Washington was home colony for Federals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On July 13, 1863, Natchez was officially occupied by federal troops.

The nearby town of Washington was also soon occupied by the Federals, and Jefferson College, which was located in Washington, was also occupied and the tenants of the school evicted by the occupying Federals.

However, the Federal occupation of Washington and Jefferson College was short-lived. By that August the Union troops were withdrawn to areas closer to Natchez in order to have the protection of their gunboats and the gunboats’ large cannons. The townspeople of Washington, though living only five miles from Natchez, were left virtually unprotected. In a time of war, this was a very frightening situation and Washington was slowly deserted by the population. By 1865, the town was deserted except for one white lady who still lived on her property.

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The Federal army returned to Washington and Jefferson College in May 1865. They had come to establish a Freedmen’s Bureau school at Jefferson College.

Congress established the Bureau of Freedmen’s Affairs on March 2, 1865, and President Lincoln signed the bill into law that same day.

The purpose of the bureau was to bring aid to the freedmen (liberated enslaved people) by helping them find employment, homes and many other forms of relief. The bureau was also charged with locating facilities for the establishment of schools for educating freedmen on abandoned or confiscated properties.

However, before the creation of the governmental bureau many missionary societies and benevolent associations had already established freedmen’s schools.

By October 1865 the Bureau had placed 676 freedmen in residence in the town of Washington, of which 200 were wives and children of soldiers, and the town was designated by the bureau as a “home colony.” A portion of the freedmen lived in cabins built by the bureau and the rest resided in houses seized by the bureau.

The bureau had established other “home colonies” throughout Mississippi on lands abandoned by their owners and confiscated by the Federals. These colonies were meant to create small farms to aid the freedmen in obtaining self-sufficiency and becoming landowners.

Even before the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, The U. S. Treasury Department had, in the spring of 1864, adopted a set of regulations for the management of abandoned lands. These lands were to be distributed to freedmen for use as farms. In November 1864, Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 that gave 40 acres of land to freedmen from abandoned lands in South Carolina. In June 1865, Sherman also ordered that the freedmen be loaned some broken down army mules. Sherman surmised that the mules could do farm work, and that they could recuperate and be returned to active service. The freedmen by that time should have earned enough to buy their own mules.

Many freedmen expected to receive 40 acres and a mule to help them start a new life. The expression “40 acres and a mule” became a rallying cry for many of them. Historians disagree on how this rallying cry started but a good case for its origin can be made for Sherman’s Special Order No. 15, and the subsequent lending of army mules to the freedmen.

These experiments in establishing colonies for the freedmen failed because Congress failed to recognize the full scope of the needs faced by an overwhelming number of freedmen. Added to this was the apathy of white southerners for the freedmen to own land. Finally, with Andrew Johnson becoming President, after the death of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, the bureau lost its support of the President. President Johnson started a policy of granting former Confederates full pardons and restoring their properties which made lands less available for the purposes of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

In the town of Washington one the first properties to be returned to its original owners was Jefferson College. It was officially returned to the Jefferson College board of trustees on Nov. 1, 1865. Subsequently all the confiscated properties in the town were returned to their original white owners and the Washington Home Colony ceased to exist.

President Johnson, in 1866, twice vetoed a bill to extend the Freedmen’s Bureau, but Congress overrode his second veto. Congress, in July 1868, withdrew the bureau from several states, and its operations, with the exception of education, were discontinued on January 1, 1869. The bureau was officially dissolved in 1872.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was founded to try and aid the newly liberated enslaved people. It helped many African American of that period start their quest for education. Several of the universities established by the Bureau such as Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and Howard University in Washington, D.C., still exist today. However, in their work to help the freedmen obtain financial independence it failed miserably. Not through any real fault of their own but because of the political climate that developed with the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of the biggest “what if” questions of American history. For if the bureau had been allowed to fulfill their mission to establish economic independence for the freedmen the path of American history after that period may have been completely different.

Clark Burkett is a historian at Historic Jefferson College. He writes a monthly historical column for The Democrat.