Ft. Smith's Freedman's Bureau Office
Angela Y. Walton-Raji
On March 3, 1865, the end of the Civil War was approaching. The Congress of the united States had put a bill on the floor pertinent to the establishment of a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees. In the book "U.S. Statues, at Large, Treaties, and Proclamation of the United States of American vo. 13 (Boston 1866 pp 507-509)1
In Ft. Smith, Arkansas at the same time, the war had taken it toll as early as 1864. The black population found itself thrust into the arms of freedom, against a sometimes hostile white population. However, the city also found itself quickly occupied with Union soldiers----Black Union soldiers. These "Black Yankees" had even organized an regiment of soldiers in downtown Ft. Smith at the military barracks–with the official designation of the 11th United States Colored Troops (11th USCT) being given to this Ft. Smith regiment by the United States Army. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation had already reached Ft. Smith in early 1863. Blacks began leaving their masters, some elated merely to be free, others deter-mined to fight for their freedom when the opportunity presented itself. The first companies were recruited almost exclusively from Ft. Smith, but other companies were organized by the Federal officers, in Clarksville, Arkansas.
As soon as the 11th US Colored Infantry was organized, they were moved towards Little Rock, but the 57th US Colored Infantry from Helena were brought in to replace them. The 57th was stationed in Ft. Smith at the time of the surrender of Robert E. Lee's forces in Virginia.
Little is written about how the townspeople reacted to the presence of the black soldiers in Ft. Smith. However, by late 1865, it is evident that many men of the 57th had impressed the ladies from the black community, for 16 marriages were performed between men of the 57th USCT and local towns women. They were performed at the offices of the Freedmen's Bureau, by the military chaplain , Francis Springer. The next two years would see dozens of marriages performed between the black soldiers and former slaves from Ft. Smith, and Black Indians from Indian Territory.
In April 1865, word arrived in Ft. Smith via telegraph that Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Appomattox Virginia. The war was over, the slaves were now officially free. The 57th US Colored Troops were already stationed there, and were ordered to partol the city and to protect the military post.
The Role of the Freedman's Bureau:
The focus of the Ft. Smith field office of the Bureau of Refugees Freedman and Abandoned Lands was:
1) To assist with the transition of anew life of freedom for former slaves, in both Western Arkansas and Eastern Indian Territory.
2) To assist in the establishment of schools for freedmen children in Ft. Smith
3) To assist destitute white Refugees in the city who lost home and property during the war.
4) To assist with complaints of the newly freed black population againsts outrages and attacks committed by the local white population towards the freedmen citizens.
The location of the Freedman’s Bureau was the barracks at the military fort. The building today known as the Old Commissary building is said to have been the primary office of the Bureau.