Striking Gold with Freedmen’s Bureau Records

USCT Soldier
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. United States, None. [Between 1863 and 1865] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010647216/.
On 3 March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, to help millions of freed African Americans and poor whites in the South and the District of Columbia in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Union’s win of the Civil War had emancipated over 4 million slaves. From 1865 to 1872, the Bureau accomplished the following:

  • Provided food and clothing,
  • Provided employment and supervised labor contracts,
  • Operated hospitals, providing medical aid,
  • Helped freed slaves locate displaced family members,
  • Established schools,
  • Helped couples legalize their marriages,
  • Offered legal assistance,
  • Attempted to settle freed slaves on land confiscated or abandoned during the war,
  • Assisted African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs with securing back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. (Source)

In 2015, FamilySearch.org announced the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which digitized 1.5 million handwritten records about former slaves and made them searchable online at DiscoverFreedmen.org. This phenomenal project was a partnership between FamilySearch, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

These records are a great resource for researching ancestors who had been enslaved. Fortunately, I found my “jackpot” in these rich records. It confirmed that my father’s great grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County (Vicksburg), Mississippi, had fought in the Civil War. I had speculated that he may have been a United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldier, but I needed proof. A “John Bass” was in the Soldiers and Sailors Database as having fought with the 49th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, but was this my John?

I clicked on the Vicksburg records of the Mississippi, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872 and looked at the record set entitled Vicksburg (agent for payment of bounties). In those records I saw the name JOHN BASS. My heart skipped a beat! I clicked on “Roll 62, Applications for bounties, A-M, Sep 1868-Mar 1872” and browsed the handwritten applications. I then found his bounty application, which was dated 16 January 1871, the same day that he completed a Freedman’s Bank application.

John Bass Bounty Application

  • John Bass, Corpl, I, 49, USCI (which means Corporal, Company I, 49th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry)
  • Lives on Col. Hebron’s Plantation on Jackson Road about 8 miles from city (Vicksburg)
  • Is about 24
  • Was born N.C. (North Carolina)
  • Enlisted at Milliken’s Bend after Vicksburg S., Capt. Griffith (I assume “S” means “siege”.)
  • Is Identified by J.H. Parker as is believed to be OK
  • 538955. Amt. $254.42
  • Fees 12.50 $241.42
  • Was mustered in before the surrender of Vicksburg
  • No Discharge; lost his discharge on the boat going to Sunnyside Ldg (Landing)
John Bass USCT Profile
His profile in the Soldiers and Sailors Database.

Comparing the information on the bounty application to what I already knew, there is no question that this John Bass is one and the same person – my great great grandfather! I had confirmed my second Civil War soldier ancestor, now on my father’s side. My mother’s great grandfather, Edward Danner Sr. of Panola County, Mississippi, had fought with the 59th Regiment Infantry of the USCT.

I had already unearthed that Grandpa John was born in Northampton County, North Carolina around 1845. He, his mother Beady, and four siblings were brought to Hinds County, Mississippi around 1849, after Elizabeth Bass petitioned the court to retrieve her inheritance that had been bequeathed to her and her heirs by her father Council Bass’s 1830 will. Somehow, Grandpa John was taught how to read and write during slavery. This was illegal. He signed his own name on his Freedman’s Bank application, and the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Federal Census indicated that he was able to read and write.

JohnBassBankApp

John married my great great grandmother, Frances Ann Morris, on 6 February 1869. She, her mother, and siblings had been enslaved on Col. John Hebron’s plantation called LaGrange, located near Bovina in Warren County. In 1863, LaGrange Plantation was taken over by Gen. Ulysses Grant and 2,500 Union troops, who camped in Hebron’s orchards as they laid siege to Vicksburg, using it as a temporary headquarters.

So why did Grandpa John Bass and many others receive a bounty? The U.S. military employed a federal bounty system that encouraged men to enlist, re-enlist, and to serve up to three years. From 1861 to 1865, Congress distributed about $750,000,000 in recruitment bounties. Congress authorized a $100 bounty in July 1861, to men enlisting for three years. When the Enrollment Act was passed on March 3, 1863, three-year enlistees received $300, and five-year recruits got $400. These amounts were divided up and paid in monthly installments with the soldiers’ regular compensation.

African American soldiers and their families were commonly not treated as fairly as whites, when it came to bounties. Nonetheless, Grandpa John Bass’s application stated that he received $241.42, in which he apparently deposited into a new Freedman’s Bank account. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was established in 1865, by an act signed by President Abraham Lincoln, with the purpose of creating an institution where freed African Americans and their dependents could place and save their money.

JohnBassNamePointing1
Pointing to Grandpa John Bass’s name on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

 

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