Dep't. of State, 4 Aug. 1863.
Hon. G. Welles, Secty. of the Navy.
Sir:— I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 31st ulto. relating to the case of the Mont Blanc.
The following seems to be the history of the correspondence on that subject:
On the 9th of Jan. 1863, Aubrey G. Butterfield, Esqr., British Consul at Key West, addressed to the British Consul at New York a note in which he stated that the Mont Blanc of Nassau, New Providence, A. Curry, Master, reached Key West on the 29th of December 1862, under charge of the Octorara; that she had sailed from Green Turtle Key for Port Royal, South Carolina, on the 6th of December and was captured on the 21st when at anchor at Sand Key, Bahama Bank, a mile off the shore. This letter having been transmitted to me by Lord Lyons with a request for investigation, I had the honor to communicate it to you on the 13th of January. On the 17th of January you communicated to me a letter from Commander Collins of the Octorara in which he narrated the capture, and you remarked in the letter which you addressed to me, on that occasion, that it appeared that he captured the Mont Blanc within a marine league of one of the Cays over which the English Government claims jurisdiction, and that the question of jurisdiction at the Keys and Reefs of the Bahamas is one that should not be disposed of without deliberation; for although the amount at issue (in that capture) might be small, yet the principle is important.
Acting Rear Admiral T. Bailey endorsed on the report of the capture made by Commander Collins, the words following: — “Forwarded and attention requested to the fact that one of the captures (meaning that of the Mont Blanc) was made within a marine league of one of the Keys of the Bahamas over which the English claim jurisdiction.”
The report of Commander Collins and the indorsement of Acting Rear Admiral Bailey thereon, were communicated to me by you and were afterwards made known to Lord Lyons in reply to his previous call upon this Dep't for explanation.
On the 2d of Feb. T. J. Boynton, Esqr., U. S. District Attorney at Key West, wrote to me to the effect that he had consented to the dismission of the libel against the Mont Blanc and her restitution to the master and claimant, for the reason that the evidence and statements of all parties left no room to doubt that the place where she was seized was within British waters.
On the 9th of Feb. you wrote to me a letter, saying that, in your previous letter, you had called my attention to the question of jurisdiction, not for the purpose of indicating that you had adopted any precise and fixed opinion on the particular question, but to call my attention to a matter which seemed likely to be followed by unlocked for and important consequences.
On the 11th of Feb. I had the honor to transmit to you a copy of Mr. Boynton's letter and on the same day communicated a copy of it also to Lord Lyons. On the 1st of May Lord Lyons replied under the instructions of the British Govt. to the effect that the seizure is admitted to have been made in British waters and while the Mont Blanc was at anchor; and Her Majesty's Gov't had accordingly desired him not only to express their expectation of compensation to the owners for the plain wrong done to them, but also to address to the U. S. Gov't a remonstrance against the violation of British territory committed in this case, and to request that orders may be given to the U. S. Navy to abstain from committing the like grave offense against international law and the dignity of the British crown.
To this note, by the President's directions, I replied on the 7th of May, last, that when this case was first brought to the notice of the State Department I had called upon the Secretary of the Navy for information which resulted in a confirmation of His Lordship's representations that the Mont Blanc was seized at anchor within a mile of the shore in waters of which Great Britain claimed jurisdiction; that the vessel having been carried into Key West for adjudication, the attention of the District Attorney there was directed to the case; that on the 2nd of Feb. the Dist. Attorney reported dismission of the case and restitution of the Mont Blanc to Master and Claimant because evidently it had been seized in British waters. That it seemed probable at that time that the master and claimant might have waived any further claim by assenting to the disposition of the case which was thus made without insisting upon a continuance of it for the purpose of obtaining damages. That I had now submitted the claim to the President, and was authorized to say that he admits that in view of all the circumstances of the case such compensation ought to be made and I therefore proposed the mode of settlement which was finally accepted, and which is mentioned in your letter of this date.
You now lay before me a copy of the order which was made in the Prize Court at Key West on the 19th of Jany., before Judge Marvin. In this order it is declared that the cause of the United States against the schooner Mont Blanc and cargo, having come on to be heard, it is ordered by consent of all the parties interested that the vessel and cargo be restored to the claimant for the benefit of whom it may concern; that there was probable cause for the capture and detention of the vessel and that each party pay his own costs. Having communicated this order to me, you inform me that Commander Collins feels that he was reproved for an honest and vigilant discharge of a difficult and responsible duty, and is sensitive on a point touching his professional reputation.
You remark that 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 that he had probable cause for doing, and would therefore allow no costs, much less damages. You remark farther that you have felt it your duty to call my attention to this fact, not only to vindicate the opinion which you have so frequently expressed that all matters of prize should be left to the Court for adjudication without prejudice or prejudgment from the Department, but in justice to a meritorious officer, who has been censured for a faithful discharge of his duty and who is acquitted by the legal tribunal for this act in seizing the Mont Blanc.
You submit an opinion that Her Majesty's Representative will scarcely insist on damages because in his correspondence with the Gov't an incautious admission may have been made, while the Court, the proper tribunal, has investigated the case, and comes to a different conclusion.
Finally, you remark that it is but 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.
I have submitted your note to the President together with the voluminous correspondence which it necessarily draws in review. It may be supposed, although it is not stated, that Commander Collins, in making the capture of the Mont Blanc, intended to furnish this Gov't with an occasion to raise a question whether the Key on which that vessel was captured was really within the maritime jurisdiction, although she was known to assert that claim; and it may be inferred that you intended in your letter of the 17th of Jany. last to intimate to the State Department that the capture presented an opportunity for raising that question.
However this may have been, Rear Adm'l Bailey's indorsement upon Commander Collins' report, and your own remarks upon it, were so expressed as to be understood to concede that the place of capture was within the proper maritime jurisdiction of Great Britain. But whatever reservation might have been practised on that question under other circumstances, it was quite too late for the Executive Government to raise it against the British Government after the Prize Court, with the consent of the Dist. Attorney and the captors, had dismissed the libel and ordered the restitution of the Mont Blanc, upon an agreement of all the parties that the place of capture was unquestionably within British jurisdiction.
So far as relates to damages, the ground was expressly taken in the correspondence with Lord Lyons that the master and owner had waived damages by accepting the decree and the restitution of his vessel. But there still remained a party and rights which the Prize Court did not foreclose. That party was the Gov't of Great Britain, and its claim was one for redress for injuries to its sovereignty and dignity by a violation of her territory. No prize court of our country can try and decide a national claim of this sort. It is a political claim only to be tried and adjudicated by the two Governments concerned. The records of the Gov't admitted the violation. It was confessed in the Court, and made the basis of the restitution of the vessel and her cargo to the owners. It is not perceived that the judgment of the Court now produced affects the disposition of the subject which has been made by the President. The judgment itself is a record that the national sovereignty of Great Britain was violated. And no shadow of a cause justifying the violation has been raised in the whole correspondence. There is nothing but self-defense that could excuse the exercise of aggressive national authority, confessedly on the shores or within the waters of a friendly or neutral nation. It is true the Judge says in that record that there was probable cause for capture, but in the first place, Her Majesty's Gov't was not a party to that cause, and could not be, the alleged violation of its dignity was not a question upon which the Court had cognizance; and no foreign nation is concluded upon such a claim by the judgment of a prize court in another nation.
The President alone is the judge of what indemnity or satisfaction was due to the British Gov't upon the claim which they presented to him; and having awarded that satisfaction, he is now of opinion that he could not, without giving national offense, withdraw or retract the satisfaction which he has awarded, and which Her Majesty's Gov't have accepted.
He is gratified with the evidence furnished that Commander Collins was actuated by loyal and patriotic motives in making a capture which has been proved to be erroneous. This explanation goes with the record, and it is not deemed unfortunate that the U. S. have shown their respect for the Law of Nations while they can excuse to themselves, but not to foreign nations, an unintentional departure from that law by its most trusted agents.
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your Obedient Servant,
William H. Seward.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 418-23