18 April, 1863.
I have had the honor to receive your note of the 15th inst. in reference to the mails of the “Peterhoff” which are in possession of the prize court in New York. I am not aware that this Department has raised any “new questions or pretensions under the belligerent right of search,” in the case of the mails of the “Peterhoff.” Had there been ground for such an imputation, it could hardly, on an occasion to which so much importance has been given, have escaped the observation of Lord Lyons. He, however, advances no such charge, directly or by implication, and founds the demand made by him exclusively on the concession which he, apparently through some knowledge of the details of your letter to me of the 31st October, had been erroneously led to believe was made by this Government, in instructions given to the commanders of its vessels of war.
The true question in the present case is, whether the administration of the law shall be suffered to take its ordinary course, or whether the Court established to administer the law, and which has certainly been in existence long enough to know its powers and duties, shall be arrested in the discharge of its functions by an order of the Executive, issued on the demand of a foreign government, which exhibits no evidence, and in fact makes no charge that law or usage has been violated on our part.
If the “Peterhoff” was captured and sent to the Prize Court without any reasonable grounds for such a proceeding, then undoubtedly the opening of the mails, if it takes place, may have been an illegal act, — but in my judgment, not otherwise. If it is to be assumed that the capture was wrongful, not only the mails but the vessel and cargo should at once be surrendered.
It may be an “unfavorable time to raise new questions or pretensions,” but it is certainly no time to renounce any right or to unsettle any long and well established principles and usage. Such a surrender would be a confession of weakness which even if it existed, it would be “inexpedient and injurious” to make known to our enemies. If the case be one of doubt, it will be time enough to yield when the doubt is dispelled, and we are found to have been in the wrong. We may then yield and make amends.
I do not consider it necessary to discuss the question of genuine or spurious and simulated mails; but will merely suggest that if what pretends to be a mail is to be considered, in all cases, prima facie sacred, and exempt from examination, it will hereafter be found exceedingly difficult, in practice, to distinguish the spurious from the genuine, nor indeed would there be any necessity for the fabrication of a spurious mail.
In the meantime I cannot but hold that the Prize Court is lawfully in possession of the mail bag in question and that the Court itself is the proper authority to adjudge and determine what disposition shall be made of it. I propose to avoid all new questions by leaving the whole matter to this ancient method of adjustment, established by the consent of nations, and it was in order to avoid innovations, as well as to maintain our national rights and the legal rights of the captors, that the suggestions contained in your note of the 31st October were not adopted by this Department.
I am, respectfully,
Your Obdt. 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. 280-2