonomously and disregard the severe practical constraints it faced during the period following Confederate surrender.
The situation in postwar Alabama illustrates these issues well. In the literature on Reconstruction, Alabama often typifies the Bureau's most repressive characteristics. Longtime Assistant Commissioner Wager T. Swayne comes in for particular criticism.3 Because the Bureau's initial labor policies were often authoritarian, it is difficult to fault this view. Still, the situation seems more complex in view of the Radical Republican politics of Swayne and the Bureau leadership.4 To understand fully the issues of freedom and social control, in Alabama and elsewhere, one must examine the choices