Thursday, March 15, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Southern Claims Commission

Margaret E. Smith. U.S., Southern Claims Commission Allowed Claims, 1871-1880 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2008.

A year ago I went to a fabulous local Civil War conference hosted by Gazette 665. A speaker at the conference, David T Dixon,  gave probably one of the best presentations I have ever heard. His subject involved researching a 19th century African American woman named Rachel Brownfield who was enslaved but who was able to run a boarding house and amass money that allowed her to leave her children properties and cash when she died. She was the "wealthiest slave in Savannah." Probably my favorite part of her story is:

"As a lasting symbol of her defiance to the slave-owning society that had taken so much from her, she willed that the remainder of her estate be used for the "care and adornment of my lot and gravestone" in Laurel Grove Cemetery." Her grave stone looks out over those slave holders she knew.*

Of course my first question to the presenter after hearing this remarkable story was, "what records did you research?" After all, telling the story of an enslaved woman can be difficult at best since few records may exist.

His answer? The records of the Southern Claims Commission.

Have you researched the Southern Claims Commission Records? Southerners who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and who suffered personal property losses, including supplies and livestock, could file a claim for damages with the Southern Claims Commission. Residents of twelve states were allowed to make claims: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Southern loyalists made 22,298 claims between March 1871 and March 1873. Claims were made based on the fact that a Southerner was loyal to the Union during the Civil War and had supplies taken by or furnished to the Union Army.

Now, while you would assume from the above description that only Southerners who had been aligned with the Union would be a part of these records that was not always the case.  As Elizabeth Nitschke Hicks writes in the article, The Southern Claims Commission, A Little Known Source of Genealogical Information,

"The claimant had to answer that he/she had been loyal to the Union, and had not provided aid of any kind in support of the Confederacy . . . consider that people did what they had to do to receive compensation for losses suffered during the war. Many southerners did not consider it "lying" to "lie" to a Yankee. . . ."

These records can be an invaluable source to a researcher because they may prove to be one of the only records that can be found on a family when a county was "burned over" or may help you verify a location for an ancestor who died before the implementation of state wide vital registration (death records). It also provides yet another clue to what life was like for your ancestor during the Civil War.

These claims included the testimony of a person's neighbor testimony and the testimony of the claimant about aspects of his/her life during the Civil War.
There are three types of claims: Allowed, Barred, and Disallowed. In Allowed claims the U. S. paid the claim. The only record left of these claims includes the name of the claimant, residence, and the amount paid. Barred claims were those where the claimant either filed too late or was deemed a Confederate supporter. These records have the name of the claimant, residence, and a description of the loss. Disallowed claims were not paid and provide researcher with the most information.

These records tell us about Southern women's lives during the Civil War. In the above claim (pictured) one of the loses Margaret E Smith of Cherokee County , Alabama lists is salt. Now you may think "who cares that a Southern woman lost some salt to the Union army." But if you know food history, you would realize it was a BIG deal. Salt was used to preserve food, especially ham. The South was starving towards the end of the Civil War. Without salt, and there was a lack of salt for various reasons, meat couldn't be cured. Salt became an important commodity, it was even given as a gift during Civil War era weddings.** Mrs. Smith states that General Sherman's army came through and took 20 pounds of salt. A large amount of a precious commodity. The information on these records also provides her husband's name and that she is a widow. These records not only document the Civil War but  women's lives. AND they include white and African American women.

Where can you find these records? These are National Archives records so they can be found in the NARA catalog but you may also want to seek related databases on genealogy subscription websites Fold3 and

Fold 3 includes the following FREE databases (as of this writing):

  • Southern Claims - Barred and Disallowed (NARA M1407)
  • Southern Claims-Approved-Alabama
  • Southern Claims-Approved-Georgia
  • Southern Claims-Approved-Virginia
  • Southern Claims-Approved-West Virginia
  • Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims, 1871-1880 includes:

Some resources found via a FamilySearch Catalog search include:

  • Civil War claims in the South: An index of Civil War damage claims filed before the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880 by Gary B Mills. Aegean Press: California. 1980 (digital version available)


FamilySearch Wiki - Southern Claims Commission

Freedmen & Southern Society Project - Testimony by a Georgia Freedwoman before the Southern Claims Commission

*David T. Dixon, The Wealthiest Slave in Savannah. Article available at the author's website:

**Andrew F Smith, Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011).


kinvestigations said...

I've used them! Although in my case the claim was denied because this ancestor was _not_ in fact a loyalist. He was a well known separatist, but he was also the kind of guy who always seemed to try and get away with as much as he could get away with--including attempting to collect on slave debt post-war by framing the suit as a fraud case rather than a slave debt case. It went all the way to the state supreme court, and he (rightfully) lost.

Dera Williams said...

Thank you for this wonderful article and making us aware of these valuable resources. Can this information be ahared with my genealogical society?

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...

Yes! Dera, feel free to share this with your genealogy society. If you are printing it, please make sure to include my name as the author. Thanks!