United States v. William Smith

The citation for this case is 27 Fed. Cas. 1134, Case No. 16,318.

William Smith was the prize master of the confederate privateer Jeff Davis‘ prize, the Enchantress, which the Jeff Davis captured on July 6, 1861 off the coast of Delaware as the Enchantress was bound for Cuba from Boston. The USS Albatross recaptured the Enchantress off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on July 22, 1861, as Smith and his prize crew were taking the Enchantress to Charleston, South Carolina. Smith and his crew were brought to trial in Philadelphia, PA on charge of piracy. Justice Robert C. Grier and Federal Judge John Cadwalader presided over the trial. You can see the full report of the trial here. Smith’s trial was held October 25, 1861 in the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

We’re specifically interested in Justice Grier’s charge to the jury, in which he said, “But it is contended that, though property may be taken ‘by violence on the high seas,’ yet if it be done by authority of a state in prosecution of a war against another state, the persons acting under such an authority are not guilty of piracy, and cannot be punished as such. Of this there is no doubt; for piracy has been defined as ‘depredation on or near the sea without authority from any prince or state.’ 6 Bac. Abr. 163. Those having such authority are treated as enemies, or as having the privileges of enemies in open war. Thus Turks and Algerines, though acting as free-booters on the ocean (according to Sir Lionel Jenkins), could not be treated as pirates, because they acted under a commission from states with whom the government had treaties, and had acknowledged to be states, in the great family of nations. But it does not follow that every band of conspirators who may combine together for the purpose of rebellion or revolution or overturning the government of which they are citizens or subjects, become ipso facto a separate and independent member of the great family of sovereign states. A successful rebellion may be termed a revolution; but until it becomes such it has no claim to be recognized as a member of the family, or exercise the rights or enjoy the privileges consequent on sovereignty. ‘When a civil war rages in a foreign nation, or in our own, and one part separates from the old established government, and erects itself into a distinct government, the courts of the United States must view such contested government as it is viewed by the legislative and executive departments of the government of the United States.’ Every government is bound, by the law of self-preservation, to suppress insurrections; and the fact that the number and power of the insurgents may be so great as to carry on a civil war against their legitimate sovereign will not entitle them to be considered a state. The fact that a civil war exists for the purpose of suppressing a rebellion is conclusive evidence that the government of the United States refuses to acknowledge their right to be considered as such. Consequently this court, sitting here to execute the laws of the United States, can view those in rebellion against them in no other light than as traitors to their country, and those who assume by their authority a right to plunder the property of our citizens on the high seas as pirates and robbers.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1134, 1135-1136]

The law, according to Justice Grier, considers that just claiming to be an independent state doesn’t make you an independent state, and being in rebellion against the United States makes one a traitor against the United States.

Smith’s trial lasted four days and resulted in a guilty verdict with a sentence of death by hanging. This produced an outrage in the confederacy and threats of retaliation against Union soldiers they held as prisoners. Those threats eventually led to the sentence being quashed. Afterward, the Federals treated captured confederates not as criminals but as prisoners of war.


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