Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Reliable Are the Southern Claims Commission Records? Legal Truth and Historical Truth

Many books and articles that I have read about Virginian civilians during the Civil War cite documents from the files of the Southern Claims Commission ("SCC").  Congress established the SCC in 1871 to hear and decide claims of pro-Union Southerners for stores or supplies that had been taken or furnished for use by the U.S. Army during the Civil War.  The legislation established a board of three Commissioners of Claims, who were appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  The Commissioners' ruling on each claim was to be presented to the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted on allowing the claim and appropriated funds for payment.  The House usually approved the Commissioners' decisions.  The workload of the Commissioners soon became overwhelming, and in 1872 Congress responded by authorizing the Commissioners to appoint "special commissioners . . . to administer oaths and affirmations, and to take the depositions of witnesses." (17 Stat. 97.)  The evidence gathered by the special commissioners was sent to the Commissioners in Washington, who made the ultimate recommendation to the House.  (A great history of the SCC can be found in this document from the National Park Service, the Virginia Genealogical Society, and the National Archives.) 

The materials assembled by the SCC naturally constitute a rich source of primary documentation on the life of Southern civilians during the war.  Authors frequently cite from the SCC files.  In particular, many of the accounts of voter intimidation in Virginia at the time of the ratification of the Ordinance of Secession come from the SCC records. Given the reliance by historians on these materials, how much credence we should place in the testimony of Southern claimants before the SCC?

In our legal system, judges (and juries) are charged with finding the "truth" and delivering justice. They examine and weigh evidence, apply the law to the facts, and reach a legal conclusion on issues such as guilt or negligence. Although not judges in the traditional sense, the SCC Commissioners performed a judicial function. They reviewed evidence, made findings of fact, and decided whether a claimant should be entitled as a matter of law to recover money from the Federal Government. For example, to prevail, a claimant was required to demonstrate loyalty to the Union. The Commissioners reviewed claimant and witness testimony, and made a determination as to the credibility of the claimant's assertion that he or she was a Union supporter during the war. Claimants also had to convince the Commissioners of the amount of property losses suffered at the hands of the Union military. The Commissioners' factual findings in relation to such issues amounted to an endorsement or rejection of the claimants' story. In essence, the SCC decision was designed to get to the "legal truth." But "legal truth" is not necessarily the same thing as "historical truth."

Readers are no doubt familiar with the reversal of criminal convictions based on newly discovered DNA evidence.  In these cases, a person was prosecuted and then convicted based on the weighing of insufficient or flawed evidence by a jury.  The verdict supposedly represented the "truth" - that the suspect committed the crime.  But the actual, historical truth turned out to be something quite different.  Pause also to think of wrongful convictions by rigged juries during the Jim Crow era.  The bottom line is that legal findings will not always coincide with reality.  Witnesses lie, juries may be prejudiced, and absolute certainty is not required for conviction.  The same applies in the realm of civil law.

Oath of Claimant George W. Steele, Fairfax County, VA (courtesy of
So what does this mean in the context of the SCC?  The Commissioners' rulings contain legal and factual findings, similar to judicial decisions.  A recommendation to grant compensation was based on a weighing of evidence, including claimant and witness depositions.  The law establishing the SCC required that the Commissioners find "satisfactory evidence of the justice and validity" of a claim in order to recommend compensation. (16 Stat. 524.)  An 1872 amendment imposed a criminal penalty on those who committed perjury before the Commissioners or special commissioners.  (17 Stat. 97.)  Commissioners were also empowered to hire agents to conduct investigations, procure evidence, secure the attendance of witnesses on behalf of the government, and conduct examinations and cross-examinations at hearings.  (17 Stat. 97.)  All of these elements helped to ensure that only valid claims were awarded.

Claims document of Edwin C. Fitzhugh of Fairfax County, VA showing that claimant and witnesses were sworn to tell the whole truth (courtesy of

In fact, the Commissioners appear to have applied relatively strict evidentiary standards (or a lot of blatant liars filed claims!). According to the St. Louis County Library, Southerners made 22,298 claims for property losses, totaling around $60,260,000. However, only 32 percent, or 7,092 claims, in the amount of about $4,640,000, were approved for settlement.  In Fairfax County alone, out of a total of 196 claims, only 7 percent of the total value of claims, or $68,000 of just over $1 million, was awarded.  (Charles V. Mauro, The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers, The History Press, 2006.) 

Cover of Summary Report for the Claim of John W. Lynch, Fairfax County, VA, submitted to Congress, and noting an allowance of $197.50.  Lynch was denied another $537.50 in alleged losses. (courtesy of

This brings us back to the original question about the reliability of the SCC documents.  As noted above, there will never be 100 percent certainty as to whether the legal truth equates with the historical truth.  Witnesses could have stretched the truth.  Other witnesses may have had fuzzy recollections due to the passage of time, or retained scant proof of property losses.  Some Commissioners may have been skeptical about allegedly pro-Union Southerners and disregarded credible testimony.  If the numbers tell us anything, the Commissioners may have been too exacting, and excluded Unionists.  Overall, however, the legal nature of the proceedings put more of a check on the facts than may exist in the case of a self-serving post-war memoir or a battle report written to justify erroneous tactical decisions.  But historians still have a duty to scrutinize the SCC files, like any other primary sources, and to find corroborating evidence wherever possible.  The closer we can get to ensuring that we measure the legal truth against the historical truth, the better. 


Anonymous said...

We will never be able to ascertain the total accuracy of the claims made by destitute civilians to the SCC in the years after the Civil War. After all, these people were desperately seeking restitution for the loss of their property, their way of life, and possibly the loss of family members during the war. It would not be hard to lie to a hated Yankee bureaucrat to gain reparations from those who had taken all of this from someone.

The big three “tests” the civilians had to pass to gain desperately needed funds were whether they owned the property in question, whether they could prove Union troops took their property, and most importantly, whether they were loyal to the Union. This last question perhaps was the easiest one to lie about. The commissioners however didn’t rely solely on a claimant’s word for this question; they went into the neighborhoods and interviewed the claimant’s neighbors and had the records on the vote for secession to determine the matter of loyalty. Surprisingly one third of the claims processed were actually paid, however only pennies were paid for every dollar claimed.

Anne Frobel, who lived outside of Alexandria, kept a diary about the “vile refuse” as she called the Yankee invaders. In her deposition to the SCC however she said she “was always in favor of the Union and was very much grieved to believe it might be broken up.” She also said she often boarded Union Officers and that they “were very kind to us.” Yes she lied about being loyal. She didn’t lie about boarding Union Officers and their wives, but she had no choice in the matter. And while they may have been kind to her, she complained bitterly about their presence in “The Civil War Diary of Anne S. Frobel of Wilton Hill in Virginia”.

Being an agrarian society at the time, the list of property taken is basically the same from claim to claim; houses, trees, cows, horses, hogs, hens, furniture, windows, doors, corn, oats, hay, fences, potatoes, etc. Stories abound of civilians being arrested on suspicion of providing information to the opposing army or being arrested by “some beer drinking Captain” and put in jail as an excuse to steal one’s horses. Loyalty to the North or South didn’t really matter when thousands of hungry soldiers descended on one’s farm like “seven year locusts.” Soldiers on both sides needed food, forage and shelter as much as the civilians from whom they took it as they moved from one location to another. The Union regiments named by those in Fairfax County as taking property do indeed correspond to those who were in the area at the time.

All this being said, the claims in the SCC provide us with wealth of information about the everyday struggles of ordinary civilians during the war. While most did not record diaries of their everyday thoughts and lives, some did not hesitate to recount the trials burned in their memory in the hopes of gaining some relief on their long road to recovery.

Chuck Mauro

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your insightful comments on this topic. I know you’ve done a lot of good research on the claims of Fairfax County citizens before the SCC. (And I much appreciated your lecture before the McLean Historical Society the other night; quite timely considering that I had been thinking about the accuracy of SCC findings all week!)

I agree that we will never know for sure the total accuracy of the claims that were made, and I bet that in most instances there are few sources that can corroborate what the claimants said before the SCC. However, as I indicated in the post, we likely can have some degree of confidence in the facts behind successful claims due to the scrutiny to which the claimants were subjected. As to the claims that were not granted, there were surely fabrications, as you point out, and it is possible that in other cases, the evidence was not convincing enough to meet the exacting standards of the Commissioners. For example, perhaps some citizens voted for the Ordinance of Secession out of fear for their lives, and never did anything else contrary to the Union cause. But a vote for ratification was a vote for ratification, and enough to convince a Commissioner of disloyalty. Overall, we are lucky to have these records, which tell a remarkable story as reflected in your book on Fairfax in the Civil War.

Anonymous said...

"This last question perhaps was the easiest one to lie about. The commissioners however didn’t rely solely on a claimant’s word for this question; they went into the neighborhoods and interviewed the claimant’s neighbors and had the records on the vote for secession to determine the matter of loyalty."

The lying would have been easy, but they knew well enough that they had to back up a lie, if that is what they were doing.

While affidavits, neighbors, and county records were indeed checked, the claims people went much further in their assessments, even to the point of tapping those, locally, who had signed the Ironclad Oath for more information. The hard-line Unionist who took that oath so soon after the war... he wasn't messing around. Real Unionists had heartburn about the way they were treated during the war, and didn't want to see funds go to those who didn't deserve them. I'm confident of this. So, the filtering-out of applicants didn't just happen at a desk in D.C., but also occurred in the county of origin.

Speaking of this, having been nose-deep in the claims at NARA 2 for my thesis, I've seen where people in my home county ratted out the true frauds. One claimant, in Page County, for example, said one thing, but he was well-known as an avid supporter to the Confederacy, even diligently producing goods at the foundry, under contract, for the Confederacy.

So, actually, I'm not so surprised at the number of claims that were approved (nor the number "barred"), but I am surprised at the number denied/"disallowed".

Good stuff, Ron. I should probably continue this in a post in my blog. Perhaps tomorrow.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. Glad you liked the post, and your comments are, as always, most appreciated!

It is interesting to hear how thoroughly invesitgated a lot of these claims were. This type of investigatory work, in conjunction with the legal nature of the proceedings, gives me even great confidence in the records of the successful claimants before the SCC. Of course, as I point out, there may always be false negatives, but at least in so far as the cases where money was awarded, the legal truth appears measure up to the historical truth. Look forward to your post on this.