The Elgee Cotton Cases
APPEALS from the Court of Claims, in which court the representatives of one Elgee claimed the net proceeds in the Treasury of the United States of the sale of certain cotton under what is known as the Captured and Abandoned Property Act; the right of the said Elgee being disputed by a firm of Woodruff & Co., and also by a certain Mrs. Nutt, executrix of one Haller Nutt, M.D., both of which parties claimed adversely to Elgee and to one another; the United States at the same time denying the rights of all of them, or, at least, denying them in the way in which the parties asserted them. The case was thus:
The act 'to provide for the collection of abandoned property,' &c., passed March 12th, 1863, after providing for the sale of such property by the government, thus enacts:
'Any person claiming to have been the owner of any 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 said court of his ownership of said property, of his right to the proceeds thereof, and that he has never given any aid or support 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 of said property, and other lawful expenses attending the disposition thereof.'
On the 31st day of July, 1863, J. K. Elgee and R. Chambers (the right of which last was immediately afterwards vested in Elgee alone) being the owners of a quantity of cotton in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, W. C. Gordon, their agent, entered, as appeared by the findings of the Court of Claims, into an agreement with C. S. Lobdell, thus:
'MISSISSIPPI, WILKINSON COUNTY.
'We have, this 31st of July, 1863, sold unto Mr. C. S. Lobdell our crops of cotton, now lying in the county aforesaid, numbering about 2100 bales, at the price of ten cents per pound, currency, the said cotton to be delivered at the landing at Fort Adams, and to be paid for when weighed, Mr. Lobdell agreeing to furnish at his cost the bagging, rope, and twine to bale the cotton unginned; and we do acknowledge to have received, in order to confirm this contract, the sum of thirty dollars. This cotton will be received and shipped by the house of Da Silva & Co., New Orleans, and from this date is at the risk of Mr. Lobdell. This cotton is said to have weighed an average of five hundred pounds when baled.
'W. C. GORDON,
'Agent for Messrs. Elgee & Chambers.
'C. S. LOBDELL.'
At the time when the contract was made the baled cotton was stored under a covering of boards, at some place not certainly designated. A portion, equal to about twenty bales unbaled, was in a gin-house on Buffalo Bayou, at a place known as 'The Rocks,' or 'Felter's Plantation,' about ten miles from the Mississippi River. At this latter place Lobdell and Gordon, the agent of Elgee & Chambers, met. Whether it was the same place where the bulk of the cotton was lying did not distinctly appear. Immediately after the contract Lobdell employed a certain J. Morris, living near where the cotton was stored, 'to watch and take care' of it, and paid him therefor, and Morris continued his care until the 2d of April, 1864, on which day the cotton was seized by the agent of the United States.
Lobdell sold his rights under the contract to Woodruff & Co.
So far as respects Elgee, on the one side, and Woodruff & Co. on the other.
The claim of Mrs. Nutt rested on certain facts found as follows, by the Court of Claims:
In the month of October, 1863, Haller Nutt, M.D., a citizen of Mississippi, employed as his agent Truman Holmes, to go from Natchez, then in possession of the military forces of the Union, into the territory of the Confederacy to purchase cotton.
At this time Dr. Nutt resided in the immediate vicinity of Natchez, and within the military lines and control of the Union forces; and he procured from the military authorities their permits for Holmes to pass out of and into said lines, on said agency.
In October, 1863, Holmes, as the agent of Dr. Nutt, contracted with Elgee for the sale from him of so much of the 2100 bales of cotton stored at Felter's plantation as he (Holmes) should get out in safety to a market, for the price of 15 per bale, to be paid at Liverpool. The risk of the cotton till got out to be on Mr. Elgee.
On the 8th of October, 1863, Mr. Elgee made and delivered to Holmes a writing in these words:
'ALEXANDRIA, October 8th, 1863.
'DEAR SIR: It having been agreed on between you and myself that I sell to you all the cotton of Elgee & Chambers, now baled and under shed, for the price of 15 sterling per bale, payable in Liverpool, you will cause the same to be placed to my credit with J. A. Jackson & Co., of Liverpool.
'J. K. ELGEE.'
'Captain TRUMAN HOLMES, present.'
The position, of course, of Elgee now was that no ownership of the property had passed out of him to anybody—
1st. That, as respected Lobdell or his assignees, Woodruff & Co., the sale was one for cash, and that no cash had been paid; that the amount to be paid was to be ascertained by weighing, and that no weighing had been had; that the contract was entire, and that the property was yet to be delivered; but that part of it was incapable of being delivered until it should be ginned and baled, a matter which had never been done; Lobdell, who was bound to furnish them having never furnished the prerequisite bagging, rope, and twine.
2d. That as respected Mrs. Nutt, executrix of Dr. Nutt, she had plainly no case on the contract found by the Court of Claims, a contract of which Elgee's above-quoted letter of October 8th, 1863, made no part; and which was but 'for the sale from him of so much of the 2100 bales stored at Felter's plantation as Holmes should get out in safety to a market;' that this was plainly executory and had never been reduced into certainty by any cotton at all being got out, it having all been seized by the Federal government previously.
On the other hand, and as respected the opposing claimants.
Mrs. Nutt, agreeing that no property had ever passed from Elgee to Lobdell or through him to Woodruff & Co., but on the contrary so far as regarded those parties, remained in Elgee, contended, as respected her husband, Dr. Nutt, that to him it had passed; and she relied strongly on the letter of Elgee of October 8th, 1863, to Holmes, the agent of her husband, as showing this, and as putting an interpretation by Elgee himself which could not now be controverted on the matter, while—
Lobdell and Woodruff & Co. (the latter-named of whom claimed under the former), treating the contract with Holmes for Nutt, and the letter of October 8th, 1863, as of no importance, contended that prior to either, the cotton had passed to Lobdell, of which conclusive evidence appeared in the expressions in the contract—
'We have sold to Mr. C. S. Lobdell our crops of cotton, and we do acknowledge to have received in order to confirm the contract the sum of $30. The cotton from this date is at the risk of Mr. Lobdell.'
As to the United States. Their presence in the matter was apparently that the government might assist the court in doing justice between the individuals interpleading; so that in finally paying money out of the treasury the government might do to each that which, upon the showing by all, seemed to be right.
The Court of Claims in deciding the case, made what it deemed an equitable division of the funds; appropriating a part to Elgee as payment for the cotton, at the price named in the contract with Lobdell, and appropriating parts to Lobdell and to Woodruff & Co. From its decree all the parties appealed; Elgee himself having died during the suit, and his representatives now taking his place.
A question was made, and in this court learnedly argued, as to whether both the contracts which were the subjects of consideration, were not forbidden by the non-intercourse acts of Congress, and whether, on that ground, the claims of all the parties claiming under them did not fall. Any report of that part of the case or of argument on it is, however, unnecessary in view of the fact that the property in the cotton was admitted by all parties to have been originally in Elgee; and that the judgment of this court was that, even conceding the contracts to have been lawful, no property passed under either out of Elgee.
Messrs. J. M. Carlisle, J. D. McPherson, and W. W. McFarland, for the representatives of Elgee; Messrs. B. F. Butler and R. M. Corwine, for Woodruff & Co.; Mr. Montgomery Blair, for Lobdell; Mr. Joseph Casey, for Mrs. Nutt, and Mr. S. F. Phillips, Solicitor-General, for the United States.
Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.