The President called on me this morning with the basis of a dispatch which Lord Lyons proposed to send home. He had submitted it to Mr. Seward, who handed it to the President, and he brought it to me. The President read it to me, and when he concluded, I remarked the whole question of the mails belonged properly to the courts and I thought unless we proposed some new treaty arrangement it would be best the subject should continue with the courts as law and usage directed. “But,” he inquired, “have the courts ever opened the mails of a neutral government?” I replied, “Always, when the captured vessels on which mails were found were considered good prize.” “Why, then,” said he, “do you not furnish me with the fact? It is what I want, but you furnish me with no report that any neutral has ever been searched.” I said I was not aware that the right had ever been questioned. The courts made no reports to me whether they opened or did not open mail. The courts are independent of the Departments, to which they are not amenable. In the mails was often the best and only evidence that could insure condemnation. [I said] that I should as soon have expected an inquiry whether evidence was taken, witnesses sworn, and the cargoes examined as whether mails were examined. “But if mails ever are examined,” said he, “the fact must be known and recorded. What vessels,” he asked, “have we captured, where we have examined the mails?” “All, doubtless, that have had mails on board,” I replied. Probably most of them were not intrusted with mails. “What,'” asked he, '”was the first vessel taken?” “I do not recollect the name, a small blockade-runner, I think; I presume she had no mail. If she had, I have no doubt the court searched it and examined all letters and papers.” He was extremely anxious to ascertain if I recollected, or knew that any captured mail had been searched. I told him I remembered no specific mention, doubted if the courts ever reported to the Navy Department. Foreign governments, knowing of the blockade, would not be likely to make up mails for the ports blockaded. The Peterhoff had a mail ostensibly for Matamoras, which was her destination, but with a cargo and mails which we knew were intended for the Rebels, though the proof might be difficult since the mail had been given up. I sent for Watkins, who has charge of prize matters, to know if there was any record or mention of mails in any of the papers sent the Navy Department, but he could not call to mind anything conclusive. Some mention was made of mails or dispatches in the mail on board the Bermuda, which we captured, but it was incidental. Perhaps the facts might be got from the district attorneys, though he thought, as I did, that but few regular mails were given to blockade-runners. The President said he would frame a letter to the district attorneys, and in the afternoon he brought in a form to be sent to the attorneys in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Read Chase the principal points in the Peterhoff case. He approved of my views, concurred in them fully, and said there was no getting around them.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 302-4