Southern Claims Commission in Virginia, The


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.

Wartime Foraging

Sheridans Wagon Trains in the Valley. Early morning mist and smoke

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 first in the Western Theater and then in Virginia. What started as an informal necessity turned into a tactic of war. On July 18, 1862, for instance, Union general John Pope, commander of the new Army of Virginia, issued General Orders No. 5, which directed his men to “subsist upon the country.” Two years later, the Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, ordered his commander in the Shenandoah Valley to have his soldiers “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.” Cavalry under Philip H. Sheridan largely complied later that year.

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

Return of Federal Foraging Parties into Camp

Even without promises of compensation, southerners lobbied the U.S. government for payment. As early as 1862, William Reid requested reimbursement from the federal government for wood, stock, and produce taken from his Fairfax County farm. Reid wrote that he expected the government would “promptly provide necessary means to remunerate him for the injuries he has suffered, by the acts of its army.” His efforts, however, were in vain. Although laws authorizing such remuneration were proposed in Congress, and although residents of Loudoun and Stafford counties were especially active in petitioning for relief, the U.S. Congress passed a law on July 4, 1864, limiting the payment of such claims to residents of non-Confederate states.

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.

John Sherman

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. Still others asked why, if they truly had been loyal, had Unionists remained in places such as Virginia during the war.

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.

Presidential Appointments for the Southern Claims Commission in 1871

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.

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.

Delegates Who Voted for and Against Secession on April 17

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. David W. Landis, of Augusta County, testifying as part of a successful claim in 1879, asserted, “I never believed in the doctrine of secession, nor in the Virginia doctrine that it was my duty to go with any State. I believed that my first allegiance was due to the National Government.” Others, especially those who had not owned slaves, emphasized class distinctions. Simeon B. Shaw, a Culpeper County farmer whose claim was approved in 1878, suggested that his loyalty was directly related to his status as a “poor man.” The Confederates, he argued, had waged war “in the interest of slavery.” Without slave property to defend, “I regarded the war as altogether wrong and unnecessary.” Moreover, Shaw feared that “If the South had gained their independence, a poor man like [me] would stand no chance at all here.”

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.)

Joseph Eggleston Segar

While the commissioners generally looked favorably upon such expressions of Union sentiments, they placed greater weight on evidence that claimants had actually contributed to the Union cause. They especially valued political and military service to the Union. Joseph Eggleston Segar, of Elizabeth City County, recounted his political efforts in opposition to secession. As a long-serving member of the General Assembly, he had voted against several disunion measures prior to the Civil War. He highlighted his attempts, in the spring of 1861, to prevent the state’s seizure of guns at Bellona Arsenal, near Richmond, that the federal government planned to transfer to Fort Monroe. Even before it had seceded, Virginia was preparing itself for war, a move that Segar opposed. Along with several other Unionist delegates, he left the chamber to break up a quorum and so prevent a vote on the authorizing bill “as the only means of defeating the infamous measure.” He succeeded in evading the sergeant at arms sent to round up legislators, but the measure passed anyway. His petition for reimbursement was approved in 1874. Another claimant, Lorenzo Thomas Jr., provided details of his service as a Union officer in order to claim property appropriated in Alexandria County. Thomas’s father, an adjutant general, had initially requested his son’s commission from Abraham Lincoln‘s first secretary of war, Simon Cameron.

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.

Impressment of Slaves and Free Blacks

Many black Virginians suffered impressment, which allowed the Confederate government to legally seize food, fuel, slaves, and other commodities in support of the war effort. Their treatment by authorities was often brutal. Benjamin Summers, of Norfolk County, related that “I was taken handcuffed and carried to Craney Island and made to work on the earth works with ball and chain on my legs. I was kept there two months, when my legs were so bad from the chain that I was sent back to Suffolk. This was by the Confederate authorities and because I did not want to go and tried to get away. I was given five hundred lashes and then rubbed down with salt brine.” The local commissioner recording his testimony described his injuries: “Claimant has shown me a fearful looking body where he has been whipped. His hips looking as though large pieces of flesh had been dug out.” His claim was approved in 1879.

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

Robert M. T. Hunter

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. As for “southern claims,” the Richmond Daily Dispatch sneered, “the southern people have nothing to do with them, and care nothing about them.” The newspaper asserted that “the claims of such persons,” that is, loyal citizens, “are such as the southern people are utterly indifferent about.” Indeed, payment would only go to those who “cannot honestly be called southern people.” Southern politicians called for the abolition of the commission or opening it to claims from former Confederates. In 1873 Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, a Democrat from Virginia, argued that the federal government ought to reimburse former owners for the loss of their freed slaves. 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.

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.
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.
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.
  • 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.
APA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. Southern Claims Commission in Virginia, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/southern-claims-commission-in-virginia-the.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. "Southern Claims Commission in Virginia, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 05
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