In 1955, George R. Bentley published A History of the Freedmen's Bureau, the last full account of the federal Reconstruction agency that Congress had charged with supervising the South's transition from slavery to freedom. Since that time, a sea change in Reconstruction historiography has occurred. At the center of much discussion about how Republicans tried to translate Union victory and emancipation in war into a new order in peace has been the role of the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau, after all, stood as the principal expression and extension of federal authority in the defeated South. Through the Bureau, the federal government would assume new responsibilities in providing relief to refugees and ex-slaves, trying to settle the exslaves on land (and then removing them from land), overseeing labor contracts and adjudicating labor disputes, building schools, and more. Through the Bureau, the Republican party would carry its ideas about a free-labor political economy southward. But, as histories of Reconstruction reiterate, the Bureau did not get its way. In the end, black freedom and free-labor ideas were only partly, and often precariously, planted.
Historians have disagreed on the effectiveness of the Bureau in securing freedom and remaking the South. Some have argued that the Freedmen's Bureau, along with the army, undercut black freedom by seeking to restore agricultural production and minimize social and political change. Others have viewed the Bureau as fundamental in tearing down the old order and helping blacks claim equality before the law and opportunity on the land. Still others have suggested that however much the Bureau might have preferred continuity over revolution in a postwar South, at least in the short run, the Bureau's long-term commitment to basic civil rights for blacks worked against the unyielding white commitment to keep blacks down forever. Whatever the true assessment of the Bureau's role — and the debate continues — it is now time to revisit the Bureau as a whole, to bring scholarship on the Bureau together, to take stock