The Southern Claims Commission (SCC) was an organization of the executive branch of the United States government from 1871 to 1880, created under President Ulysses S. Grant. Its purpose was to allow Union sympathizers who had lived in the Southern states during the American Civil War, 1861–1865, to apply for reimbursements for property losses due to U.S. Army confiscations during the war.
Claimants sought compensation for supplies that had been confiscated by or furnished to the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
The Southern Claims Commission was created by Congress on March 3, 1871, to compensate southern Unionists for property appropriated by the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although claims for reimbursement had been made since early in the war, many in Congress had resisted authorizing their payment. They feared fraud and dismissed the sincerity of Unionism in the South. Once former Confederate states began to be readmitted to the Union, however, pressure mounted and the law passed. The act required the president to appoint three commissioners to “receive, examine, and consider the justice and validity” of claims for “stores and supplies” taken by the Union army in the Confederate states. The commissioners reported their decisions on each claim to Congress for approval and appropriation. Because the Union presence was so extensive in the state, Virginians submitted 3,197 claims, the second largest number after Tennessee. The claims from Virginia suggest the wide diversity of Unionism in the state during the war. White men often expressed their loyalty by opposing secession, while African Americans sought freedom from slavery and women worked within their traditional gender roles to assist the Union war effort. Over time, the Southern Claims Commission lost support and was seen as divisive. It finished its work in 1880.
During the Civil War, Union armies often foraged for food and supplies, meaning that soldiers appropriated what they needed from people living nearby. Unreliable supply routes by railroad and water encouraged such practices. What started as an informal necessity turned into a tactic of war.
Union soldiers could clean out a family in a matter of days. Godfrey Norton, of Richmond 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,” he 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, he 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.”
Opponents of southern claims tended to dismiss the sincerity of Unionism in the South. They argued that a law authorizing such claims would be used by former Confederates to win reimbursement fraudulently. Or, like Senator John Sherman, a Republican of Ohio, they claimed that southern Unionists amounted to no more than the “indifferent, idle, or old, women and children.” In other words, according to Sherman, these potential claimants were people who were unlikely to have owned property that could have been seized in the first place. Some went further and suggested that the ranks of Unionists consisted primarily of those who had refused to do their duty by fighting for the Confederacy.
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.
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.
With these parameters in place, lawmakers left it up to the commission’s three presidentially appointed members—Asa Owen Aldis, of Vermont (president); Orange Ferriss, of New York; and James B. Howell, of Iowa—to create the rules by which they would hear and decide on claims. They adopted fairly rigorous standards of operation, largely as a means of preventing fraudulent claims from former Confederates. To win an award, for instance, claimants were required to prove two points: first, that they had been loyal to the Union for the entire length of the war, and second, that their property had been appropriated by proper military authorities. The commissioners defined residency in a Confederate state during the war as “prima facie evidence of disloyalty” and required all claimants to prove otherwise. They also interpreted the law to limit compensation to medical, engineering, and food supplies. Claims for damage to buildings would be barred. The commission’s strict approach disappointed many who had hoped to compensate southerners for a wider variety of claims, and it frustrated those who had favored more lenient definitions of loyalty.
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.
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.
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.
As such, the records of the Southern Claims Commission reveal many different kinds of Unionists and a variety of ways in which Virginians, in particular, expressed their understandings of loyalty. White claimants, for instance, generally presented themselves as anti-secessionist.
Between 3 March 1871 and 3 March 1873, Southerners filed 22,298 claims before the Southern Claims Commission (SCC) based on the fact they were loyal to the Union during the Civil War; had quartermaster stores or supplies taken by or furnished to the Union Army during the rebellion. Southern Loyalists made 22,298 claims for property losses totaling $60,258,150.44. However, only 7,092 claims (32%) were approved for settlements totaling $4,636,920.69. Each claimant sought to prove their loyalty and loss through the testimony of others. The paper trail created by the claimants and the people who came forward to testify, for or against a claimant, provide a wealth of information about individuals living in the South during the Civil War. #8453. Claim of Eli Norton, of Laurel Hill, Richmond County, North Carolina 1 Bay horse $125; 17 chickens $4; 10 lbs lard $2; 2 bu. corn, $3; 1 bu pease, $2; 2 bu potatoes $1; 3 pr pants $3; 2 pr stockings; 1 comb; 1 looking glass; 1 sadle $4; 1 bridle $4; 2 gals sirup $1.50. Total $148.90 Remarks: This Claimant resided in Richmond County, North Carolina throughout the War. He says he was a Union man, and that is about all the proof of the fact derived from his own testimony. He lived in peace, and was neither molested, injured nor threatened on account of his Unionism. He had two sons in the confederate army, William Norton and Darling Norton, and several nephews. He calls three witnesses to prove his loyalty; John C. Norton, thirty-three years of age, who swears he has known the claimant thirty years; Hiram Norton, twenty-three years of age, who says "he has known Eli Norton ever since he knew anybody;" and Darling Norton, aged twenty seven years, who says he has know the claimant, Eli Norton ever since he has known anybody. Nobody tells us the relationship of these witnesses to the claimant. Darling is probably his confederate soldier son; the others probably sons or nephews. If the claimant was really a loyal adherent to the cause of the Government of the United States during the war, it seems incredible that he would rely upon his kinsmen alone to prove his loyalty. We are not satisfied with the proofs of loyalty, and reject the claim. It takes a lot of food, supplies, and horse-power to keep an army on the move. During the Civil War, it was customary for soldiers to show up at someone's farm or residence and requisition whatever their regiment needed. In 1864, the U.S. government started to officially recognize claims by its citizens for reimbursement of these necessities. Yet it was not until 1871, six years after the Civil War ended, and after public emotions about the war had calmed, that the government decided to do something to address the considerable number of requests from all its citizens, including those in the south. Through an act of Congress on March 3, 1871, the Southern Claims Commission, also known as the Commissioners of Claims, was created. Three commissioners, appointed by the president, were compelled to "receive, examine, and consider the claims of those citizens who remained loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war, for stores or supplies taken or furnished during the rebellion." Many claims were quickly dismissed. They can be found in a publication entitled Barred and Disallowed Case Files. The rest are collected by state under the title of Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims 1871-1880. Often, those loyal to the Union who provisioned the troops were ultimately denied reparations, even though their claims for compensation were approved.
Claim #664. Godfrey Norton, of Laurel Hill, Richmond County, North Carolina 2 clay-bank horses $100; 1 2-horse wagon & harness $125; 1 2-horse wagon & harness $150; 1 buggy and harness $150; 125 bu corn$187.50; 500 lb. forage $22.50; 10 bu pease $15; 5 bu oats $5; 1,000 lb bacon $180; 100 lb. lard $20; 5 bu sweet potatoes $3.75; 1 set knives and forks $2; 2 pairs pants, 2 shirts, 1 coat, 1 vest $22; 1 barrel flour $9; 20 chickens $5; 100 old bank-bills $110. Total $1106.75 Remarks: The claimant swears to loyal sentiments and sympathies; says he was conscripted in 1863, and hired a substitute to serve in the rebel army, and that in 1864 he enlisted under a proclamation of the governor and served some six weeks and then got a furlough, and did not return. Three or four witnesses swear to loyalty of claimant in general terms, but never mention that he furnished a substitute or served in person in the rebel army, which indicate how unreliable and worthless the testimony of witnesses to loyalty frequently is, and how averse many of our special commissioners seem to putting questions that would draw out testimony injurious to claimant. We regard the acts of claimants as inconsistent with the character of a loyal man, and therefore reject the claim. Source: Digest of Disallowed Claims
The Southern Claims Commission faced increasing opposition over the course of its ten years of operation. Former Confederates condemned claimants as nothing more than traitors.
Republicans responded by warning of “rebel raids” on the federal treasury, and in 1876 they reported that Democrats were threatening to pay claims to former Confederates if they won the presidency that autumn.
Democrats won control of Congress in 1878, and although they were not united enough to end the commission, they did refuse to appropriate salaries to the commissioners and their investigators and clerks. Fatigue with Reconstruction policies had long set in, and many of the original arguments against claims were resurrected by northern and western Republicans. In Thomas Nast’s popular editorial cartoons, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, the phrase “southern claims” came to signify defrauding the government, while the New York Times, in 1879, complained that “the men who now claim to have been loyal” were once “the skulkers and the sneaks.” “Why,” the paper asked, “should the sincere rebels of the South wish to see the country—themselves as well as the people of the North—taxed to put money in these men’s purses?”
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.
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Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Klingberg, Frank W. The Southern Claims Commission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955.Lee, Susanna Michele. Claiming the Union: Citizenship in the Post–Civil War South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
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 Humanities, 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2021.
- 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.