13 April, 1863.
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 11th inst., enclosing a note of Lord Lyons and correspondence relative to the mail of the Peterhoff.
His Lordship complains that the Peterhoff's mails were dealt with, “both at Key West and at New York in a manner which is not in accordance with the views of the Government of the United States, as stated in your letter to the Secretary of the Navy, of the 31st Oct. last.”
Acting Rear Admiral Bailey, an extract from whose letter is enclosed, in the correspondence transmitted on the 14th ulto., gave Her Majesty's Consul at Key West an authenticated copy of the law of the United States, and of the instructions based thereon, on the subject of papers which strictly belong to the captured vessels and the mails.
By special direction of the President, unusual courtesy and concession were made to neutrals in the instructions of the 18th August last to Naval Officers, who themselves were restricted and prohibited from examining or breaking the seals of the mail bags, parcels, &c. which they might find on board of captured vessels, under any pretext, but were authorized at their discretion to deliver them to the Consul, commanding naval officer, or the legation of the foreign government to be opened, upon the understanding that whatever is contraband, or important as evidence concerning the character of a captured vessel, will be remitted to the prize court, &c.
On the 31st of October last, I had the honor to receive from you a note suggesting the expediency of instructing naval officers that, in case of capture of merchant vessels suspected or found to be vessels of insurgents, or contraband, the public mails of every friendly or neutral power, duly certified or authenticated as such, shall not be searched or opened, but be put as speedily as may be convenient on the way to their designated destination. As I did not concur in the propriety or “expediency” of issuing instructions so manifestly in conflict with all usage and practice, and the law itself, and so detrimental to the legal rights of captors, who would thereby be frequently deprived of the best, if not the only, evidence that would insure condemnation of the captured vessel, no action was taken on the suggestions of the letter of the 31st October, as Lord Lyons seems erroneously to have supposed.
In the only brief conversation that I ever remember to have had with you, I expressed my opinion that we had in the instructions of the 18th of August gone to the utmost justifiable limit on this subject. The idea that our Naval officers should be compelled to forward the mails found on board the vessels of the insurgents — that foreign officials would have the sanction of this government in confiding their mails to blockade runners and vessels contraband, and that without judicial or other investigation, the officers of our service should hasten such mails, without examination, to their destination, was so repugnant to my own convictions that I came to the conclusion it was only a passing suggestion, and the subject was therefore dropped. Until the receipt of your note of Saturday, I was not aware that Lord Lyons was cognizant such a note had been written.
Acting Rear Admiral Bailey has acted strictly in accordance with the law and his instructions in the matter of the Peterhoff’s mail. The dispatch of Lord Lyons is herewith returned.
I am, respectfully,
Your Obd't Serv't,
Secty. of Navy.
Hon. Wm. H. Seward,
Secty. of State.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 270-2