Union soldiers could clean out a family in a matter of days. Kate Couse, of Spotsylvania County, in testimony before the Southern Claims Commission after the war, described the "desolation" left by the Union army in May 1864. "Everything we had was swept out in one week," she said, "and we were left with very little to eat, and what little we had, we divided with some wounded Union soldiers left at a neighbor's house unprovided for." After the soldiers had moved on, she continued, "we walked over the cleared part of our farm, and there was scarcely a thing of any value remaining in the place but the buildings. All was desolation." Her husband Peter Couse's claim was approved in 1875.
Even some Virginians who otherwise sympathized with the Union protested these kinds of appropriations. William Peters was a free black man in Rockingham County during the war. As part of making a successful claim in 1876, he recalled complaining to Union soldiers that "it was mighty hard to take the property of a negro, that I was not against [them]. They said they had to have horses and forage to carry on the war and I could do without better than they could." In some instances Union officers left receipts promising compensation to loyal southerners, but more often they left only empty storehouses and stripped fields.
Debate over Claims
After the war, requests for remuneration continued to pour in. They were submitted to various departments of the military and to the claims committees in Congress. Worried that the cost of reimbursement would be too high, the House resolved on January 30, 1866, that its Committee of Claims reject all claims "by citizens of any of the States lately in rebellion, growing out of the destruction or appropriation of, or damage to, property by the Army or Navy while engaged in suppressing the rebellion." Even claims from former slaves were considered illegitimate.
The tide only turned in favor of considering southern claims when former Confederate states began to be readmitted to the Union. Their representatives, and especially southern and border-state Republicans, supported claims as a matter of justice for their constituents. Democrats north and south, meanwhile, argued that such a law would promote reconciliation. Senator Waitman T. Willey, a Republican of West Virginia, referred to Unionists when he said, "I think it would be exceedingly hard to reject the applications of such men, and to say that they are no better than the rebels among whom they lived." He suggested that while former Confederates now "lived in the perfect enjoyment of every civil right of the American citizen," those Unionists who had suffered for their beliefs were "regarded as public enemies, not entitled to the benefit and protection of … the Constitution."
Only some northern and western Republicans continued to oppose southern claims, but their concerns did not carry the day. On March 3, 1871, Congress established the Southern Claims Commission.
Structure of the Commission
The law created an independent, three-member commission. It could hear claims only from "those citizens who remained loyal adherents to the cause and the Government of the United States during the war," although Congress did not provide the commissioners with a definition of such loyalty. The law also limited consideration to claims for quartermaster and commissary supplies. Finally, all decisions by the commission were subject to congressional approval.
All claims generally required witness corroboration. For claims of more than $10,000, the commissioners favored in-person testimony, while for claims of less than $10,000, they designed a set of questions, called "Standing Interrogatories," to be put to claimants and witnesses. Questions about military service, financial holdings, business dealings, and personal relationships were designed to elicit a detailed picture of a person's experiences and loyalties during the war. The commissioners appointed local men throughout the South to distribute these interrogatories and hear testimony, with the resulting depositions being forwarded to Washington, D.C. From there, the commissioners could order further investigation and, on occasion, even travel to interview claimants personally. They required that any decision to approve a claim be unanimous. And at the end of every year they submitted all approved claims to the House of Representatives, which rarely overturned a decision.
Claims from Virginia
From 1871 to 1880, southerners submitted 22,298 claims. Because many were not accompanied by any evidence (i.e., oral testimony or the completion of the interrogatories), only 16,995 claims were officially considered. Of these, 7,409, or about 44 percent, were approved for a total of $4,636,920.69. Virginia ranked behind only Tennessee in the total number of claims, at 3,197.
When the commissioners composed their first set of interrogatories, they seemed to be guided by a rather narrow vision of southern Unionists: those who had opposed secession both at the ballot box and on the battlefield. But when they first began to hear testimony, the commissioners found themselves confronted with many southerners who did not fit this model, including many white men but also white women and African Americans. The commissioners likely had not imagined white female southerners or black southerners as loyal citizens or, for that matter, expected them to have owned much property. However, many white women had inherited property from their fathers or their husbands, and many former slaves had accumulated property by hiring themselves out or by working for themselves after hours.
Black Virginians usually equated the Union cause with emancipation. Ephraim Wynn, who had been a slave in Dinwiddie County, explained, "I was always a Union man. I was a slave & I thought my only chance for freedom was in the success of the Union cause." (His claim was approved in 1879.) Mary Blackburn, of Augusta County, had been a slave when her husband succeeded in purchasing her freedom just before the outbreak of the war. Her husband had not, however, been able to free her children, "all of them sold to traders whilst I was in slavery. I have never heard from them since." As part of a claim approved in 1875, she explained to the commissioners that she had supported the Union cause "because of the manner in which my children were torn from me." Free blacks also nearly universally supported the Union cause. William James, of Henrico County, reported, "I believed that if the Rebels gained their independence they would make slaves of all of us free colored people. I could'nt [sic] get my rights from any body but the Union." (His claim was approved.)
Virginians who, because of their subordinate social positions, were not able to cite political acts or military service instead emphasized their contributions to the Union armies. Edward W. Whitehurst, a former slave from Elizabeth City County, had worked as a nurse in Union hospitals at Newport News and Fort Monroe before opening a bake house in Hampton. His claim was approved in 1877. Pamunkey Indians, who retained a small reservation in King William County, had contributed between ten and fourteen men to Union service out of a village of about twenty-five households. Lambert C. Page, for instance, testified that he had served as "a pilot for Genl. McClellan's boats on the Pamunkey River" after the Seven Days' Battles in 1862.
In accordance with traditional gender roles, white women often repudiated the public world of politics as beyond the private realm of domesticity. Eliza A. Clarke, of Roanoke County, whose claim was rejected in 1872, stressed her opposition to secession and support for the Union. But "as a woman," she explained, "I took no part whatever in the war." She explained that "I never did anything to help the Confederate cause or hurt the Union," and that "I would have been willing to contribute to the success of the Union so far as my means and circumstances would permit." Mary Kane, of Caroline County, won approval of her claim in 1877 after describing how she helped Union soldiers by warning them of the imminent arrival of a Confederate detachment and by sending her son to guide them to safety.
The commissioners accepted that some loyal southerners had been prevented from contributing to the Union war effort by Confederate repression. Robert Butler, of Fauquier County, whose claim was approved in 1876, testified he had experienced ongoing harassment by Confederates throughout the war, including having his house set on fire as a result of his loyalties to the Union. He had been forced to "lie out" in the woods to escape conscription. Black Virginians especially had confronted the dangers of Confederate persecution. William Pugh, of Norfolk County, told the commissioners that "I was taken in 1861 from my farm and carried to a hill side adjoining and struck six or seven times with a club with a gun held pointed at me. Done by Confederate cavalrymen for having been reported as carrying information to the Union forces." His claim was approved in 1871.
Still, most claimants failed to win compensation for their appropriated property. Patterson Allen (sometimes Allan), of Goochland County, could not prove his loyalty to the commissioners' satisfaction. He had voted for Unionist delegates to the Convention of 1861 and had refused to vote for secession in the statewide referendum that spring. Because he had furnished a substitute and secured a service exemption, he was not directly implicated in the Confederate military. His evidence of loyalty, however, largely rested on his wartime efforts to secure the release of his wife, who had been imprisoned on charges of serving as a Union spy. In 1871, the commissioners disallowed his claim on circumstantial evidence. In the course of arranging for his wife's protection, he had been granted passes to enter and leave Richmond, which indicated that "the confederate authorities had the strongest assurances that he was at least not unfriendly to the government." The commissioners considered Allen's wife loyal, but because she had not owned the property in question they rejected the claim.
Allen could not rely upon his wife's loyalty to prove his own, but many white female claimants supported their claims with evidence of their husbands' loyalty or found their claims rejected on account of their husbands' disloyalty. While most black claimants successfully proved their loyalty, they often failed the second hurdle to a successful claim: the property test. In other words, they were unable to convince the commissioners that they were industrious enough to have earned the property they claimed had been seized.
End of the Commission
At the end of the Civil War, distinctions between loyal and disloyal citizens had served a political purpose, with many believing that the former would make better citizens. By the 1870s, however, this argument no longer prevailed. In order to do their jobs, commissioners were required to focus on the divisive details of wartime loyalties, which, some argued, prevented the reconciliation of white southerners and white northerners. Even many Republicans came to see Unionists and their attempts at reimbursement as impeding the establishment of workable, republican governments in the South.
The Southern Claims Commission finished its work in March 1880, and the end came just in time. The political will to sustain the continued payment of claims had nearly disappeared.
July 18, 1862 - Union general John Pope issues General Orders No. 5, directing the Army of Virginia to "subsist upon the country." His General Orders No. 7 hold Confederate civilians who live near the sites of guerrilla attacks responsible for damages. Confederates perceive these orders to be violations of the tradition of honorable warfare.
July 4, 1864 - The U.S. Congress passes a law limiting the payment of claims for compensation for the destruction of Union armies to residents of non-Confederate states.
July 14, 1864 - Via a letter to Henry W. Halleck, Union general Ulysses S. Grant orders General David Hunter to lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley.
January 30, 1866 - The U.S. House of Representatives resolves that its Committee of Claims reject all claims for compensation for the destruction of Union armies originating in former Confederate states.
March 3, 1871 - The U.S. Congress passes a law establishing the Southern Claims Commission, an independent body charged with hearing claims of southern Unionists for compensation for the destruction of Union armies during the Civil War.
1873 - Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, a Democrat of Virginia, argues that the federal government ought to reimburse former owners for the loss of their freed slaves.
Autumn 1876 - Democrats reportedly threaten to pay large claims to former Confederates for damage done by Union armies during the Civil War if they win the presidential election.
1878 - Democrats in Congress refuse to appropriate money to pay employees of the Southern Claims Commission.
February 3, 1879 - The New York Times turns against southern Unionists seeking claims for damage done by Union armies, calling them "skulkers" and "sneaks."
March 1880 - The Southern Claims Commission, established in 1871 to hear the claims of southern Unionists for damage done by Union armies during the Civil War, completes its work.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Lee, S. M. The Southern Claims Commission in Virginia. (2015, December 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Southern_Claims_Commission_in_Virginia_The.
- MLA Citation:
Lee, Susanna Michele. "The Southern Claims Commission in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Dec. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 17, 2015 | Last modified: December 18, 2015
Contributed by Susanna Michele Lee, an associate professor in the history department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.