MRS. ALEXANDER'S COTTON, 69 U. S. 404 (1864)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Mrs. Alexander's Cotton, 69 U.S. 2 Wall. 404 404 (1864)

Mrs. Alexander's Cotton

69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 404


1. The principle that personal dispositions of the individual inhabitants of enemy territory as distinguished from those of the enemy people generally, cannot, in questions of capture, be inquired into applies in civil wars as in international. Hence, all the people of any district that was in insurrection against the United States in the Southern rebellion are to be regarded as enemies except insofar as by action of the government itself that relation may have been changed.

2. Our government, by its Act of Congress of March 12, 1863, 12 Stat. at Large 591, to provide for the collection of abandoned property &c., does make distinction between those whom the rule of international law would class as enemies and, through forms which it prescribes, protects the rights of property of all persons in rebel regions who, during the rebellion, have in fact maintained a loyal adhesion to the government, the general policy of our legislation during the rebellion having been to preserve, for loyal owners obliged by circumstances to remain in rebel states, all property or its proceeds which has come to the possession of the government or its officers.

3. Cotton in the Southern rebel districts -- constituting as it did the chief reliance of the rebels for means to purchase munitions of war, an element of strength to the rebellion -- was a proper subject of capture by the government during the rebellion on general principles of public law relating to war, though private property, and the legislation of Congress during the rebellion authorized such captures.

4. Property captured on land by the officers and crews of a naval force of the United States is not "maritime prize," even though, like cotton, it may have been a proper subject of capture generally, as an element of strength to the enemy. Under the Act of Congress of March 12, 1863, such property captured during the rebellion should be turned over to the Treasury Department, by it to be sold and the proceeds deposited in the national Treasury, so that any person asserting ownership of it may prefer his claim in the Court of Claims under the said act, and on making proof to the satisfaction of that tribunal that he has never given aid or comfort to the rebellion, have a return of the net proceeds decreed to him.

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

Page 69 U. S. 405

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 libeled 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

Page 69 U. S. 406

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 loyalty 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 loyalty, 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

Page 69 U. S. 407

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." [Footnote 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 6, 1861, [Footnote 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 17, 1862, [Footnote 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 12, 1863, [Footnote 4] "to provide for the collection of abandoned property, and for the prevention of frauds in insurrectionary districts," &c., made

Page 69 U. S. 408

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 17, 1862, for the better government of the navy, [Footnote 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 2 July, 1864, [Footnote 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 12, 1863.

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