Sacred Debts: State Civil War Claims and American Federalism, 1861-1880

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Sacred Debts: State Civil War Claims and American Federalism, 1861-1880. By Kyle S. Sinisi. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003. Pp. 246; $50.00, cloth.)

When Lincoln called for volunteers to quash the rebellion in 1861, the states responded, organizing regiments and assuming that they would be reimbursed later. Congress promptly legislated to compensate states that submitted a bill to the Treasury Department, and Civil War claims were born. Kyle Sinisi has put together an admirable little book on state Civil War claims, taking Missouri, Kentucky, and Kansas as his sample. He shows that the history of state Civil War claims was an every-state-f or-itself cacophony of administrative and political gaming characterized by disorganized state records, burgeoning bureaucracies, state and federal corruption, and a Congress reluctant to dole out the cash after the crisis of war had passed.

At the center of the claims experience were the administrative rules promulgated by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Chase's Treasury Department would only consider claims for documented military expenses connected to volunteer units called out by the federal government for federal service. As the war ground on, Chase saw no reason to loosen his rules, and facing enormous post-war totals, neither did his successors. That this did not include militias defending the state or damage to private property, and that the documentation requirements were strict, would prove to be points of contention sufficient to throw much of the process into the hands of Congress.

In the atmosphere of financial retrenchment that followed the war, Congress was loath to hand out funds. During the war and the years immediately following, the states used their adjutants general to pursue their claims. This was sensible, considering that their offices were the states' military record-keepers; after the war, it suited the adjutants' need to justify their staffing levels. Their record-keeping rarely satisfied the Treasury Department's strictures, though, forcing them to morph into lobbyists in the hope that Congress would be more munificent. States also looked to their Congressional delegations, but these were not always responsive or sufficiently energetic to ensure payment. With delegations distracted and adjutants unskilled in Washington games, states then turned to claims agents-typically professional politicians or lobbyists-who, for a commission ranging from 1 to 33 percent, lobbied Congress on behalf of their state employers. Claims agents ushered in new vistas of success-and of graft, alleged or true. Even when agents succeeded, politicians often wanted to grab the credit, so some agents found the reward for their hard work to be a subpoena. …