Author Interview--Dale Kretz (Administering Freedom) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Dale Kretz to talk about his new book, Administering Freedom: The State of Emancipation after the Freedmen's Bureau, published by the University of North Carolina Press in October 2022.

Dale Kretz is a labor representative for the California Nurses Association. He received his PhD in History from Washington University in St. Louis. He has also published a number of popular articles on Jacobin.

Dale, how did you come to write a book about pensions and African Americans?

DK: I began researching the pension files of the US Colored Troops in the hopes of gaining insight into experiences of enslavement in the antebellum South, particularly as it related to matters of health and healing. What I found was a stubborn—and, to me, at the time, suspicious—reluctance among formerly enslaved claimants to speak about the corporeal privations of slavery. To the contrary, most affirmed that they had left slavery in “perfect health.” 

The regularity with which I encountered this sort of response in the pension files of formerly enslaved UCST veterans encouraged me to investigate the pension process more thoroughly, in the hopes of learning why freedmen had to make such assertions. The more I studied the policies and protocols of the Pension Bureau and how it managed the claims of freedpeople the more fascinated I grew with the rather Kafkaesque phenomenon of formerly enslaved people having to fill out mountains of paperwork to receive highly conditional federal benefits. 

And so, initially I hoped to use the pension files as most scholars who use them do: to tell stories of enslavement or war, using the content of the depositions and affidavits of each case file to tell stories outside the bureaucratic context of its production. But the real story, for me, quickly became the very production of that paperwork. That process seemed to offer an invaluable perspective on the question of how ordinary freedmen and women experienced the federal government. 

Answering that question not only deepened my engagement with the USCT claims in the Pension Bureau but also drew my attention towards other government agencies responsible for the claims of freedpeople arising from the Civil War, including the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872) and, most surprisingly—an agency heretofore completely unknown to scholars today—the Freedmen’s Branch, which continued the work of the former until 1879. 

What do you argue in Administering Freedom?

DK: There’s a familiar narrative to the story of Reconstruction: freedpeople made impressive political and social gains in the early postwar years before the federal government abandoned them amidst a counterinsurgency of white supremacist forces, from Democratic state governments to Klan terrorists; though disenfranchisement relegated Black Americans to the margins of the formal political arena, they nevertheless endured as individuals, families, and communities, and even created scores of activist organizations to challenge Jim Crow and finally recapture state recognition in the mid-twentieth century.

The novel sources used in my study—payment and welfare claims lodged within the administrative state—present the period of Reconstruction and thereafter in a striking new light, at once widening the lens on Black politics and deepening our appreciation of what freedpeople were able to accomplish under these immiserating circumstances. I make the case that the promises of emancipation weren’t merely crushed by the forces of reaction but were also persistently bureaucratized by the new liberal order—that is, appropriated, filtered, and transformed by the federal administrative state—which managed radical collective demands by imposing a framework of individual, contractual, and highly contingent entitlements for select classes of citizens. 

I am glad you bring up sources and obviously when it comes to group that were purposefully kept illiterate as in the case of slaves, sources and the way we read those available ones is crucial. You seem to have many direct African American voices, but how much are they saying things to fit a blueprint in the pension system? I am thinking here about your earlier statement that they talked about how healthy they were during slavery and then got ill in the war.

DK: It’s an important question: How do we interpret these sources produced in a very particular context and to satisfy very particular requirements? Anyone who reads hundreds of pension files of formerly enslaved men and women cannot fail to notice their savviness in negotiating the pension system, and in securing the assistance of third parties—from agents and attorneys and physicians to comrades and neighbors and even former enslavers—to support their claims. They knew which parts of their narratives to emphasize and which parts to downplay, silence, or deny. 

This was especially the case under the so-called general law system set up by the Act of July 14, 1862, which required veterans to identify a service origin for disabilities—any prewar evidence of such conditions disqualified their claims. The bright red line drawn between the antebellum and wartime periods presented acute challenges to ex-slave veterans. Soldiers of the USCT experienced battlefield-adjacent hardships that were virtually indistinguishable from conditions they endured in the days of slavery: excessive labor, exposure to the elements, deficient diet, and deadly diseases. USCT veterans who claimed, for instance, to have contracted rheumatism during their service could ill afford to leave any doubt in pension administrators’ minds that their rheumatism developed before enlistment.

Because the pension files showcase extraordinary documentary evidence of ordinary ex-slaves, many of whom would be otherwise lost to written history, it has proven all too tempting for many to view these claims as miniature autobiographies, and the claims process as an open-ended platform for the formerly enslaved claimants to finally “tell their story” to federal officials, who were simply there to bear witness. In reality, the moments that attended the production of these documents were often laden with anxiety, fear, and frustration. Livelihoods were on the line. Incorrect answers jeopardized the income of entire families. Not infrequently, suspicious answers triggered accusations of fraud to be investigated by the Pension Bureau’s Law Division; convictions ultimately resulted in not just removal from the rolls but hefty fines or even imprisonment. As such, freedpeople knew that the stakes were high and approached their claims accordingly. 

As we get into the book’s details, I want to first ask if you could briefly introduce the different offices that African Americans appealed to for financial support.

DK: My book focuses on three main federal agencies: the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Freedmen’s Branch, and the U.S. Pension Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created in March 1865 as part of the War Department, a temporary agency to integrate the formerly enslaved into the free market economy. In its final years the bureau mainly functioned to help facilitate the payment, bounty, and pension claims of USCT veterans and their heirs. This task, unfinished when the bureau closed in 1872, lived on in another federal agency, the entirely forgotten Freedmen’s Branch, which outlasted the official Reconstruction project. The Freedmen’s Branch established disbursing offices at a dozen or so locations across the South to finally pay the long-awaited enlistment bounties to hundreds of USCT veterans and heirs. 

The last major agency, the Pension Bureau, was by far the largest—and not restricted to the post-Confederate South. It handled the claims of Union veterans and heirs, Black and white alike, until 1930, at times consuming more than one-third of the federal budget. Though Black claimants made up only a fraction of the total pension rolls, they applied for pensions at disproportionately high rates and overwhelmed Pension Bureau officials with the complexity and persistence of their cases. Indeed, my book is the first to situate formerly enslaved claimants as critical actors in the construction of the federal administrative state in the South.