RECORDS OF THE SOUTHERN CLAIMS COMMISSION:
Tales of Civil War Citizens
by Carol J. Siemens
The War Between the States is one of the most dramatic events in American history. Its economic, social and psychological legacy lasted long after the war was ended--powerfully affecting our ancestors of that era, changing both families and communities. Genealogists typically explore the roles their ancestors played in this conflict by researching military enrollment rosters and pension lists. But what of those many people who did not join the troops but whose lives were forever altered nonetheless? What resources exist that describe their day to day lives during the War?
The National Archives stores an almost unknown resource with in-depth information about 22,300 Southern families. These families were Union loyalists who had goods confiscated by the Federal troops during the War and filed claims afterwards (1871-1880) to be reimbursed by the Treasury. In the records of the Southern Claims Commission, the claimants tell in their own words what happened in those fateful days, presenting a vivid and uniquely personal view of their lives during the Civil War. These papers are particularly useful for researchers whose families during the Civil War lived in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.*
This article will give a brief historical background, describe the documents that constitute these records, how to access the material, and some examples of information that may be obtained from the records.
*There are some 97 volumes of claims by loyal citizens in states not in rebellion (nicknamed the "Fourth of July claims" because Congress passed the act on July 4, 1864). Altho a good resource for genealogists, these are difficult to search as they lack a comprehensive index. (1)
Historical Background of the Southern Claims Commission
Although the Mason-Dixon line was drawn and each state designated Union or Confederate, the idealogies of the populace were not so clearly divided along geographical lines. There were even places in the South where citizens who opposed secession were in the majority--notably in northern Alabama, east Tennessee, and western Virginia. Other "loyal to the Union" Southerners who resided in areas that were predominantly Confederate faced severe hardships, death threats and starvation. Some were even forced to flee leaving their property behind. (2)
Other Southerners refused to join "the Secesh", as the Federalists called them, but managed to avoid much of the conflict. However, when the armies of either North or South were on the march, the political sympathies of the homeowners didn't always save them from having their goods confiscated. The troops were often poorly supplied and forced to supplement their meager rations by foraging the local countryside for the survival of themselves and their horses. Indeed this practice was so prevalent that at times whole campaigns had to be planned around the availability (or lack thereof) of food. (3)
About the only benefit that pro-Union sympathizers got from their uninvited "guests" was a hastily written "receipt" for their goods to be redeemed at an undetermined date after the war These receipts must have seemed of questionable worth to a victimized farmer who was left with nothing to feed his own family after the passage of the troops. However, years later these receipts proved to be just the evidence that was needed to be recompensed for what they had lost.
In 1871, Congress appropriated funds "for the payment of claims of loyal citizens for supplies furnished during the Rebellion". (This law applied to the 12 states listed above.) Over the next nine years 22, 298 claims were submitted; however, only 7,092 were "allowed" and received some recompense. (4)
These claims were heard by a three man board and subjected to rigid criteria requiring the claimant to both prove his loyalty and produce witnesses and/or receipts for the lost property. While many claims were disallowed as being "the fortunes of a war for the public defense" or losses due to "pillage by unauthorized soldiers", the Treasury Department did pay out almost five million dollars from 1871 to 1880.
The treasure for today's genealogist lies in the case records themselves - "the testimony given by some 220,000 witnesses household inventories, travelogues, military records, receipts and family letters. For estates where the original pro-Unionist died after the loss was incurred documents such as wills, birth records and lists of other family members may be included."(5)
Finding Relevant Southern Claims Commission Records
If any of your ancestors were likely to have lived in one of the states covered by these records (see paragraph two), and you know the county in which he resided, discovering if they filed a claim and finding their case record number is very easy.
Albuquerque researchers can easily confirm if any of these records pertain to their families by checking for their names in the consolidated index edited by Gary Mills catalogued under 973.75 M657c, Civil War Claims in the South; Records of the Commissioners of Claims which can be found in the stacks of the Special Collections Library. Published in 1980, this small volume is indexed by state, county and then individual claimant's names. (The Index is also reproduced on fiche 1-4 of M1407 or on roll 14 of M87 at the National Archives. Family History Center Library at Salt Lake City has also microfilmed the index on rolls 1463975 and 1463976 "Records of the Commissioners of Claims,1871-1880")
Finding the original case file itself takes a bit more persistence. There are different routes to follow depending on whether the claim was granted, barred, disallowed or appealed. If you are at the Washington D.C. Archives, the personnel there are good about helping you through the maze, however, some files of the disallowed or appealed category are in Suitland, Maryland and take awhile to retrieve. For those persons whose claims were "allowed" the process is much simplified and records can be retrieved for the researcher within a few hours.
The microfilmed records are also available in at branch offices of the National Archives in Fort Worth or Denver. Photocopies of any desired claims can be ordered from the National Archives by writing to the Legislative, Judicial and Fiscal Branch, citing Record Group 56. The researcher should provide the name of the claimant, the state and county given for the claimant and the specific claim number.
Mills suggests that as many records in your county of interest be searched as possible since there may be significant information about your ancestor under another claimant's name: (i.e. an in-laws name or the administrator of an estate). Or your ancestor may have been one of the witnesses called upon to testify for or against a friend or neighbor but not be listed in the index.
Simeon Wight's Claim --Benton County, Arkansas, 1873
Information about this family's participation in the Civil War was
scarce--limited to a few statements in the Benton County History--even though they lived only a few miles from a major battlefield in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Sometimes known as "the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern", this engagement was one of the earliest of the War and decisive for the Western front. It seemed unbelievable that they could have avoided the conflict that raged back and forth across their local countryside.
Through other research, it was known that Simeon Wight and his young wife Nancy were farmers and the parents of a new baby. James Wight, Simeon's father was 54 years at the beginning of the War but he had no service record either. Warren Wight, Simeon's brother who also lived nearby, was parenthetically noted in one record as being "a shoemaker for the Confederates". Until discovering the Wight case files (6) consisting of 45 pages of testimony to the Southern Claims Commission Board, this was all the information available.
In these papers, Simeon's own account of his life during the War was recorded and to that was added long statements by his wife, his father and three close neighbors and friends. Included were their ages, relationship to claimant, occupations, location of residences and signatures. Most fascinating were the dramatic descriptions of the soldiers and wagons that came to "forage" at their homestead.
Simeon's loyalty to the Union was confirmed by family and friends but he also had served briefly in a Union Militia Company, guarding a munitions train going to Cassville MO. He describes taking his wife and child to live in a "union colony" for a time during the war. He says he was able to keep from being conscripted by the rebel army by "laying out and dodging". During the Pea Ridge battle, he had gone to visit an uncle William Springsteen in the next county. When he returned, he found all his property had been taken. An elderly neighbor had witnessed the scene and testified :
"Tolerably early one morning I heard the wagons and I went over to claimant's house. I found half a dozen or more wagons at his oats lot and they were all large government wagons with four and six mules to each wagon. There was a great many soldiers with these wagons and they was well armed with sabers and swords; a great many of them was on horseback. General Sigel's and Curtis's Armies was both there."
Later in 1863, when Simon himself was present, the Soldiers of Philips Indian Brigade came to his house with 50 to 100 Indian and white soldiers and four or five army wagons: "The bacon was in my smoke house and the white soldiers carried it out and put it on their wagons on top of corn that they took from me at the same time. I talked to the forage master and tried to get him to stop the men from taking the bacon. He said if I would shew up everything and that I had no arms, he would not let anything be disturbed. I opened my doors, then he wanted his dinner and by that time the wagons came up and he said he would have to have my corn."
Simon was given receipts for some of his goods and the originals of these torn bits of paper written in 1863 were in his case file. Simon stated, "It was a dangerous time to travel around and so I never went to camp to get vouchers in pay, and I just laid my receipts away and did nothing with them until I put in my claim."
All of the handwritten records in the case file were in good condition and easy to read except for these receipts which were scribbled, discolored, and crumpled. It was easy to imagine them being hastily scrawled by the foragemaster and then hopefully stuck away by Simeon in some drawer for ten years before being produced as evidence. That they were even kept all that time says much for Simeon's faith in his government.
Simon's claim was for $900 worth of wheat, corn, bacon, oats, molasses, mules, saddles, and dried fruit. He did not claim all the furniture and other household goods that had been taken - presumably these were not covered in the supplies allowed by the legislation. In July 1878, five years after he had submitted his claim and 15 years after the supplies were "furnished", he received a settlement for $323, one-third the amount of his claim. Did he feel his faith in the Union was vindicated--or betrayed?
1. Guide to Genealogical Resources in the National Archives by Colket and Bridgers (GSA, 1964), p.230.
2. Benton County History, Vol I, p. 476, and 797.
3. Pea Ridge by Shea and Hess (University of N. Carolina, 1992), p.59.
4. The Source by Eakle and Cerny, 1984.
5. Civil War Claims in the South by Gary Mills (Aegean Park Press, 1980), p. viii.
6. Case file #10522, "Simeon Wight", Records of the Southern Claims Commission, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
This page was last updated on: February 14, 2017
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