The Southern Claims Commission

by Reginald Washington

"My name is John Monroe. I was born in Liberty county [Georgia]. I was a slave but purchased my freedom of my master two years before the war closed. I paid $4200.00 for myself and my wife. I don’t know how old I am, but I think about thirty-six years old. I live six miles from Savannah near the six mile post on the Atlantic and Gulf railroad. I am a farmer and cutter of wood. . . .My former master was R.H. McLeod. I am not in debt to him his heirs or estate in any way. He is dead now, but his wife and son live here in the city now . . . no one has any interest in this acct. in any way besides myself."1 

John Monroe is one of hundreds of African Americans–former slaves and free blacks–who filed claims before the Commissioners of Claims, commonly referred to as the Southern Claims Commission. Established by Congress by an act 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. Monroe, who sought payment for cattle, hogs, horses, a wagon, and other personal property taken by Sherman’s army at Savannah in December 1864, testified that he had bought and paid for his property from earnings gained from his butchering business. Sold by McLeod to Col. C.C. Jones in the fall of 1863 because of "improper conduct," Monroe’s claim was rejected by the commissioners because he failed to convince them how "a slave with a new master could accumulate all this property in one year."2

Aside from the importance of Monroe’s claim and the claims of other African Americans, 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.

African Americans and the Claims Process 
Supported by a staff of special commissioners who reviewed small claims in local areas, and special agents who traveled from state to state gathering evidence in all claims, the commission collected claimants’ petitions, interviewed witnesses, and secured any information it deemed pertinent to individual claims. Having no final jurisdiction on claims they reviewed, commissioners forwarded annual reports along with supporting documentation and their evaluation of each claim to the U.S. House of Representatives. The House would then vote to allow or disallow the claim and appropriate funds for payment. In almost every case the House concurred with the recommendations of the commission.

When the commission closed its doors on 10 March 1880, some 22,298 claims had been received, totaling $60,258,150.44; only a third of these claims, however, at a cost of $4,636,920.69, were allowed. Just how many of these claims were submitted by African Americans is not known; it appears that the commission did not maintain statistics on the number of claims they filed. Nonetheless, the records reveal that a small but impressive number of African Americans filed claims for the loss of a wide variety of property, including hogs, chickens, horses, cattle, mules, corn, potatoes, wheat, and other personal goods. Like the claim of John Monroe, however, a substantial number of their claims, especially those of former slaves, were disallowed.

Because slaves had no legal right to property, commissioners required former slaves to show strict proof of ownership and clear title to property. Oftentimes with no legal basis for their claims, ex-slaves found it difficult to prove–at least to the satisfaction of the commissioners–that they owned the property for which they sought compensation. Satisfaction for commissioners varied from case to case, and a claim could be allowed or disallowed solely on the basis of whether commissioners or special agents were convinced that the evidence presented in a case was "satisfactory."3

In claims where it was suspected that former slaves had been given property by their owners just prior to the arrival of Union forces, commissioners routinely denied such claims as mere attempts on the part of owners to avoid having their property fall into the hands of the federal government. When the property had been taken by soldiers unauthorized by military commanders and it was not clear that the property was taken for stores and supplies or for the use of the army, commissioners readily denied such claims for failure to meet the commission’s guidelines and regulations.

A noteworthy claim is that of Jack Dawson, a forty-two-year-old former slave from Limestone County, Alabama. Dawson, who sought payment for a horse originally taken by Union soldiers from his owner, James J. Dawson, testified that he was told by his owner that if he was able to retrieve the horse, he might have him. After succeeding in getting the horse back, a short time later the horse was taken again. In addition to providing details about the circumstance surrounding his claim, Dawson told commissioners that he had resided with his owner from 1 April 1861, until 30 December 1863, when his owner urged him to enlist in the Union army. Dawson stated that he enlisted under the name of John Jackson and served as a sergeant in Company I, 110th U.S. Colored Troops. In his explanation to commissioners on why he entered the military under a different name, Dawson replied: "My fathers name was Jack and I was called John Jack to distinguish us." Dawson also told commissioners that upon leaving the service on 6 February 1866, he took the name of his owner and was known by many members of his community as Jack Dawson.

Despite having his former owner and a neighbor testify to the facts in his case, the commission dismissed Dawson’s claim on the grounds that once the horse had been taken for the use of the army, it belonged to the government, and neither his owner nor anyone else had a right to give it to him.4

Dawson comments about his enlistment in the Federal army takes on added significance when one considers that the National Archives maintains thousands of military service and pension files of African Americans who served with the U.S. Colored Troops. A search of these files provided evidence that Dawson had indeed served in the Union army. The records also revealed additional information about him and other members of his family.5

In another claim, Thomas Shaw, a thirty-eight-year-old former slave from Madison Parish, Louisiana, sought payment for the loss of three mules, one wagon, a top-buggy, and a harness, totaling seven hundred dollars. Shaw alleged that the property in his claim was given to him as a gift from his owner, Alexander Shaw, who "had to leave home when the Federal army came along." Fearing that the property might fall in the hands of the Rebels, Thomas Shaw told commissioners that he left Madison Parish with the property in 1864 to accompany General Sherman’s army to Vicksburg. He stated that it was at Vicksburg that the property was taken for the use of the army.

Commissioners wasted no time in rejecting Shaw’s claim. Based on testimony of Shaw’s sister, Margaret Dallison, commissioners were convinced that Alexander Shaw’s real intent was to keep his property from being confiscated: "He told us he had to run from the Yankees, and he told the claimant, pointing to this property, which was all in the lot with us, that he made him a present of them all, and asked him to take care of them all and asked him to take care of his place for him."6

Henry Bivens, a fifty-two-year-old former slave from Sumner County, Tennessee, claimed $150 for a colt given to him by his mistress, Mrs. Cheatham, and taken by Union soldiers under the command of General Paine when it was two or three years old. Bivens testified that during the war he lived within four miles of Gallatin, Tennessee, and that he originally belonged to the estate of Issac Franklin. He further testified that the colt in question was raised by him and his wife, and no one else had claim to it. Commissioners, nevertheless, disallowed Biven’s claim because he did not prove entirely to their satisfaction that he legally owned the colt, or that it was taken for the use of the army. The commissioners ruled that because the colt was "too small and too young for service in the Army," it could be presumed that it was taken for the gratification of individual soldiers and not the federal government.7

While there were any number of reasons for disallowing the claims of ex-slaves, it is clear that commissioners had a great deal of concern about the legitimacy of the claims they filed. Nowhere is this concern made more apparent than in the series of questions they developed specifically for ex-slaves at the time of their interrogation. While the questions were designed to show clear title to property and to remove any doubt that the property belonged to their former owner, the answers given by individual claimants provide the Afro-American genealogist with some of the most crucial and oftentimes elusive information that is necessary in the search for their family roots.: Were you a slave or free at the beginning of the war? If ever a slave, when did you become free? What business did you follow after obtaining your freedom? Did you own this property before or after you became free? When did you get it? How did you become the owner, and from whom did you obtain it? Where did you get the means to pay for it? What was the name and residence of your master, and is he still living? Is he a witness for you; if not, why not? Are you in his employ now, or do you live on his land or on land bought from him? Are you in his debt? What other person besides yourself has any interest in this claim?

Not all claims submitted by ex-slaves were disallowed. Joseph James, for example, a forty-seven-year-old former slave from Liberty County, Georgia, claimed $484 and was awarded $120 by the commission for a mare, twenty hogs, fifty bushels of corn, and other goods taken by soldiers from the William J. Martin plantation, where his wife lived. James testified that he had accumulated the property in his claim by working under the "task system." Under this labor system, slaves were given a certain amount of work at the beginning of a day, and once this work was completed, they were allowed to use their time in any way that they pleased. James told commissioners: "When we got through our task we, if we were industrious men would work the land our master let us have for ourselves. I have myself worked this way with plough and hoe till the fowls crow for day. By moonlight and firelight. In this way of working at taskwork at night I got all the property in my claim."8

Samuel Harris, also a former slave from Liberty County, who indicated at the time of his testimony that he was a carpenter by trade, was allowed $75 of the $455 claimed for a mare, wagon, saddle, a hog, and twenty fowls. Harris testified that he gained the property in his claim by hiring his time to his master, E. J. Delegal. Under this practice, a slave who hired his time was allowed to work for persons other than his owner. Any money he earned above the amount fixed by the owner he kept for himself. Harris told commissioners that he hired his time for thirty years and paid Delegal fifteen dollars a month. He stated that he earned from five dollars to ten dollars a month for himself. Harris also provided commissioners with the names of three other former slaves and the names of their owners who allowed them to hire out their time.9

African Americans as Witnesses 
African Americans not only filed claims but were among the 220,000 witnesses who testified on behalf of African American and white claimants. In many instances African Americans who served as witnesses for other African Americans were usually their relatives, fellow slaves, or neighbors. In the claim of William Young, for example, a former slave from Georgetown, South Carolina, his son Philip and stepson Isaac testified that Federal troops took Young’s property. Tip Fly, an ex-slave from Rutherford, Tennessee, called his stepdaughter Nancy Todd to testify to the seizure of his property and his loyalty to the Federal cause. In another claim, Isham Christian, a free black from Appomattox, Virginia, brought his wife Judy and daughter America to testify to his Union sympathies.10 

African Americans who testified for other African Americans not only provided personal information about a claimant’s ownership of property and his or her loyalty to the Union, they often supplied a great deal of information about themselves. Charlotte Baker, a sixty-four-year-old former slave who testified to the loyalty of her niece Sara Black provided commissioners with details on how she obtained her freedom: "I worked and paid for myself[.] I think I was about thirty years old when I bought myself. Mr. John Stewart was my guardian. I got him to buy me and then I paid him. . . .I paid $800 for myself."11

African Americans who testified in the claims of whites were usually their former slaves. Their testimony was often crucial in the commissioners’ decision. However, commissioners were suspicious of the testimony of former slaves who maintained close personal ties or were still in debt to or in the employ of their former owners at the time they testified. They were also concerned about ex-slaves who might testify to the loyalty of a Rebel owner who had treated them with kindness and fairness during the war. By most accounts, however, former slaves were reliable and competent witnesses. According to special agent John D. Edwards assigned to Little Rock, Arkansas, African Americans, especially former slaves, supplied some of the best information: "I go to negroes because I find I can really get detailed information out of them. They always know if a man was really loyal, they know if the cribs were full or not, often remember the names of the mules, the oxen, in fact are generally better posted than the rich white neighbors of the claimants."12

George Washington, the former slave of Cornelia Seay of Chesterfield County, Virginia, testified to Seay’s commitment to the Yankee cause. In the claim of Samuel F. Bolls, a white claimant from Hinds County, Mississippi, his former slave and foreman on his plantation, Green Mitchell, testified to Boll’s "strong Union and abolition sentiments." Susan V. Whitehead, a white claimant from Greene County, North Carolina, relied on the testimony of her former slave Reuben Atkinson, who provided details about property taken by Union forces from her plantation. Because Whitehead was absent from "home place" at the time her property was taken, Atkinson’s testimony was crucial in the commissioners’ decision to allow $7,838 for her losses.13

In addition to providing information about former slaves who testified on their behalf, the claims of whites are also helpful in identifying slaveowners from a given locality. These files are often a good source for information about slaves that they may have owned. An interesting claim is that of Arthur Middleton Blake, a wealthy slaveowner from Charleston, South Carolina, who submitted a petition to the commission seeking compensation in the amount of $400,000 for what he described as "the deprivation of the services and labor due to him of 401 slaves, and the buildings, furniture, objects of virtue and taste, books, pictures, linen, wines, and various buildings, mills, cotton gins, threshed rice and crops not harvested destroyed or used by the Federal Army." Blake’s claim was disallowed by the commission because the services of slaves, buildings, and household furnishings were not under the commission’s jurisdiction. What is significant about Blake’s claim, however, is that in his petition before the commission he included a list of all 401 slaves on his three plantations by first name, and age.14

A Southern Claims file will generally contain the claimant’s petition and testimony, depositions of witnesses, reports of special agents, summary reports of commissioners, correspondence from other agencies, power of attorney, and certificates of settlement issued by the Third Auditor of the Treasury for claims that were allowed.

For the African American genealogist, however, the index has its limitations–it does not identify claimants by race. In addition, it is less helpful to those researchers interested in conducting a search by individual counties. It does, however, include information necessary to locate an individual file, such as the state or residence; commission number, office, and report numbers; year of report; amount claimed, whether the claim was allowed or disallowed; and the nature of the claim. s

1. Claim of John Monroe, Office 314, Report 8, Disallowed Case Files of the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880 (Disallowed Case Files), Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives, Washington DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG___, NA).

2. Ibid.

3. Sarah Larson, "The Records of the Southern Claims Commission," Our Family Our Town (1987): 183.

4. Claim of Jack Dawson, Office 28, Report 4, Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA.

5. John Jackson, XC2696930, Military Pension Files, Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15, NA.

6. Claim of Thomas Shaw, Office 406, Report 4, Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA.

7. Henry Bivens, Office 1183, Report 9, Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA.

8. Claim of Joseph James, Liberty County, GA, Approved Case Files of the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880, Third Auditor of the Treasury (Approved Case Files), Records of the General Accounting Office, RG 217, NA.

9. Claim of Samuel Harris, Liberty County, GA, Approved Case Files, RG 217, NA.

10. Testimony of Philip and Isaac Young in the claim of William Young, Office 510, Report 5; testimony of Nancy Todd in the claim of Tip Fly, Office 1244, Report 9; and testimony of Judy and America Christian in the claim of Isham Christian, Office 1499, Report 5, all in Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA.

11. Testimony of Charlotte Baker in the claim of Sara Ann Black, Chatham County, GA, Approved Case Files, RG 217, NA.

12. Weekly report of John D. Edwards, Little Rock, AR, June 27, 1874, "Letters received by the commissioners from and about Special Agents," Records of the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission), 1871-1880 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M87, roll 11), General Records of the Department of the Treasury, RG 56, NA.

13. Testimony of George Washington in the claim of Cornelia Seay, Office 1292, Report 3, Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA; testimony of Green Mitchell in the claim of Samuel F. Bolls, Hinds County, MS, Approved Case Files, RG 217, NA; and testimony of Reuben Atkinson in the claim of Susan V. Whitehead, Greene County, NC, Approved Case Files, RG 217, NA.

14. Claim of Arthur M. Blake, Office 947, Report 3, Disallowed Case Files, RG 233, NA.

Reginald Washington is an archivist/genealogy specialist with Archives I Research Room Services Branch of the National Archives. He lectures frequently on the use of Federal records for African American genealogy research.