Article: "Prize Cases Actual Details for Four
Ships: Hiawatha, Crenshaw, Amy Warwick, and Brilliante"
The four ships, Hiawatha, Crenshaw, Amy Warwick, and
Brilliante had all been condemned in lower courts after having been
seized by the Union Navy. Hiawatha was a British barque captured
in Hampton Roads in May of 1861. While the ship was loading a cargo of
cotton for export, the captain had received word that the blockade was
in effect. Lower courts sustained the seizure and forwarded the case to
the Supreme Court for ruling on the constitutional issues.
had been taken off Cape Henry in July of 1861 by the U.S. gunboat
Quaker City. A court in Boston upheld the seizure of property aboard
the vessel belonging to residents of Virginia, arguing that property
belonging to persons resident in enemy territories was subject to
condemnation if taken at sea. The schooner Crenshaw was owned by
two partners, one Southern and one Northern, and the ship was carrying a
cargo of tobacco from Richmond, Virginia to Liverpool, England when it
was seized in May of 1861. Lower courts ruled that property aboard the
ship belonging to Englishmen was exempt from seizure, but condemned all
the rest of the cargo. Brilliante was a schooner owned by an
American and a Mexican citizen, carrying cargo that belonged to the
owners of the vessel and to two other Mexicans. Captured in June of 1861
while anchored off Biloxi, Mississippi, it was found to be carrying
cargo it had picked up in New Orleans, Louisiana, after the beginning of
the blockade. In a local court in Key West, Florida, the seizure was
upheld, and the owners appealed to the Supreme Court.
While these four cases were being heard in the Supreme Court, other
cases which had arisen from the blockade were postponed, pending a
decision in Washington, D.C. Even so, the Prize Cases were not
heard until June of 1863, after Abraham Lincoln had appointed new
members to the Supreme Court. Even with his own appointees in the Court,
however, the decision was close.
The case for the government was argued by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.,
famous for his factual novel, Two Years Before the Mast (1840).
Dana argued that the government's right to capture property had no
relationship to the status of the owners. Rather, if the owners were
under the jurisdiction of the enemy, the government could seize the
property, because that control gave the enemy an interest in the
property. Further, he argued that the state of war existed, even if it
had not been declared by Congress. The president could exercise war
powers without such a declaration. The state of war gave the U.S.
government belligerent rights, but no such rights were to be assumed for
the Confederacy, because an area in rebellion did not have the same
rights as a sovereign nation.
Each of the groups of claimants were represented by different attorneys,
but Charles Edwards handled the petitioners in the cases of the
Crenshaw and the Hiawatha. The attorneys for the claimants
argued that the rebels could not be considered enemies, and the conflict
could not be considered war. However, Justice Grier, in writing the
majority opinion of the Court, accepted Dana's argument that the war was
a fact and that Lincoln was empowered to pursue the war without waiting
for Congress to recognize it. Justice Nelson wrote the minority opinion,
holding that no war could exist before Congress acted to recognize it in
July of 1861. Since the president had no power to set up a blockade or
to conduct war before that date, the minority held, the decrees of
condemnation of property should be set aside.
The most far-reaching effect of the Prize Cases was to uphold the
president's claim to extensive emergency powers. The precedent set in
the Prize Cases may have discouraged legal challenges to other
acts of President Lincoln during the war, including suspension of free
speech and press, the Conscription Act, and the Emancipation
Proclamation. The Prize Cases established the theory that the
president had extraordinary powers to preserve the nation and that he
could exercise them legally. Furthermore, the Court had ruled that the
Union had full powers as a belligerent but that the Confederacy could
claim no such powers. The Curt accepted the paradox that the Union could
exercise all power which would come with an international war, but that
it could also exercise sovereign power over the area in rebellion.
A Summary of the "Prize Case"
Owners of four ships as claimants: Hiawatha,
Crenshaw, Amy Warwick, and Brilliante
That the seizure of these ships for violation of blockade
was illegal, because the war was a civil war, not an
Chief Lawyer for Petitioners
Chief Lawyer for Respondent
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Justices for the Court
David Davis, Robert Cooper Grier (writing for the Court),
Samuel Freeman Miller, Noah Haynes Swayne, James Moore Wayne
John Catron, Nathan Clifford, Samuel Nelson, Roger Brooke
Date of Decision
10 March 1863
The Court ruled the president could institute a wartime
blockade without congressional approval.
The case determined that the Union government could pursue
the naval war against the Confederacy as if it were an
international war, using the rules of blockade.
Go to the Union
Naval Blockade Site for Information
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