31 July, 1863.
On the 13th of May last I had the honor to receive a note from you enclosing the copy of a communication addressed to Lord Lyons, under date of the 7th of May, relative to the seizure of the British schooner Mont Blanc, at Sand Key, Bahama Banks.
In that communication, and in personal interviews, I was informed that it had been admitted by our government that Commander Collins had been guilty of “inconsiderate conduct,” and that “compensation ought to be made for the wrong done.” I was requested also to designate some person at or near Key West to ascertain the damage to be paid, and in view of these facts, the President directed that the attention of the officers of the Navy shall be distinctly called to certain instructions in a note of yours of the 8th of August last, — alluding I presume to certain suggestions communicated through you to this Department on that day, which eventuated in the instructions to Naval Officers on the 18th of August, 1862. I was moreover directed to make known to Commander Collins that by “seizing the Mont Blanc in British waters and at anchor, he had incurred the disapprobation of the President, and that any repetition will be visited with more severe and effective censure.”
In carrying into effect these views, I took occasion to express to you, as I had on other occasions, the opinion that the subjects involved belonged to the courts rather than the Departments, and that with all the facts and circumstances before them, the judicial tribunals would arrive at more correct conclusions than we could with only limited and ex-parte information. As requested, however, I designated Acting Rear Admiral Bailey to adjudicate or pass upon the question of damages and informed Commander Collins that he had incurred the displeasure of the President. That officer, feeling that he was reproved for an honest and vigilant discharge of a difficult and responsible duty, and sensitive on a point touching his professional reputation, has procured and forwarded to the Department the final order of the Court at Key West, in the case of the Mont Blanc, a copy of which I have the honor to transmit herewith. From this final order of Judge Marvin it will be seen that, although by consent of all the parties in interest, the vessel and cargo were restored to the claimants, yet it was decided by the Court “that there was probable cause for the capture and detention of the vessel and that each party pay its own costs.”
The judgment of the Court, having the parties before it and all the facts in the premises, is an exculpation of Commander Collins, who nevertheless stands reproved and censured for doing that which the Court declares he had probable cause for doing, and would therefore allow no costs, much less damages.
I have felt it my duty to call your attention to this fact, not only to vindicate the opinion which I have so frequently expressed, that all matters of prize should be left to the Courts for adjudication, without prejudice or pre-judgment from the Departments, but in justice to a meritorious officer who has been censured for what he believed a faithful discharge of his duty, and who is acquitted by the legal tribunal for his act in seizing the Mont Blanc.
I apprehend Her Majesty's representative will scarcely insist on damages because, in his correspondence with the government, an incautious admission may have been made, while the court, the proper tribunal, has investigated the case and come to a different conclusion.
I think, moreover, it is an act of simple justice to Commander Collins that the censure upon him should be removed and that his record should remain unstained by the capture of the Mont Blanc.
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. 417-8