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