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Confederate Letters of Marque

        The surrender of Fort Sumter on the 13th of April, 1861, was the initial act of the war between the States. On the 15th the President of the United States issued a proclamation, calling out troops to the number of 75,000. President Davis, on the 17th, published a counter - proclamation, inviting applications for letters of marque and reprisal to be granted under the seal of the Confederate States, against ships and property of the United States and their citizens.   After appropriately recognizing the condition of public affairs, and inviting energetic preparation for Immediate hostilities, he said:

"Now, therefore. I, Jefferson Davis. President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this, my proclamation. inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, to be issued under the seal of these Confederate States; and I do further notify all persons applying for letters of marque to make a statement in writing, giving the name and suitable description of the character, tonnage, and force of the vessel, name of the place of residence of each owner concerned therein and the intended number of crew, and to sign each statement, and deliver the same to the Secretary of State or Collector of the Port of Entry of these Confederate States, to be by him transmitted to the Secretary of State, and do further notify all applicants aforesaid, before any commission or letter of marque is issued to any vessel, or the owner or the owners thereof. and the commander for the time being, they will be required to give bond to the Confederate States, with at least two responsible sureties not interested in such vessel, in the penal sum of $5,000; or if such vessel be provided with more than 110 men, then in the penal sum of $10,000, with the condition that the owners, officers, and crew who shall be employed on board such commissioned vessel, shall observe the laws of these Confederate States, and the instructions given them for the regulation of their conduct, and shall satisfy all damages done contrary to the tenor thereof by such vessel during her commission, and deliver up the same when revoked by the President of the Confederate States, And I do further specially enjoin on all persons holding offices, civil and military, under the authority of the Confederate States, that they be vigilant and zealous in the discharge of the duties incident thereto; ,and I do, moreover, exhort the good people of these Confederate States, as they love their country-- as they prize the blessings of free government-- as they feel the wrongs of the past, and these now threatened in an aggravated form by those whose enmity is more implacable because unprovoked--they exert themselves in preserving order, in promoting concord, in maintaining the authority and efficacy of the laws, and in supporting, invigorating all the measures which may be adopted for a common defence, and by which, under the blessings of Divine Prey-deuce, we may hope for a speedy, just, and honorable peace.

        Doubting the constitutional power of the executive to grant letters of marque to private armed ships, President Davis, with characteristic regard for law, determined not to commission privateers until duly authorized by Congress. That body assembled in special session on April 29, in obedience to a proclamation of the President, in which he advised legislation for the employment of privateers. On the 6th of May Congress passed an act, entitled, "An act recognizing the existence of war between the United States and the Confederate States, and concerning letters of marque, prizes, and prize goods." The first section of this act was as follows:

"The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact that the President of the Confederate States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the Confederate States to meet the war thus commenced, and to issue to private vessels commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, under the seal of the Confederate States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the United States, and of the citizens or inhabitants of the States and territories thereof; provided, however, that property of the enemy (unless it be contraband of wan laden on board a neutral vessel, shall not be subject to seizure under this act; and provided further, that vessels of the citizens or inhabitants of the United States now in the ports of the Confederate States, except such as have been since the 5th of April last, or may hereafter be, in the service of the Government of the United States, shall he allowed thirty days after the publication of this act to leave said ports and reach their destination; and such vessels and their cargoes, excepting articles contraband of war, shall not be subject to capture under this act during said period, unless they shall have previously reached the destination for which they were hound on leaving said ports."

        The act then proceeded to lay down in detail regulations as to the conditions on which letters of marque should be granted to private vessels, and the conduct and behavior of the officers and crews of such vessels, and the disposal of such prizes made by them, similar to the regulations which have been ordinarily prescribed and enforced with respect to privateers in the United States, and by the maritime powers of Europe.
        The fourth and seventh sections were as follows:

        "That, before any commission or letters of marque and reprisal shall be issued as aforesaid, the owner or owners of the ship or vessel for which the same shall be requested, and the commander thereof for the time being, shall give bond to the Confederate States, with at least two responsible surieties not interested in such vessel, in the penal sum of $5,000, or, if such vessel be provided with more than 150 men, then in the penal sum of $10,000, with condition that the owners, officers, and crew who shall be employed on hoard such commissioned vessel shall and will observe the laws of the Confederate States, and the instructions which shall be given them according to law for the regulation of their conduct, and will satisfy all damages and injuries which shall be done or committed contrary to the tenor thereof by such vessel during her commission, and to deliver up the same when revoked by the President of the Confederate States.
        "That before breaking bulk of any vessel which shall be captured as aforesaid, or disposal or conversion thereof, or of any articles which shall be found on board the same, such captured vessel, goods, or effects, shall be brought into some port of the Confederate States, or of a nation or State in amity with the Confederate States, and shall be proceeded against before a competent tribunal; and after condemnation and forfeiture thereof, shall belong to the owners, officers, and crew of the vessel capturing the same, and be distributed as before provided; and in the case of all captured vessels, goods, and effects which shall be brought within the jurisdiction of the Confederate States, the district courts of the Confederate States shall have exclusive original cognizance thereof, as the civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; and the said courts, or the courts being courts of the Confederate States into which such cases shall he removed, in which they shall be finally decided, shall and may decree restitution in whole or part, when the capture shall have been made without just cause. And, if made without probable cause, may order and decree damages and costs to the party injured, for which the owners and commanders of the vessels making such captures, and also the vessels, shall be liable."

        A further act, entitled, "An act regulating the sale of prizes and the distribution thereof," was likewise passed by the Congress of the Confederate States on the 14th of May, 1861.
Source:  "History of the Confederate States Navy" by J. Thomas Scharf

This Page last updated 01/16/02

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