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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Slave Claims Commissions
Beginning in 1862 the U.S. federal government attempted to coerce the remaining Union slave states (Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware) to willingly abolish slavery through a system of compensated emancipation. The abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia served as an example of this process at work, with slave owners petitioning a government agency for compensation for each slave owned at the time slavery ended. The federal government had jurisdiction to accomplish this in the District because it was federal territory.
The federal government also had jurisdiction over military service, and a similar system was instituted in 1863 to compensate loyal owners of slaves who enlisted in the U.S. Army. General Order 329, issued on 3 October 1863, authorized the enlistment of slaves with the written consent of their owners. It further provided that any citizen of Maryland, Missouri, or Tennessee who “shall offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service shall . . . become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not exceeding the sum of $300, upon filing a valid deed of manumission and of release and making satisfactory proof of the title.” To hear these claims, a board of three people would be appointed. The program was suspended after the creation of the Maryland Board of Claims, but reinstituted after the war in Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, as the Slave Claims Commissions. The commissions were abolished in 1867 with only a handful of slave owners actually receiving the compensation they had been promised.
Claims presented to these commissions consisted several pieces of evidence related to the claims:
- Proof of enlistment of the slave;
- Proof of ownership of the slave;
- Proof of claimant’s loyalty.
Some of these records of proof may be found among the compiled military service records of former slaves, including evidence of title and evidence of loyalty. The evidence of title sometimes includes a copy of the original bill of sale by which the claimant purchased the slave.
Claimants were also required to file a legal deed of manumission. Deeds of manumission are recorded in the county of residence of the owner. An interesting aspect of these manumissions is that—because the business of the commissions continued until as late as 1867—they were often recorded after slavery was abolished.
Not all of those who made claims to the Commissions were approved for awards, however. The inability to provide evidence of enlistment or proof of title were common reasons for the rejection of claims, but there were also many slave-owners who were denied due to disloyalty to the Union.
The following image serves as an example of a claim form that may be found within the compiled service records:
Service Record - Evidence of Title
Sarah S. Baden, Evidence of Title, Claim for Compensation, 1867; in Compiled service record, Oliver Hawkins, Pvt., Co. I, 19th U.S. Colored Infantry; NARA microfilm publication M1822, FHL Film roll 92.
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