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United States Supreme Court

69 U.S. 404

Mrs. Alexander's Cotton

In the spring of 1864, a conjoint expedition of forces of the United States, consisting of the Ouachita and other gunboats, with their officers and crews, under Rear Admiral Porter, and a body of troops under Major-General Banks, proceeded up the Red River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and which empties into that river three hundred and thirty-four miles above its mouth, as far as Shreveport, in the northwestern corner of Louisiana. The Southern insurgents were, at this time, in complete occupation of the district. About the 15th of March these Government forces captured Fort De Russy, a strong fort, which the insurgents had built, about half way between Alexandria and the mouth of Red Rever. The insurgents now evacuated the district in such a way that most of that part of it on the river fell under the control of the Union arms. This control, however, did not become permanent. The insurgents rallied; and returning, reinstated themselves. The Union troops fell back, leaving the district occupied as it had been before they came. The actual presence and control of the Government forces lasted from the middle of March to near the end of April,-something less than eight weeks. During it, an election of delegates to a Union Convention, appeared to have been held in or about Alexandria, under the orders and protection of General Banks, though the evidence of what was done in the matter was not clear. 'The community,' one witness testified, 'was almost unanimous against secession when it commenced, and have so continued.' But of this they gave no overt proofs; none at least that reached this court.

During the advance of the Federal forces, and about the 26th of March, a party from the Ouachita-acting under orders from the naval commander-landed on the plantation of Mrs. Elizabeth Alexander, in the Parish of Avoyelles, a part of the region thus temporarily occupied, and upon the river. They here took possession of seventy-two bales of cotton which had been raised by Mrs. Alexander on the plantation, and which, having escaped a conflagration which the rebels, on the advance of the Government forces, had made of the crop of the preceding year, were stored in a cotton-gin house, about a mile from the river. The cotton was hauled by teams to the river bank, and shipped to Cairo, in Illinois. Being libelled there, as prize of war, in the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of Illinois, and sold pendente lite, Mrs. Alexander put in a claim for the proceeds, and the court made a decree giving them to her. This decree being confirmed in the Circuit Court, the United States appealed here.

The question raised before this court was, whether this cotton was or was not properly to be considered as maritime prize, subject to the prize jurisdiction of the courts of the United States.

As respected the nature of the Red River and the character of the vessels used in the conjoint expedition, it appeared that seagoing vessels do not navigate it, the same not affording sufficient water for them; that no other vessels than steamboats of light draft, engaged in the transportation of passengers and freight, usually navigate it; that the gunboats so called, used on this expedition, were of light draft, similar, in many particulars, to steamboats, many of them having been steamboats altered to carry guns and munitions of war generally, though not previously used, nor well capable of being used at sea for any purpose; that guns were mounted on them in order that such guns might be used in connection with and in subordination to the army in its active operations against the enemy in the small streams of the West and Southwest, away from the seaboard.

As regarded Mrs. Alexander's personal loyalth the evidence was not very full. She had assisted somewhat to build Fort De Russy, which was within a few miles of her own plantation, but, according to the testimony, did this only on compulsion. She was equally kind, it was testified, to loyal persons and to rebels, when either were sick or wounded. She had particular friends among persons of known loyalth; but there were one or two Confederate officers who came to her house,-the testimony being, however, that they were perhaps attracted thither neither by Mrs. Alexander's politics nor by her cotton, but by the beauty of some 'young ladies' who resided with her, and whom they went to 'visit.'

Three weeks after the cotton had been seized, Mrs. Alexander took the oath required by the President's proclamation of amnesty, of December 8, 1863; a proclamation which gives to persons who took the oath 'full pardon,' 'with restoration of all rights,' except as to slaves and 'property, cases where rights of third persons shall have intervened.' But it was upon the condition that persons should thenceforward 'keep their oath inviolate.' [1] Mrs. Alexander never left the territory on which her plantation was situated, nor it. The estate was her own, and she had resided on it since 1835. She was about sixty-five years old at the time of these events.

Such were the facts. In order, however, perfectly to comprehend the case as it stood before the court, it is necessary to make mention of certain acts of Congress bearing on it.

Congress, by act of August 6th, 1861, [2] to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes, declared, that if any person should use or employ any property in aiding, abetting or promoting the insurrection, or consent to such use or employment, such property should 'be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.'

And by act of July 17th, 1862, [3] to suppress insurrection, to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels, &c., it declared (§ 6), that 'all the estate and property' of persons in rebellion, and who, after sixty days public warning [which warning the President gave by proclamation], did not return to their allegiance, liable to seizure; and made it the duty of the President to Seize it; prescribing the mode in which it should be condemned.

And by a third act, that of March 12th, 1863, [4] 'to provide for the collection of abandoned property, and for the prevention of frauds in insurrectionary districts,' &c., made it the duty, under penalty of dismission, &c. (§ 6), of 'every officer or private of the regular or volunteer forces of the United States, or any officer, sailor or marine in the naval service of the United States, who may take or receive any such abandoned property, or cotton, sugar, rice or tobacco from persons in such insurrectionary districts, or have it under his control, to turn the same over to an agent' to be appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury, under whose charge the matter is put by the act, and who accordingly issued regulations in regard to such property. The act provides, however, that none of its provisions shall apply 'to any lawful maritime prize by the naval force of the United States.' This act, it may be added (§ 3), provides that 'any person claiming to have been the owner of such abandoned or captured property may, at any time within two years after the suppression of the rebellion, prefer his claim to the proceeds thereof in the Court of Claims, and on proof to the satisfaction of the said court of his ownership, &c., and that he has never given any aid or comfort to the present rebellion, receive the residue of such proceeds after the deduction of any purchase-money which may have been paid, together with the expense of transportation and sale.'

With these acts there may, perhaps, for the sake of absolute completeness, be presented the act of July 17th, 1862, for the better government of the navy, [5] enacting (§ 2), 'that the proceeds of all ships and vessels, and the goods taken on them, which shall be adjudged good prize, shall, when of equal or superior force to the vessel making the capture, be the sole property of the captors, and when of inferior force be divided equally between the United States and the officers and men making the capture;' and also that of 2d July, 1864, [6] passed after this capture, declaring 'that no property, seized or taken upon any of the inland waters of the United States by the naval forces thereof, shall be deemed maritime prize,' but shall be turned over, as provided in the already mentioned act of March 12th, 1863.


Mr. Assistant Attorney-General Ashton, and Mr. Eames, for the United states:


1. At the time when the combined expedition entered this region, in March, 1864, and when it left it in May, eight weeks afterwards, it was completely in enemy possession and control. Rebel power, civil and military, held it. The region was, therefore, enemies' country, and the people were enemies, irrespectively of the loyalty or disloyalty of individuals. The Prize Cases in this court, and among them The Amy Warwick, adjudge this. [7] The fact that there was momentary military occupation of the region in part by the co-operating army of the United States on the day of this capture, did not change this enemy character; [8] for the possession of the United States was unfirm, as shown by the event. After constant military activity, the rebel power was reinstated. Independently of all this, insurrectionary and hostile character was fixed upon the region and property by different acts of Congress, including the 'Abandoned and Captured Property Act' of March 12, 1863, which made the property of all people in the region 'liable to seizure;' and made it the duty of the President to 'seize' and have it condemned.

2. The property, though private property, was liable to seizure and confiscation, it being a great commercial staple of the enemy, the product of his own soil, grown and gathered in time of war; in peace his greatest, and in rebellion his only resource. It is matter of common knowledge that cotton has been the means by which the rebel confederation-'this government' of Davis-has procured money or munitions of war from England and France at all.

3. It is lawful prize of war, though made by the navy on land. The prize jurisdiction of courts of admiralty in England has always been exercised in cases of belligerent naval capture on land, as much as in cases of naval capture on the high seas; and this, too, whether such capture on land be made by the naval force acting alone or in co-operation with the army. Enemy property so captured has always, in England, been condemned as prize of war.

This jurisdiction was declared by the Court of King's Bench, A.D. 1781, in the two great cases of Le Caux v. Eden [9] and Lindo v. Rodney; Lord Mansfield delivering the judgment of the court in the latter case. The earliest British authorities are there cited and reviewed. Since these two judgments, no part of the law laid down in them has been disputed in England; but, on the contrary, it has been affirmed by the courts of common law, as in Lord Camden v. Home, [10] and Smart v. Wolff, [11] and has been accepted and applied to naval captures on land by Lord Stowell and other judges in the High Court of Admiralty in a series of cases. [12] We may refer, also, to the case of Alexander v. The Duke of Wellington, [13] in the Chancery of England.

In the United States, this British view of the prize jurisdiction of the Court of Admiralty in England over such naval captures on land, has been recognized by this court in Brown v. United States, [14] and in Jennings v. Carson, [15] where Marshall, C. J., delivered the opinion.

NotesEdit

^1  The oath now made by Mrs. Alexander, April 19, 1864, was, that she would 'henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder;' and would, 'in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves, so long and so far as not repealed, modified, or held void by Congress, or by decision of the Supreme Court;' and would, 'in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion, having reference to slaves, so long and so far as not modified or declared void by decision of the Supreme Court.'

^2  12 Stat. at Large, 319.

^3  Id. 591.

^4  Id. 821.

^5  12 Stat. at Large, 606.

^6  13 Id. 377.

^7  2 Black, 693; Id. 674.

^8  The Circassian, supra, p. 135.

^9  Douglas, 594, 620. See, also, Mitchell v. Rodney, 2 Brown, P. C. 423.

^10  4 Term, 382.

^11  3 Id. 323.

^12  The Cape of Good Hope, 2 Robinson, 274; Thorshaven, Edwards, 102; The Island of Trinidad, 5 Robinson, 85; Stella del Norte, Id. 311; The Rebekah, 1 Id. 277; The Buenos Ayres, 1 Dodson, 28; The Capture of Chinsurah, 1 Acton, 179; French Guiana, 2 Dodson, 151; Geneva, Id. 444; Tarragona, Id. 487; Cayenne, 1 Haggard, 42, note; Anglo-Sicilian Captures, 3 Id. 192; The Army of The Deccan, 2 Knapp, P. C. 152, and note.

^13  2 Russell & Mylne, 35.

^14  8 Cranch, 137.

^15  4 Id. 2.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).