Tennessee Unionist to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner

[Fayetteville, Tenn.]  (Augst 8th 1865)

Genl  I am called upon by some very worthy and deserving Freedmen to make a statement of their grieveances to the end that your advise & directions may be obtained by which they can govern themselves and to plead that an agent may be sent for their protection at your earliest convenience

The grievances of which they complain are as follows,  that their former master Dr Wm Bonner abandoned them with all his other property in this county in June 1863 by taking what he could transport and going South in advance of our Army commanded by Genl Rosecrans   they were left with just such means of support as could not be moved   there were a few hogs left on the farm which were subsequently taken from them thereby throwing them entirely upon their own resourses.  Since then they have worked and lived   his Dr Bonners Daughter Mrs Lamb in the mean time has been taking from time to time such of their products as she thought proper for her own use with out compensation untill last winter when he returned and reassumed his authority over his possessions

When by the act of the Loyal people of the state they were made free he first ordered them off his land.  they were preparing to comply when he proposed to them that if they would remain and go to work he would make such arrangements as would be satisfactory to them and to the mutual interest of both parties, since which time they have frequently called on him to have the terms definitly understood but have as often failed in getting a satisfactory answer,  from what they can learn from himself and their fellow Freedmen his object is to defraud them of the present crop and if they will not submit to the old slave policy to drive them off the land   he has told them and reiterates that if they do not submit that not one of them will be allowed to remain on his land all of which they have great cause to fear without the benign influence of your authority is thrown around them as a wall of defence and a sure refuge in this their time of trouble   for the past Three years they have furnished all the salt they used and the last two have supported themselves entirely and this present year they have stocked the farm with what horses that has been used in making the crop paid the smiths bill and every expence not costing him one cent expence and now to loose it all under the circumstances they cannot they will not believe you will allow

The complainants of the foregoing represents three families numbering 14 souls   they have managed to procure by purchase and otherwise about 70 head of Hogs Large and small and now William Bonner Sr tells them that they will not be allowed to have or to raise hogs or stock of any kind on the farm that is all his   they have also about 55 acres of corn and also about 30 acres of cotton with a very flattering prospect of a fine yield and with the fear of loseing their labor before them they will be very unesy untill they can hear from you   your attention to the foregoing is earnestly solicited and will place them and myself under obligations to your kindness   there is one other matter to which they desire me to call your attention and it is to know whether they are entitled to any remuneration for their services for last year.  they have had read in their hearing your Circular1 and it gives entire satisfaction   they make but one expression and that is unanimously in its favor and with an agent within reach they would be entirely Content   and another matter they are anxious about the next year for homes   they wish to know whether an oppertunity will be afforded within the year to procure a home out of those abandoned lands   there are enough of such lands to accommodate all the freedmen and some for refugees   I think from my recollection there are over Twenty thousand acres that are abandon,d under the Law2   I have the Honor to be your Obt Serv't

William French

William French to Brig. Genl. Clinton B. Fisk, 8 Aug. 1865, F-55 1865, Registered Letters Received, series 3379, Tennessee Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. No reply has been found in the letters-sent volumes of the assistant commissioner. One month later, after French had been appointed Freedmen's Bureau agent for Lincoln County, he reported that he had “notified Wm Bonner Jr to restore to the freedmen of one of his fathers platations stock that . . . has been unjustly taken from them.” The ex-slaves had raised and bred the cattle, hogs, and sheep left behind when the senior Bonner “absconded” in June 1863; therefore, French contended, they had as much “right to a support out of [the livestock] as their former master.” Since returning to his plantation in January 1865, the elder Bonner “has refused peremptorily to furnish them with a single pound of meat upon which to subsist.” Moreover, French reported, he “has been trying to coerce the Freedmen to submit to the old slave policy and upon their refusal he has notified them that they shall not remain on his land after the crops are gathered.” Meanwhile, Bonner, Jr., “has been constantly allarming them with Bushwhackers if they fail or refuse to do his bidding”; “with the aid of soldiers and some neighbors,” he recently “took one of the freedmen out of his House at the dead Hour of night tied him to a tree and then struck him four or five hundred lashes on his bare back.” The entire Bonner family, French claimed, had been “active and intence Rebels”; William Bonner, Jr., had served in the Confederate army, and his father and sisters had become refugees into the Confederacy. Their land, French argued, was therefore subject to seizure “under the act of Confiscation” and also as abandoned land, “and if they are to be passed by there are no Homes for the Refugee or Freedman in this county.” (Wm. French to Genl. Clinton B. Fisk, 14 Sept. 1865, F-72 1865, Registered Letters Received, series 3379, Tennessee Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

1. Circular 2, issued by the assistant commissioner on July 24, 1865, had summarized the objectives of the Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee: “promotion of productive industry,” settlement of ex-slaves “in homes of their own, with the guarantee of their absolute freedom and their right to justice before the law . . . [and] the dissemination of virtuous intelligence.” The circular forbade “[c]ompulsory, unpaid labor,” encouraged ex-slaves to work “for an interest in the crop,” and pledged that “Special efforts” would be made to settle them on confiscated or abandoned land. (Circular No. 2, Bureau Refugees, Freedmen, and Aband. Lands, Office of Asst. Comr. for Ky., Tenn., and Northn. Ala., 24 July 1865, Special Orders & Circulars Issued, series 3384, Tennessee Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

2. The law of March 3, 1865, that created the Freedmen's Bureau had authorized its commissioner to “set apart, for the use of loyal refugees and freedmen, such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale.” (U.S, Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, 17 vols. [Boston, 1850–73], vol. 13, pp. 507–9.)

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 470–73, and in Free at Last, pp. 329–31.