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Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

Kyle S. Sinisi, Sacred Debts: State Civil War Claims and American Federalism, 1861-1880. New York: Fordham University Press, 2003. xvi + 208 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8232-2259-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert W. Burg, Department of History, Purdue University.

Kyle S. Sinisi’s Sacred Debts is a cross between traditional administrative history written before the 1970s and the new political history written since that time. It is neither solely a study of political economy, nor simply a study of the machinery of nineteenth-century governance. Instead, Sinisi, an associate professor of history at The Citadel, has crafted an occasionally daunting, often enlightening monograph on the problem of state Civil War debts that compares to recent studies on veterans’ benefits during the Gilded Age.

Before the Civil War, states had called out their militia at the behest of — and in at least one prominent case — against the wishes of the federal government on several occasions. The assumption of state debts would only become a major political issue, however, in the aftermath of the American Revolution. During the War of 1812, Massachusetts became an exemplar of what could happen if a state called out its militia without authorization; a change of political party, several years, and special legislation would be needed before the state’s claims were paid. Southern states would call out their militias more regularly in the intervening years between 1815 and 1861, developing an enviable familiarity with the claims system. Of the states that remained in the Union, only Ohio pressed a significant claim after the Mexican War (p. 9).

The inexperience of state officials would be one of the primary shaping factors in the states’ efforts to have their claims honored. So too, would legislation passed on 27 July 1861, which would be limited further by the Treasury Department. Salmon P. Chase’s bureaucracy strictly enforced rules that required the states to present original receipts or vouchers for their expenses, organized into discrete categories, like pay, subsistence, clothing, transportation, and equipment (p. 11). Set fees for what the federal government would reimburse were then quickly established, as was a system in which a handful of clerks and auditors scrutinized the claims repeatedly. These mindful bureaucrats limited payments to state militias that had been directly mustered into federal service or those that had been called out with authorization. States that kept sloppy records, or those whose governors called out their militias of their own accord, would have to get special legislation passed if they desired federal reimbursement.

Sinisi’s book focuses on the efforts of three states that needed such legislation: Kansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. The states pose a number of contrasts. Kansas was largely unsuccessful in its efforts to have its claims honored, while Kentucky and Missouri were two of the more successful states in this regard. Politically, Kansas was largely a Republican state, while Kentucky was largely Democratic; Missouri was somewhere in between, with some of the nation’s most influential Liberal Republicans to boot. These states are significant choices in other ways as well. Missouri’s delegation got the first special indemnification act passed, in July 1862, and Missouri was one of the first states to use a professional agent, John B. Gray, as a lobbyist on its behalf. Along with Kansas, Missouri also illustrated the hazards associated with not paying all of its claims prior to submitting them to the federal government for reimbursement. Both states issued scrip to repay part of their debt, thereby raising difficult questions about speculation; the federal government understandably proved reluctant to honor debts states were unwilling to redeem with hard currency.

Equally as important as the inexperience of state officials and the limitations of Chase’s rules in shaping the environment through which reimbursement of state debts would occur was the overall desire for retrenchment during the Gilded Age. Sinisi does not explore what impact the claims issue, or, for that matter, the Panic of 1873, might have had on this demand; instead, he merely points to the lingering prevalence of republican ideology in the period. Could the corruption of John D. Crafton in Missouri, whose commission knowingly approved claims based on misleading muster rolls (p. 71), or of Josiah Hayes, the state treasurer of Kansas, who redeemed innumerable pieces of forged scrip (p. 164), have had something to do with the demand for limited government? One wonders how symbiotic the relationship was on this issue, how much state corruption drove national politics, or vice versa.

Yet corruption and its attendant demand for retrenchment is not the dominant theme of Sinisi’s story. Sinisi differs from the traditional view of Gilded Age governance, though he does not go as far as those who have heaped praise on the virtues of the era’s machine bosses. Though the states did not combine their efforts in order to logroll the federal government, they did devise a system that met constituent demands for efficiency and indemnification, relying upon ad hoc agents whose personal skills and persistence paid off in a cost-effective manner. Militia officers, particularly adjutants and quartermasters general who might otherwise have had their responsibilities limited or their offices terminated, were often employed as such lobbyists. Kentucky’s quartermaster, Fayette Hewitt, stands out in this regard; his expenses and compensation only amounted to about seven percent of Kentucky’s overall claims (p. 119).

Sinisi’s account is based heavily on congressional and federal documents, as well as state archival records. A smattering of relevant manuscripts and newspapers complete his research. Though generally surefooted in his prose, Sinisi stumbles on occasion. A few chronological errors mar the section on Kentucky (particularly on p. 110), and the text’s appendices suffer from some similarly minor typos (particularly pp. 187-188). These errors, however, do not significantly detract from a solid contribution to the historiography of Gilded Age finance and bureaucracy.

Robert W. Burg, who is completing his dissertation at Purdue University, has an article entitled, “Amnesty, Civil Rights, and the Meaning of Liberal Republicanism, 1862-1872,” set to appear in American Nineteenth Century History, March 2004.