Eliphalet Whittlesey (1821-1909)

Written By Adrienne Dunn

During the creation of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, Oliver O. Howard, Commissioner of the Bureau, appointed Eliphalet Whittlesey as North Carolina’s first assistant commissioner.  In this capacity, Whittlesey supervised the distribution of rations to Freedmen.

Born in New Britain, Connecticut in 1821, Whittlesey graduated in 1843 from Yale and traveled later to teach in Alabama.  He later studied theology at Yale and Andover Seminary.  In 1851 he became pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Bath, Maine.

 Before accepting his assistant commissioner post at the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865, Whittlesey served as a Brevet Brigadier General.  In March 1865, Whittlesey established his headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina and divided the state into four districts: New Bern, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Goldsboro.  Each district had various subdistricts.   Superintendents were in charge of districts and assistant superintendents were in charge of subdistricts. 

Apprenticeships affected the work of the North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau. Apprenticeship, which bound a child to a master, took children away from their parents.  After the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, white plantation owners searched for cheap laborers.  The practice of apprenticeship afforded the opportunity for landowners to obtain workers.  Whittlesey loathed the practice and mandated policies that soon undermined the apprenticeship practice.

Whittlesey agents instructed agents that parental consent was required for apprenticeships, yet he did not believe that this policy should be implemented in every case.  In exceptional cases, Whittlesey believed, apprenticeship was the best option–especially if children were orphaned or their parents’ were unable to care for them.

After a while, Whittlesey questioned how his Bureau policies contradicted his personal free-labor principles.  In his opinion, the practice of apprenticeship resembled slavery. He soon prohibited his agents issuing apprenticeships and from removing any children from their parental homes, except for orphans and for children of parents who had given consent.  In line with his free-labor policies, he prohibited the apprenticeship of children aged fourteen and older because such children possessed control over their own labor.

Determined to show whites that blacks could be in charge of their labor, Whittlesey established an experimental farm. The model farm, as historian Karin L. Zipf writes, employed 150 and provided housing for 150 children and elderly people.  During the evenings, holidays, and nights, freedpeople were allowed to rent and farm additional land for profit.

Whittlesey was later court-martialed after one of the laborers was found dead.  The assistant commisioner failed to pursue the case surrounding one the laborers’ death.  This inaction convinced two friends of President Andrew Johnson, Generals John Steedmen and James Scott Fullerton, that the Freedmen’s Bureau was corrupt.  In the end, Whittlesey was censured, left North Carolina, yet continued working for Howard until 1872.