Irish Immigrant Henry Sweeney in the First Year of Reconstruction as Freedmen’s Bureau Agent

Freedmen's Bureau schools like the ones supported by Henry Sweeney were the first publicly supported educational institutions for Blacks in most of the South.

When Irish immigrant Henry Sweeney became the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Helena, Arkansas, he was already a respected officer in the Union Army. A decade of military service had prepared him for the demands of setting up the first government agency the city had ever seen dedicated to protecting the rights of African Americans. Thousands of Black people formerly held as slaves had sought refuge in Union-held Helena, and even before the Civil War ended Sweeney was fully occupied with providing for the basic needs for food and shelter for the refugees. With the conclusion of hostilities in April of 1865, Sweeney was able to begin to plan for the development of the free African American community there.1

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Captain Sweeney apparently hoped that African Americans, held as propertyless slaves for generations, would receive farms through a land distribution. On June 30, 1865, Sweeney wrote in his report that “the few Freedmen who have been able to obtain land in small quantities are working with far more satisfaction and contentment than those who are working for wages or shares.” Land of their own to till as they saw fit was a common desire, but one that was to be frustrated. Sweeney had helped to create two freedmen’s colonies nearby where former slaves could work without masters, but wide-spread land reform never materialized.

Former slaves working plots confiscated from former slave owners in the area around Helena in 1865. This program was supported by Henry Sweeney’s Freedmen’s Bureau Office.

Fortunately for the freedpeople, there was a scarcity of labor in the months after the war ended, so finding work for former slaves proved easier than Sweeney had originally feared. The Irish captain wrote that “the condition of the Freedmen in this district at the present time will compare favorably with those of any other section of the country…”3

Those Blacks who could not find private employment were set to work on a government project cutting wood for steamboats. The proceeds were used by Sweeney to pay the laborers and to provide food and shelter to former slaves who were too physically broken down to work.4

This 1866 cartoon by German immigrant Thomas Nast shows President Andrew Johnson vetoing legislation extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In February 1866 he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the following month he vetoed the Civil Rights Act saying: “no such system as that contemplated by the details of this bill has ever before been proposed or adopted. They establish for the security of the colored race safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.”

Because labor was in high demand, many blacks refused to make long term contracts with employers, preferring day labor or monthly contracts. A black man could make twenty dollars a month plus food for plantation work, more than a Union soldier was paid. This labor advantage would not last unfortunately. After the Freedmen’s Bureau was closed at the end of 1868, the Ku Klux Klan and other armed paramilitaries would employ terror to keep the wages .of African Americans low.5

In his June 30, 1865 report, Sweeney reported that there were 1826 freedwomen and 1599 freedmen living near Helena. These former-slaves he accounted for and protected. He worried, however, that “there are a larger number of Freedpeople on plantations from ten to twenty-five miles in the interior who were formerly owned by men in the rebel service and who have never left the plantations.” What level of protections were these men and women receiving?6

In spite of the need for workers, some freedpeople were unable to work. In some cases, they were old or debilitated. Other were children without a parental breadwinner. In some cases, they had been separated from their families when they were sold away by their white owners. In June 1865 Sweeney had to care for 390 non-working African Americans, 34 of whom were hospitalized, and 85 who were orphans. In addition, Sweeney also provided help to 54 presumably white refugees.7

African Americans who lived within the reach of Sweeney authority generally had their lives protected, but those who lived beyond his watchful eye were at risk. Sweeney wrote to a superior that in an adjoining jurisdiction “it is the practice of planters [owners of large plantations] in Coahoma and Bolivar Counties [in Mississippi] to Systematically tie up and whip the [freedmen] employed by them for any, and all causes…Many have reported that they are worse off now than when they were slaves.”8

Among the Helena projects the Freedmen’s Bureau supported was Southland College. Founded by Quakers as an orphanage, it became a teachers’ college training African American educators.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report on Sept. 18, 1865 in which he found that Captain Sweeney had done his work efficiently and without the waste of government funds. Sweeney was a careful record keeper, and his records as an administrator still survive today.9

The Inspector found that Sweeney had performed rapid work in helping displaced refugees. The inspector wrote that by “diligent search among the people in the neighborhood of Helena, homes have been found for all the Refugee…except one or two and by affording all possible assistance to families desiring to remove to their former homes, the entire number of Refugees has been reduced to about 12 persons in all and most, if not all of these can soon be sent away.”10

The inspector agreed with Sweeney that those Blacks who farmed their own lands were more productive than those who worked under gang labor conditions reminiscent of slavery. He wrote that the cotton “growing on the small leases worked by colored lessees on their own account, is decidedly superior to that cultivated by them as hired hands.  The former is clear of grass and weeds and shows in every respect that the utmost Care interest and diligence have been used in its cultivation; and I think it will yield 1/3 more per acre than the latter.  The colored lessees whom I saw pointed to their success with apparent pride.”11

The inspector noted that the freedpeople “have put up at their own expense, a ginhouse [for refining cotton] costing over $2000. and manifest enterprise in many other respects.  Capt Sweeney assures me that all any white man has ever done for these freedmen, was simply to stake off their leases, and that they have been left entirely to their own resources in the management of their affairs.” Sweeney understood from his service in a Black regiment that prejudiced canards about African American laziness were untrue. Blacks would work hard for themselves and their community, even if they refused to slave for their former owners.12

Harvard PhD W.E.B. Du Bois was the greatest historian of Reconstruction of the first half of the 20th Century. In 1901 he wrote an essay on the Freedmen’s Bureau for The Atlantic Magazine. Here is an excerpt:
“The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South. It not only called the schoolmistresses through the benevolent agencies, and built them schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of human development as Edmund Ware, Erastus Cravath, and Samuel Armstrong. State superintendents of education were appointed, and by 1870 150,000 children were in school. The opposition to Negro education was bitter in the South, for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.” Atlantic Magazine March 1901

The Inspector also reported that Sweeney had convinced many employers that it was in their own interest to accept the new “free labor” regime where Black workers had the same freedom of contract as whites. “In the interior portions of Capt Sweeneys Superintendency the feeling of all classes has much improved,” he wrote. The Inspector praised Sweeney for giving “extensive circulation to all orders, circulars &… tending to explain the policy of this Bureau, which has had the good effect to restore confidence, harmony and good feeling and to remove much misunderstanding & prejudice.” When Sweeney proved to be a fair arbiter of the labor laws, the Inspector noted, “Planters 40 & 50 miles away voluntarily come to the Superintendent to file their contracts.” The good-will Sweeney was building made extending educational services possible. “I am told that it is now feasible to establish schools on the plantations distant from the superintendency,” the Inspector wrote, “and that some planters even desire that this be done.”13

In the Fall of 1865, a rumor began to circulate throughout the South that at Christmas President Andrew Johnson would confiscate the land of former Confederates and redistribute it to the former slaves. Johnson was, in fact, no friend of the freedmen. Formerly a Senator from Tennessee, he hoped to protect white supremacy in the post-war South.14

While Sweeney appeared to believe that turning over land to the freedpeople would speed economic redevelopment, on Dec. 9, 1865 he had to confront the Christmas land-redistribution myth in Helena. Sweeney assembled the black community of the city and spoke at a mass meeting. He had to break the news that the president and Congress had no plans to transfer the great plantations to the former slaves.15

In his speech, Sweeney urged the families to take advantage of the opportunity to send their children to school. “The whole future welfare of the colored race in this country depends upon the teachings your children receive.” Sweeney told them that education was the key to independence. He reminded them that in business deals involving contracts and sales, Blacks kept in illiteracy by slavery had to rely on “some white man” to read for them. This left them “liable to be swindled and cheated every time you put your mark on a written paper.” Sweeney also urged the workers to get the best the contracts they could for the coming year of farm work.  Sweeney believed that education was important for the advancement of African Americans and as a shield against the deceits of whites.16

By the beginning of 1866, Henry Sweeney could look back at his role in the first year of Reconstruction with some satisfaction. He had helped many former slaves achieve basic literacy. He had promoted care for the sick, aid for black and white refugees, the creation of free labor communities and an orphanage, and he had protected Black churches. He had even supported the creation of an African American literary society in Helena. The next two years would see all of those projects come under violent attack.17

Sources:

  1. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996); “This Godforsaken Town”: Death and Disease at Helena, Arkansas, 1862 – 63 by Rhonda M. Kohl Civil War History Volume 50, Number 2, June 2004; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997); The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas by Carl Moneyhon published by University of Arkansas Press (2002); The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton published by Bloomsbury Press (2014); The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers published by the University of North Carolina Press (2014); Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams  (2005); Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams (2012).

2. Freedmen’s Bureau Reports from Helena  Roll 11 volume 90 Helena starts on page 141. Note: In a July 30, 1867 letter Sweeney wrote that in January, 1865 he was placed in charge of “Freedmen’s Affairs”. This would mean that he was supervising relief and employment for Freedpeople several months before the Freedmen’s Bureau was established. Sweeney’s work would have been under the auspices of the army.

3. Sweeney Report Roll 11 beginning page 296 June 30, 1865 p. 307

4. “Arkansas, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records-Helena, 1864-1872.”

5. “Arkansas, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records-Helena, 1864-1872.”

6. “Arkansas, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records-Helena, 1864-1872.” Sweeney’s report can be found on Roll 11 beginning page 296 June 30, 1865

7. “Arkansas, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records-Helena, 1864-1872.”

8. Enclave: Vicksburg and Her Plantations 1863-1870 by James Currie University press of Mississippi 1980 p. 155

9. The Freedmen’s bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report Sept. 18, 1865

10. The Freedmen’s bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report Sept. 18, 1865

11. The Freedmen’s bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report Sept. 18, 1865

12. The Freedmen’s bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report Sept. 18, 1865

13. The Freedmen’s bureau Inspector General visited Helena and issued a report Sept. 18, 1865

14. Western Clarion Saturday, December 09, 1865 Helena, Arkansas. The Christmas land redistribution rumors were widespread throughout the South. Whites added to the rumors by claiming that Blacks intended to murder whites on that day or thereafter if their hopes for land were not satisfied. For more background on Johnson’s presidency consult Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed published by Times Books/Henry Holt (2010) and Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction 1st Edition by Hans L. Trefousse published by Fordham University Press (1999). The Reconstruction Presidents by Brooks Simpson published by University Press of Kansas (1999) provides a useful comparative framework.

15. Western Clarion Saturday, December 09, 1865 Helena, Arkansas.

16. Western Clarion Saturday, December 09, 1865 Helena, Arkansas.

17. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1866. It would spread terrorism throughout the South beginning in 1867. Other white terror groups would also arise in Arkansas and in the rest of the former Confederacy.

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