The Rise and Fall of Reconstruction in Virginia

Lesson 2: The Freedmen's Bureau

Time Estimated: 1 to 2 days days



Students will:

  1. Learn that the Freedmen's Bureau was a government agency that provided food, schools, and medical care for freed slaves and others in Virginia and the rest of the South.
  2. Understand the scope of devastation in Richmond, Virginia and the desperation of people in various counties in Virginia.
  3. View and discuss primary documents in the form of letters reporting on conditions in the districts under the jurisdiction of the Freedmenís Bureau.
  4. View and discuss primary documents which are written requests for assistance
  5. Role play how the Bureau identified problems and assessed what was needed in order to meet the needs of the freedmen
  6. Design a Freedmen's Village







  1. Ask students to recall yesterdayís lesson summarizing problems faced by Virginians and the solutions they suggested. Continue the discussion focusing on their possible solutions.
  2. Tell students to understand what steps the government took to help the South solve some of these problems, they will be reading some primary sources from that period in history. Review with students the nature of primary sources (diaries, laws, letters, etc). Remind them that their textbook is a secondary source that explains the Freedmenís Bureau. They will be acting as historians who use a variety of sources to learn how people lived at that time in history and to make conclusions. Tell students that today they will be reading a section of the law that created the Freedmenís Bureau, and some letters people wrote back then requesting assistance.
  3. Display a copy of CHAP.XC - An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees Distribute a copy of excerpts from the law and read through with students. Ask students to pair up and make a chart listing the purpose, goals, and positions created by the law.
  4. Conduct a whole group discussion summarizing the structure and intent of the Bureau.
  5. Pair students again and display the web sites listed below from Valley of the Shadow that display primary sources requesting assistance. With the class, read from letters from ex-slaves requesting assistance from the Bureau.
  6. Written Requests will include:

  7. Ask students in pairs to play the role of a Superintendent and decide how to respond to the requests. Have students report their decisions and conduct a whole group discussion on the requests.
  8. Distribute excerpts from letters of officials from the Freedmenís Bureau reporting conditions in their districts. Read over with students and as a class, list and discuss some of the barriers to achieving the goals of the Bureau.
  9. In a whole group discussion, complete a class poster board that summarizes the role of the Bureau and its accomplishments. For a brief summary of its accomplishments see.
  10. Be sure to include in the discussion the following important teaching points:
    • The scope of the destruction in the South
    • The establishment of the Freedmenís Bureau in the War Department.
    • The management of the Bureau will be operated by a commissioner.
    • Counties will be managed by Superintendents in their respective states.
    • Provisions will be made for clothing and shelter for freedmen, and freedmenís wives and children.
    • Barriers to successfully completing the goals of the Bureau.

Informal: Circulate the classroom and observe student participation in pairs, and check their work, e.g., charts that list the Bureauís purpose, goals, etc. Participation in this activity should allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of what is needed to rebuild a society and some of the obstacles faced by the Freedmenís Bureau.

Extension Activity/Additional Assessment on Freedmenís Village

Strategies Students will be given a blank map of the Freedmen's Village that was located in Arlington, VA in 1863. Students will label the buildings according to what they determine are the needs of the freedmen. (you can work with or copy the images at


Grading Rubric

  • 3 points - includes only residences
  • 4 points - includes residences and a school
  • 5 points - includes residences, a hospital, an eating facility, school, laundry, church




Heterogeneous groupings to assist in reading. Teacher will circulate the groups, helping individuals as needed.