Friday, January 5, 2007

In 1870, five years after the Civil War, Congress created the Southern Claims Commission to address civilian claims for loss of personal property to the Union Army in 12 Southern states during the war.

Local commissions heard these claims and determined the authenticity of each one, deciding whether the claimant owned the property, the claimant saw the property taken by Union troops and whether the claimant was loyal to the Union during the war (determined by the claimant’s own statements and collaborating testimony from other witnesses). The 12 states allowed to petition the government for their losses included Virginia.

As a result of this process, 22,298 claims made between 1871 and 1880 totaled $60.3 million dollars. Almost one-third, 32 percent, actually proved both their loyalty and their losses, and although they received amounts far less than their individual claims, $4.6 million dollars was actually paid by government checks to the claimants.

In Fairfax County, 196 claims for lost property during the war by civilians were made to the commission. The total value of these claims was $1,031,081. Only 7 percent of the value claimed, $68,079, was allowed by the commission. On a per-claim basis, the average claim was $5,261, and the average payout was $347.

The first year of the war saw Fairfax County primarily in Confederate hands, for the remainder of the war the Union Army occupied the county. During the war, Union forces erected 74 enclosed forts and armed batteries around the city of Washington. There were 37,000 men on the muster rolls, supported by close to 1,000 pieces of artillery. In Fairfax County, the Federals guarded every high hill with visibility to Washington, and the soldiers required passes on every important road going into Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown.

One interesting fact was that although women made 17 percent of the claims in the county, the value of their claims was 62 percent of the total dollar value. The belief that the women often exaggerated their claims or could not provide proof of ownership of their property was borne by the commission, which awarded only 1 percent of the total value of these claims. On the other hand, the commission awarded 15 percent of the value of the men’s claims.

Only 11 percent of the claims in the county were made by blacks, due to the need to prove ownership. The value of their claims was also low, representing 3 percent of the value of all the claims made in the county. The surprising fact is that their claims were believed, no doubt due to the commissioners’ beliefs in blacks’ loyalty to the Union cause, receiving 12 percent of the value of their claims, double the average 6 percent allowed.

Civilians faced problems not only from the battles and skirmishes that occurred on their very doorsteps, but mainly from the soldiers who came and took food, wood, livestock and whatever else they needed. These were the very same resources the civilians needed for their everyday existence. Some examples from the files of the commission illustrate the problems faced by civilians as they lived through four years of terror and uncertainty from soldiers of both sides.

Robert and Ann Coleman lived through the Battle of Dranesville in December 1861. They lived in the east end of Dranesville, where they owned a country store with dry goods and groceries. Dranesville was a little village of only 15 or 20 houses. During the battle, the Colemans and their son hid in their cellar.

The house was hit by 11 cannonballs, two of which exploded. The house and furniture were nearly destroyed. They left the day after the battle and returned home after the war. When they returned, the house was gone. “No, not a particle of it. Not a piece if it” remained. The Colemans were told that “Major Taggert took it for quarters. Took the house all to pieces and built huts of it. The Union soldiers were in camp in Dranesville all that winter.”

The spring of 1862 was particularly a tough time for civilians as the Confederate troops withdrew from the county and Union soldiers moved in, taking their place. Betsey Johnson, who lived on the Poor House farm near Union Mills, was a freeborn black woman. Her husband, Benjamin Johnson, was a slave who lived with his master in Prince William County when the war broke out. In the spring of 1862, he escaped and went to live with his wife for the rest of the war.

“The rebels took $150 in gold and silver from me, part was mine and part was my wife’s,” Mr. Johnson said. “My wife had buried it in the ground and the rebels got after my little boy, and made him tell where it was. They asked him first if we had any money, and made him tell. The rebels were at Union Mills at this time. I never heard of the money any more.”

Robert Strong, who lived a half-mile northeast of Fairfax Courthouse on a 100-acre dairy farm, also had a house taken as Gen. George B. McClellan’s troops moved into the area in the spring of 1862.

“They made flooring [from the house] in their tents and doors to their tents,” Strong said. “They had quite a little town built up and it was a beautiful place, and spring water, and plenty of wood, and there was a hill there from which they could look all over the country. It didn’t take them long to take down the building. They were all wanting to build quarters and every one wanted to get a certain share of it.”

Ambrose Cock’s house was burned in the spring of 1862 so Union forces could see the Rebels at Annandale. The house was set on fire at 4 a.m. Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker of the 8th New York Regiment gave the family 20 minutes to vacate the premises, and Cock was arrested and sent to jail. A neighbor testified before the commission, “Some beer-drinking captain arrested him and sent him to Alexandria, and he was put in jail and kept there two or three days before I got him out. I believe the captain stole some of his horses and that was the excuse for the arrest.”

Almond Birch, who lived west of Gum Springs, related how soldiers took his pigs. “I saw them take the pigs. They would come into the yard and put them on their bayonets. They were small pigs, and the larger ones they carried away.”

Union troops continued their nonstop thievery of civilian property from March 24, 1861, when Union forces invaded the county the day after Virginia seceded, until the Final Grand Review in Washington in May 1865. The Southern Claims Commission provided small recompense, if any, for the losses. The real value of the work of the commission, in retrospect, is a glimpse into the lives of those who made claims.

Charles V. Mauro (, is author of “The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers.” He lives in Herndon.

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