Southern Loyalties and the Ravages of War: The Petition of William Colvin Before The Southern Claims Commission, 1873.



The Southern Claims Commission (SCC) was established in Washington, D.C. during the Reconstruction era by an act of Congress on  March 3, 1871. The purpose of the 3-member panel was to review the claims submitted by Southern loyalists  (southerners loyal to the federal government,) who had “furnished stores and supplies for the use of U.S. Army” during the Civil War.”[1]   Between March 3, 1871 and  March 3, 1873, Southerners filed well over 22,000 claims for property losses totaling over $60 million dollars, a figure comparable to well over $1 billion dollars in 2017.[2] However, only 7,092 claims (32%) were approved for settlements with the government paying out just over $4.5 million. Economic analysis shows that amount would be comparable to between $57.3 million and $8.5 billion by 2015.[3] Each claimant sought to prove his loyalty and loss by his own and the depositions of witnesses.

Significant for genealogists, however,  is how the paper trail created by the claimants’ depositions and those of their respective witnesses, provides not only incomparable insights into the war’s destructive impact on Southern families and their communities, but also how the material confiscations were sometimes brutally carried out by Union troops. Moreover, SCC claims can also reveal the arbitrary discriminatory nature with which Union commissioners often acted even against those clearly neutral during the war. William Colvin’s claim, will serve as an example of the rich offering these records provide.

Three versions of the interrogatories were used by commissioners (and their specially-appointed assistance who traveled to those states and areas too distant from D.C for a claimant to conveniently leave,) to be asked of claimants and their witnesses. In William’s case, the version used was the 1872 version – amended from the original version used in 1871. Lawyers were hired to prepare the numerous documents, including affidavits, and other evidentiary items such as receipts given by Union officers to individuals who relinquished goods to the troops at the time of their confiscation. The lawyers, not surprisingly, charged 50% of any settlement to take a case.

Numerous farmers, shopkeepers, and horse owners in the early 1860s who were unfortunate enough to be in the neighborhood of a passing Union army had goods, animals, and crops seized; in fact, there are many reports of people having their crops taken by armies, a few days or weeks or months apart.

The three commissioners, appointed by the President, were required 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 key phrase,  loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war, was deliberately vague enough, however,  to create problems. For example,  only claim applicants themselves were required to state their loyalty to the federal government.; there was no such requirement for witnesses or others mentioned in the claim applications. Were there political motives behind the creation of the SCC? Quite likely. Northern Republicans had long hoped that Southern Unionists would join the Republican Party, and they hoped to cement that allegiance as the former Confederate states returned to full representation in Congress. The SCC was decommissioned in 1879. 

William Colvin: The Claim

Upon his death in 1825, the lands of William’s father, Richard Colvin, were distributed among Richard’s numerous heirs via probate because Richard died intestate.[4] Among the nearly 1,500 acres comprising the estate, William received 132 of them, along with chattel. William, who was born in 1812,  was some sixty years old when he filed his SCC claim in 1873 and the numerous documents — particularly his lengthy 30-page deposition — bear witness to the devastation to his subsistence farm.[5]  By the time he filed his claim, William’s farm consisted of 167 areas and was, according to his deposition, located some 500-600 yards from Catlett’s Station. Some ninety acres of his land was “timbered” while the rest – some seventy-seven acres —  was “under cultivation.”

The 1872 version of the SCC questions put before William consisted of two sets: the first set, (questions 1-41), were addressed only to him and concerned essentially the matters related to his personal and political identity and loyalty, and the items confiscated from his farm. The second set, (of eighteen questions, listed as “Items” ) were asked of both he and his witness – in his case, Abraham Hazen — and concerned specific facts about what Hazen allegedly saw taken and by whom.[6] Meticulous details were elicited from deponents as evidenced by question no. 2 of the 2nd  set and its instructions to the interrogator: 

Begin with the first article (Item No. —) which you have specified that you saw taken,and give a full account of all you saw and heard in connection with the taking of that article? 

[The special commissioner should require the witness to state all the circumstances; for it is only by knowledge of all of them that the commissioners of claims can judge whether the taking was such a one as the Government is bound to pay for. The common phrase, “I saw the property taken by United States soldiers,” is not enough, for there was much lawless taking. The witness should be required to detail the facts as to each item, when the items were taken at different times; but if all, or more than one, were taken at the same time, that fact should appear, and then a repetition of the circumstances is needless. The special commissioner must be careful to elicit all the facts, as well those against as for the claim, especially as to those articles of property which were the special objects of pillage and theft, such as horses, mules, cattle, hogs, &c. Claimants must bear in mind that a neglect to observe these directions works to the prejudice of the claimant, and may defeat the claim.] [7] 

Needless to say, neither witness accounts nor the first-hand accounts of the claimants themselves ever met the zealous burden of proof imposed by the SCC; consequently, like the vast majority of Southerners, William Colvin’s claim was “disallowed.” [8] But what had the Union troops taken? Livestock, ninety acres of timber, horses, draft animals, hay, fodder, a new wagon, over 2,500 rails (his entire property fencing, ) the nails that held them in place and, as if this wasn’t enough, they deconstructed and carted off an entire newly-framed barn. The total damage over the course of 1862-1864 was eventually estimated by Commissioners at $1,750.00.[9] It was an amount comparable to between  $22,300 and $3.3 million dollars in 2015 dollars.[10]  Many of these activities were done quickly.

In the spring of 1862, William’s farm was accosted by the arrival of Union troops lead by Brigadier General, John F. Reynolds, who arrived ahead of his men to rouse William from slumber to ask where, on his farm, the best campground might be.[11] It was, according to William’s deposition, well after dark, “raining and snowing.”[12] William was, himself, no stranger to the conflict which had touched his own family. But any Confederate allegiance he may have harbored, went completely undetected by close friends and neighbors. His closest neighbor, feed merchant, Abraham Hazen with whom he spoke often, for example, was also deposed by Commissioners. He told them under oath, “Mr. Colvin regarded me as a Union man. Mr. Colvin was the only man of southern birth that I dare express my opinions to without fear of being reported to the rebels.”[13] William’s third eldest son, James Buchanan Colvin, however, joined the Confederacy at age 17 in 1864.[14] A choice he made without his father’s support. When William spoke to commissioners, in mid-January, James was by then, twenty-six, and  living with him and in whose home he died on October 30, 1873, eight months after his father’s interview. His cause of death is unknown.

Within days, after Reynold’s arrival, some 1,000 Union soldiers were amassing into several campgrounds on his farm, re-provisioning themselves with whatever he had at hand. They remained on the farm for moths, no doubt making a horrendous mess with latrines, fires, debris, tenting, etc.,  and during the first weeks, methodically stripped away  the timber fencing which surrounded large plots of his land. using it for various makeshift needs such as firewood.

At times, according to William, the removal of the fence was done with grotesque efficiency.  “At one time I think I saw half a mile of fencing taken within 20 minutes on the shoulders of the men. I saw them at different times, hauling my rails in their wagons to different camps. [On the farm] I saw the soldiers using the rails for fires.”[15]

Although William was offered three separate receipts for his rails at three different times by three separate officers, he was quick to point out, “I don’t think those receipts covered half the rails taken and used by the Union army at this time.”[16]

During the same period, some forty-two head of William’s cattle were commandeered by encamped Union soldiers. Several times — without an officer present – an armed soldier simply entered a grazing field, shot the unsuspecting animal, then either butchered it on the spot or drove it to a camp where it was butchered. Aghast, William complained and received not an apology, but a receipt. In this manner, over a period of day, except for five head, William’s entire stock of cattle was wiped out.[17]

William’s herd of sheep fared no better; using similar tactics, Union soldiers slew sixty-six of his sheep, leaving one for William and his family. He told Commissioners he “made no complaint.” For his forbearance, William received a voucher and a receipt. After the sheep were removed, next came the draft animals. One horse and two colts were taken. William identified the culprits as: 

cavalry or at all events mounted. I saw the soldiers take the horse and colts. They were taken out of the field not far from the house. There were some eight or ten soldiers. A man representing himself to be an officer rode up and said he must have that horse. They went into the field and cornered the horse and colts in the corner of the field. My daughters were present and one of them caught hold of the horse and refused to let go. And one of the soldiers told her if she did not let the horse go he would run his saber through her. She then let go and they then took the horse away. I was present within ten feet.[18] 

In a separate incident, during the same period, William had put a few young a male horses out to graze, but soldiers of the picket line, who now also occupied his farm, shot one. After the horses were slaughtered or pressed into service, the soldiers next went through William’s stock of some thirty-nine hogs, carrying off some twenty-five of them, and slaughtering others with rifles. Several were left to rot where they were slain.[19] In addition, some 300 bushels of wheat (some twelve acres worth,) were taken, as well as William’s entire stock of oats — some 500 bushels — which had required twenty acres to grow. They went to feed Union artillery horses.[20] Of William’s ninety acres of “old and second growth” woods of White and Red oak, much of it was felled in 1863-64 by Union soldiers to help rebuild the Orange and Alexander (O & A) railroad tracks. Those tracks ran near his land, some 600 yards west, but Confederates had destroyed them along with the Cedar Run Bridge they ran across. That bridge and tracks were  barely a half- mile north of Catlett’s Station, and their destruction had been part of what would be remembered as the Battle of Catlett’s Station.[21] For these timber losses, William never received a receipt. [22] But he recalled clearly how,  “once a week [soldiers were seen] cutting and hauling timber away….”  He saw,  “as many as 9 or 10 teams at a time hauling wood, generally from mule teams.”[23]

Cedar Run Bridge reconstruction 1863

Federal Troops rebuilding the O & A Railroad bridge over Cedar Run. 1863 Timber used came from William Colvin’s farm. Library of Congress. Photographer unknown.

By the time the Union army finished de-foresting his land, he told commissioners, that if the wood scrap, “left had been put together, they would not have made 5 acres.”[24]

Then came the removal of other goods. In August of 1862, a quartermaster showed up with two three-mule teams and wagons to cart off some 5,600 pounds of hay that William had stocked. When William was tendered a receipt, the provider estimated the hay at a mere 600 pounds, but offered William a chance to “come and see” for himself what had been taken to correct any discrepancy. William declined. Soon thereafter, a second quartermaster arrived with another two teams of Union mules and wagons and commenced to load his cargo and continued to do so over the course of 2-3 trips. When the third quartermaster showed up, William was no longer able to discern how much hay had been depleted. Eventually William received a receipt for a mere 1,500 pounds of hay.[25]

The following day, Union troops took William’s new wagon.[26] A “three horse farm wagon,” as he described it. He had owned it six months and had paid $77.00 dollars for it – a sum roughly equal to nearly $1,500  dollars by 2015. [27] On the day the soldier arrived with the mule team, William told Commissioners:

I begged him not to take it he said he must have it that they had broke one of their wagons and must have it to replace the one broken and he took it away and I never saw it afterwards. [28] 

William received no receipt for the wagon. He did receive a receipt for his entire stock of  some 1,000 pounds of corn fodder taken in November, 1862,  when Union troops were “on the march to Fredericksburg.” and passing by his farm. He was approached by a “Captain of  Artillery,” who told William he “had nothing [to give him] for his horses.”[29] Perhaps one of the worst indignities William suffered what when Union soldiers razed a house on his farm in the fall of 1863. The soldiers were encamped both at Catlett’s Station and his farm, and were still re-constructing the destroyed O & A rail lines when they:

tore down and took a [–?–] house from me. The house was 16 feet by 24 feet, two stories high. It had two floors tongued and grooved. It was [–?–] and shingled with a double pitched roof. It had three rooms lathed and plastered. It had a [–?–] chimney up even with the eves of the house and [–?–] brick. I saw the soldiers.[30]

When the Union troops descended of his Fauquier farm in 1862, by his own account, William’s homestead was worth a healthy $25.00 an acre. By the time he filed his claim, ten years later, it was worth only two-thirds that value. His entire claim was disallowed because it was felt William was sympathetic to the Confederacy.  William died fourteen years later on February 20, 1888 at the age of 75. He was laid to rest next to his wife Maria F. Wilkins, (1819-1885),   in the Colvin Family Cemetery in Catlett, Fauquier County, Virginia.[31]

As the files on William Colvin’s SCC claim demonstrate, these records offer genealogists a rich mine of personal information and an unapparelled window through which to glimpse the lives of  their Southern forbearers and the sometimes merciless actions taken by Union troops accosting their farms during the Civil War. Moreover, because these are preserved first-hand accounts of those effected, a clear record is available of both their perspective on the conflict itself as well as the state of their subsistence farms. These rare insights enrich our understanding of our ancestors’ lives as well as our understanding of the conflict in which they found themselves in ways few records used by family historians can.



[1]Furnished stores and supplies…” The wording was intended to imply a cooperative relationship between southern loyalists and Union officers who confiscated materials as they saw fit while the stunned owner watched and who thereafter received a government receipt scribbled on whatever was handy.

[2] Gary B. Mills,  “Southern Loyalists in the Civil War: The Southern Claims Commission,” Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994. For the comparative value analysis, see,

[3]  Ibid,

[4] Digitized original, Lydia Colvin v Lawson Colvin, June 24,  1828, Chancery Case 1832-056, Chancery case Index database, Library of Virginia,  Chancery cases of this type were often use in troublesome property divisions during estate probates. In this case, Lydia (George) Colvin, who was the administrator of her late husband’s estate, was petitioning the court for a “guardian ad litem” to look out for the financial well-being of the decedent’s heirs because a mysterious but deedless agreement brought forth by her son-in-law, Frances Manuel, involving 225 acres of the decedent’s estate encroached upon her children’s statutory inheritance rights.

[5] Tombstone at Colvin graveyard. In his rejection claim, the SCC commissioners claim William was some “68 years old.”

[6] Digitized original, William Colvin, claimant, SCC application page, case # 21015, Recorded June 17 1873, filed  June 15 1874, National Archives MF. The claim in its entirety consists of 65 pages of sworn testimony and related documents.


[8] Digitized original, SCC claim rejection.

[9] Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC Summary Report,  On page 29 of his   deposition, Willian recites how, in the winter of 1863-64, Union soldiers told him they were hauling timber from felled trees on his land to rebuild portions of the Orange and Alexander railroad tracks destroyed by Confederate forces trying to thwart the Union advance near Catlett’s Station. Rebels had also destroyed the Walnut Creek bridge, which Union forces also needed to rebuild.

[10] See relative worth analysis at:    

[11] Col. Hugh W. McNeil to Brigadier General,  John F. Reynolds, April 3, 1862,  wherein the union officer certifies that , “1870 rails were destroyed by the men of this regiment…the rails were taken from the property of William Colvin“ pp 48,  digitized original, William Colvin, claimant, SCC. McNeil was colonel of the 1st Rifle regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, who signed this  correspondence ”1st Rifles”.   Reynolds  died,  July 1, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.

[12] Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC,  pp 16, “Item  1 Rails.”

[13] Abraham Hazen deposition, June 17, 1873, William Colvin SCC file, pp 2 of 4.

[14] “J.B. Colvin” entry, U.S. National Parks Service, Soldiers and Sailors database. James served as a member of Company “E” of Mosby Rangers (more formally known as the  43rd Virginia Cavalry,) but also known as Mosby’s Regiment, Virginia Cavalry, Mosby’s Men, and Partisan Rangers.  Various accounts consistently describe the 43rd as a raiding party working behind enemy lines using protoguerrilla tactics to disrupt Union communications and supply lines in Virginia from the rear in Fauquier and neighboring counties. They were known to work in small bands, to strike fast,  and then vanish into the countryside eluding capture. By and large the companies were composed of teenaged recruits.

[15]  Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC,  pp 16, “Item  1 Rails.”

[16] Ibid, pp 18 “Item 1 Rails.”

[17] Ibid,  pp 19, “Item  2 Cattle.”

[18] Ibid, pp 23, “Item 4 Horses and colts.”

[19] Ibid pp 25, “Item 6 Hogs.”

[20] Ibid pp 26, “Item 7 Oats and Wheat.”

[21] Catlett’s Station began its life as a Colvin property. had orginall belonged to William’s

[22] Ibid pp 28, 29 “Item 8 Timber.”

[23] Ibid pp 29, “Item 8 Timber”

[24] Ibid pp 30,  “Item 8 Timber”

[25] Ibid pp 30-31, “Item 9 Hay.”

[26] Ibid pp 32, “ Item 11 Wagon.” Curiously, there appears no “Item 10” in the listing. Why is unknown.

[27] Based on Consumer Price Index as calculated by

[28] Digitized image of William Colvin, claimant, SCC ,” pp 32, “Item 11 Wagon”

[29] Ibid.  pp 33, “Item 13 Fodder.”

[30] Ibid pp 33-34 “Item 14 House.”

[31] The birth and death dates of William and Maria are taken from their headstones. Images were provided to the researcher by Melvin Hazen Colvin, Jr,  William Colvin’s second g-grandson and a resident of the area.



About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.