Disclaimer: This article describes a new offering from Footnote, Inc., the sponsors of this newsletter. There is a possibility that I am displaying some bias in favor of the sponsor, although I honestly don't think that is the case. I'll simply mention the possibility and then let you judge for yourself.
One of the most valuable sources of genealogy for anyone with southern U.S. ancestry went online a couple of months ago. The Southern Claims Commission records can provide a wealth of information not found in census records, church records, tax lists, or elsewhere. In fact, for many people who lived in the southern states during and after the Civil War, the Southern Claims Commission records often are the only source of family relationships that still survive today. Surprisingly, many genealogists with southern roots are not even aware of this valuable resource.
As in any war, it takes a lot of food and other supplies to keep an army in fighting condition. Also, as in most wars, supplying front line troops with the necessary food, weapons, and clothing is always a great problem. Both sides in the Civil War tried to solve the problems in the same manner that armies have used for centuries: they simply seized whatever they needed as they traveled.
If you were a farmer, a shopkeeper, or simply someone who owned a horse in the early 1860s and you were also unfortunate enough to have an army pass by, you had a high probability of your goods, animals, and crops being confiscated. In fact, there are many reports of people having their crops taken by both armies, a few days or weeks or months apart. Such are the ravages of war.
Of course, the losing side never compensates the victims after the war is over, for obvious reasons. The Union, however, did recognize claims by its citizens for reimbursement of these necessities. The Southern Claims Commission was established by an act of Congress on 3 March 1871. The commission reviewed the claims of Southerners who had "furnished stores and supplies for the use of U.S. Army" during the Civil War. A little more than a year later, Congress extended this to include property seized by the U.S. Navy.
Citizens who filed claims before the three-member board were required to show proof of lost property and provide satisfactory evidence of their loyalty to the federal government throughout the war. If someone had crops or horses taken by the Union army, they could apply for compensation. Other claims talk about families forced to leave their homes when the army commandeered the house as its local headquarters. Storekeepers may have had their inventory of food, hardware, and other supplies taken without permission. Others lost wagons, mules, hogs, cattle, bacon, hay for horses, cordwood, and anything else that could help keep an army on the move. Anyone loyal to the Union could later apply for compensation. The paperwork in the files is often extensive.
Most of the applications were filed in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. A handful of the applicants lived in those states during the Civil War but later moved elsewhere.
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."
The phrase "loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war" obviously was a stumbling block for many. However, that did not stop some former Confederate soldiers and their families from applying for compensation. In their applications, many simply never mentioned their service and sympathies although applications without proof of loyalty were usually rejected. A few claimed that they had been forced to join the Confederate forces for various reasons, even though their loyalties supposedly remained with the Union.
Many of the applications name relatives, neighbors and others, regardless of the other person's political loyalties. Even if your ancestor was a loyal Confederate and never filed a claim, it is quite possible that he or she was mentioned as a witness or a bystander in a claim filed by someone else. He or she even may have filed a lengthy affidavit describing, among other things, the relationship to the claimant. The Southern Claims Commission records contain thousands of references, such as "my brother John" or "my father-in-law, Will Durham." In many cases, these are the only available records of family relationships. Only the claim applicants were required to state their loyalty; there was no such requirement for witnesses and others mentioned in the claim applications. As such, the records of the Southern Claims Commission contain amazing information about southern residents, Confederates and non-Confederates alike.
More than twenty thousand claims were filed by the March 3, 1873, deadline. Evidence supporting the claims, which included depositions, testimonials from neighbors and family, receipts, and personal interviews, had to be filed by March 10, 1879. This gave the commission six years to finish the job.
Out of the 22,298 claims filed, less than a third (7,092) perfectly satisfied the commission's stringent requirements for loyalty, as well as proof of the value, ownership, and military nature of the possessions taken. Of the amounts claimed, totaling over $60 million, just over $4.6 million, or 7.7%, were approved and paid.
While roughly two-thirds of the claims were eventually disallowed, that fact is irrelevant for genealogical purposes. Allowed and disallowed claims alike are full of information of interest to genealogists. The files are instructive as well as entertaining to read. They are filled with first-person accounts of how average civilians participated in the war, the circumstances surrounding the dispossession of property, and descriptions of wartime not often revealed in history texts. Most claimants had to answer a long list of pre-determined questions. Even the summation reports that the investigators submitted are often candid, revealing informative parts of the story.
Anyone searching African American ancestry in the south will also have a strong interest in these records. Nobody knows how many blacks filed applications or were mentioned in the claims filed by others. The Southern Claims Commission simply never kept totals of the ethnicity of the applicants. However, the text of many applications will reveal former slavery, often including the names of former owners and the names of family members. Many of the claims were filed by people of modest means. The Southern Claims Commission records contain information about blacks, slave-owning whites, and non-slave-owning whites in a manner unequalled anywhere else.
In an article published in the July/August 1999 edition of Ancestry Magazine, Reginald Washington wrote, "…the Southern Claims case files also have extraordinary amounts of personal data. Scattered among the thousands of pages of testimony, special reports, and affidavits is a wide range of information concerning the names and ages of former slaves, their places of residence, names of slave owners, plantation conditions, wills and probate matters, slave manumissions, slave ownership of property, slave and free black entrepreneurship, conditions of free blacks, and a great deal more on what it was like to live as an African American during slavery and the post-slavery period. For the Afro-American genealogist whose ancestor filed a claim before the commission, the information could prove to be invaluable."
NOTE: Reginald Washington is an archivist/genealogy specialist with National Archives and Records Administration. He lectures frequently on the use of Federal records for African American genealogy research. You can read the full text of his article at http://www.ancestry.com/learn/library/article.aspx?article=213.
Some of the records of the Southern Claims Commission have been available on microfilm and microfiche for some time. However, the full collection is not on film. Anyone who has only examined the microfilm/microfiche versions has missed approximately one-third of the pages of the Commission. The other third was only available on paper but now is being scanned by Footnote.com. It seems that the film version only contains the "barred and denied" claims and a fraction of the approved claims.
None of these records have ever been available on the Internet; Footnote was the first company to place these rerecords online.
Footnote.com's online Southern Claims Commission database contains images of every claim and all accompanying paperwork. These are images of original documents, often filled out in the claimant's own handwriting. You can view the documents on your computer screen, print them on your own printer, or save them on your hard drive for later use in genealogy programs, word processors, or image editing programs. Many of the documents are of such high quality that they are suitable for framing with little or no editing required by photo editing software.
I found it easy to locate individual claims in the Southern Claims Commission. In fact, you can identify claims without a membership in Footnote.com and without paying any money. However, to view the original document or to save it to your hard drive, you will need to choose from a couple payment options: either you can pay a modest fee to access the document, or you can obtain a membership for unlimited access to all the documents for a fixed period of time.
To start, I went to http://www.footnote.com and clicked on CIVIL WAR COLLECTION. I then clicked on SOUTHERN CLAIMS COMMISSION. At that point, I was offered two choices:
- To search for individuals words that appear anywhere in the collection (not just surnames and first names; the search also finds towns, counties, and more. A search for "mule" will find all references to that word anywhere in the Southern Claims Commission data.)
- A search by states and county and then by name of the applicant.
As I often do, I searched first for my own surname and was pleasantly surprised to find 56 references. At random, I selected the claim of William Eastman of Warren County, Mississippi, filed 24 January 1872, as Claim number 11268. I could even see a thumbnail image of the first page of the document, too small to read. So far, I had not been asked for a user name, password, or payment of any money.
When I clicked on the thumbnail image of the document, I was asked for user name and password. I entered the information. If I did not already have a Footnote.com membership, I could have paid $1.99 to view the document immediately, or I could also sign up for a membership at that point.
After entering my user name and password, the 14-page document appeared on my screen. I found it easy to go from page to page, zoom in and out, print, or download and save the document. I have seen a lot of image viewers used to display historic documents, and I must say that the Flash-based image viewer on Footnote.com is the best one I have seen. Even better, it works identically on both Windows and Macintosh systems.
After reading the document, I found that William Eastman asked for payment of $600 as reimbursement for the two horses and two mules taken from him. I assume that $600 was a lot of money at the time. He supplied an affidavit that apparently was dictated by Richard Eastman (the same name as my own) stating, "I am a brother of the claimant. We were raised together and slaves of the same master, James Allen." Richard then mentions Elijah Anderson, who was also a slave of James Allen. Richard tells about Mr. Allen's policy of allowing his slaves to raise their own food and even sell it, if they wished. He wrote, "We made sometimes $150 dollars a year."
Richard then testified, "My brother's family consisted of a wife and two children. He was sober and industrious and well to do, and master's favorite, and was allowed a good many advantages; he was foreman on the place. When we made a good crop, Mr. Allen would frequently give claimant a hundred dollars and would give him a big Christmas dinner to the people on the place of which the claimant would have charge. He was foreman of the place and I had charge of the plow hands under him."
The affidavit goes on for many pages, describing how his brother William came to own the animals. The affidavit ends with a small letter "X" surrounded by the words, "Richard Eastman - his mark" and the signature of witness E. P. Jacobson. The claim application also includes affidavits from other witnesses.
Sadly, the Commission denied the claim of William Eastman as he had no receipt for the animals when taken by the Union army. While William never got his money, his claim left behind a lot of information about his life and the lives of his family. It even gives a glimpse into the manner in which his former master, James Allen, treated his slaves. Even though this is a claim filed by William Eastman, the descendants of James Allen might be very interested in reading it. Such information is never found in census records and is rarely found elsewhere.
This is but one example of the information found in the Southern Claims Commission records. You can find another 22,297 other examples online at http://www.footnote.com.
Indeed, the Southern Claims Commission records contain a wealth of information about southern whites and blacks alike. I am always amazed at how few genealogists with southern heritage are aware of these records.
If you are interested in post-Civil War society or have roots in the south, you will find a good dose of enlightening history within these records, as told in the words of those who lived it. If your ancestors were in the southern states between 1861 and 1880, you need to look at these records.
Again, the Southern Claims Commission records are available online now at http://www.footnote.com. You can view individual documents (often multiple pages) for $1.99 each. You may find it more cost-effective to purchase a monthly or annual membership and gain unlimited access to as many images as you care to view. A monthly membership only costs $9.99 while an annual membership is available for $99.99.