Carlisle v. United States

The citation for this case is 83 [16 Wall.] US 147.

In this case, the claimants, who were British subjects resident in the United States, began to manufacture saltpeter in Santa Cave, which is about 7 miles southwest of Scottsboro, Alabama, in December of 1861. They sold this saltpeter, a key ingredient of gunpowder, to the confederacy. The claimants also had a plantation in Alabama, and in 1864 the U.S. Navy seized 65 bales of cotton from their plantation. After Andrew Johnson’s Christmas, 1868 general pardon and amnesty for all who participated in the rebellion, the claimants sued for the return of the value of their cotton, approximately $43,232. The U.S. Court of Claims denied their request. In that case, the Court of Claims found, “From having, in 1860 and 1861, been engaged in the business of railroad contractors, they began in December, 1861, the manufacture of saltpeter at Santa Cave, Alabama, and continued engaged therein until the following April, when, owing to the presence of United States troops in the vicinity, they left the cave and remained absent therefrom until the following October, when, immediately after the evacuation of Huntsville, Alabama, by the United States forces, they resumed work in making saltpeter at said cave and continued it about two months. Their right to make saltpeter there was under a contract of lease between the owners of the cave and other parties, which had been transferred to the claimants, by whom it was, in May, 1863, sold and transferred to the so-called ‘Confederate States of America’ for $34,600. On the 28th of March, 1862, the claimants sold to the said Confederate States of America 2,480 lbs. of saltpeter at 75 cents per pound, in all, $1,860, and received payment therefor at Richmond, Virginia, on the 27th of June, 1862, from a rebel captain of artillery, and on the 30th of November, 1862, they sold to the said ‘Confederate States’ 4m209 lbs. of niter at 75 cents per pound, in all $3,156.75, and in the bill of the same, which the claimants receipted, it was expressed that the said niter was ‘for manufacture of gunpowder,’ and the amount of said bill was paid at Larkinsville, Alabama, on the 24th of December, 1862, by the rebel ‘superintendent of niter and mining district No. 9,’ and the claimants hired to the said ‘Confederate States’ wagons to transport the said niter from Santa Cave to Rome, Georgia.” [83 US 147, 149-150]

Justice Stephen Field delivered the unanimous opinion of the court. Justice Field wrote, “The circumstances attending the manufacture and sale of the saltpeter, as disclosed in the findings of the court, plainly show that the claimants knew that the saltpeter was to be used by the Confederates in the manufacture of gunpowder for the prosecution of the war of the rebellion, and there is little doubt that the sale was made in order to aid the Confederates in accomplishing their treasonable purposes. By thus furnishing materials for the prosecution of the war whilst they were domiciled in the country, knowing the uses to which the materials were to be applied, the claimants became participators in the treason of the Confederates equally as if they had been original conspirators with them. The Court of Claims therefore did not err in its conclusion that the Act of the claimants in selling the saltpeter to the Confederates, under these circumstances, was an act of aid and comfort to the rebellion. We have already held in Hanauer v. Doane, and we repeat and reaffirm what we there said, that ‘he who, being bound by his allegiance to a government, sells goods to the agent of an armed combination to overthrow that government, knowing that the purchaser buys them for that treasonable purpose, is himself guilty of treason or a misprision thereof. He voluntarily aids the treason. He cannot be permitted to stand on the nice metaphysical distinction that although he knows that the purchaser buys the goods for the purpose of aiding the rebellion, he does not sell them for that purpose. The consequences of his acts are too serious and enormous to admit of such a plea. He must be taken to intend the consequences of his own voluntary act.’ ” [83 US 147, 150-151] So the confederates were engaged in treason against the United States and by providing the saltpeter to the confederacy the claimants were also guilty of treason.

However, Justice Field also wrote, “But the aid and comfort thus given to the rebellion by the claimants did not justify a denial of their right to recover the proceeds of their property in the Treasury of the United States after the proclamation of pardon and amnesty made by the President on the 25th of December, 1868, unless their character as aliens excludes them from the benefit of that proclamation, a question which we shall presently consider. Assuming that they are within the terms of the proclamation, the pardon and amnesty granted relieve them from the legal consequences of their participation in the rebellion and from the necessity of proving that they had not thus participated, which otherwise would have been indispensable to a recovery. It is true, the pardon and amnesty do not and cannot alter the actual fact that aid and comfort were given by the claimants, but they forever close the eyes of the court to the perception of that fact as an element in its judgment, no rights of third parties having intervened.” [83 US 147, 151] In other words, the presidential proclamation of pardon and amnesty operated to prevent them from being punished for this treason.

After referring to four more Supreme Court decisions, Justice Field wrote, “After these repeated adjudications, it must be regarded as settled in this Court that the pardon of the President, whether granted by special letters or by general proclamation, relieves claimants of the proceeds of captured and abandoned property from the consequences of participation in the rebellion and from the necessity of establishing their loyalty in order to prosecute their claims. This result follows whether we regard the pardon as effacing the offense, blotting it out, in the language of the cases, as though it had never existed, or regard persons pardoned as necessarily excepted from the general language of the act which requires claimants to make proof of their adhesion, during the rebellion, to the United States. It is not to be supposed that Congress intended by the general language of the act to encroach upon any of the prerogatives of the President, and especially that benign prerogative of mercy which lies in the pardoning power. It is more reasonable to conclude that claimants restored to their rights of property by the pardon of the President were not in contemplation of Congress in passing the act, and were not intended to be embraced by the requirement in question. All general terms in statutes should be limited in their application, so as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or any unconstitutional operation, if that be possible. It will be presumed that exceptions were intended which would avoid results of that nature.” [83 US 147, 153]

Regarding the term “allegiance,” Justice Field wrote, “By allegiance is meant the obligation of fidelity and obedience which the individual owes to the government under which he lives, or to his sovereign in return for the protection he receives. It may be an absolute and permanent obligation or it may be a qualified and temporary one. The citizen or subject owes an absolute and permanent allegiance to his government or sovereign, or at least until, by some open and distinct act, he renounces it and becomes a citizen or subject of another government or another sovereign. The alien, whilst domiciled in the country, owes a local and temporary allegiance, which continues during the period of his residence.” [83 US 147, 154]

So the claimants did owe allegiance to the United States while they resided in the United States, and they therefore did commit treason against the United States; however, the presidential pardon and amnesty meant they could not be punished for that treason. Because of that, the Court ordered the judgment reversed and directed the U.S. Court of Claims to enter a judgment in favor of the claimants for the proceeds of the sale of cotton.

This case shows confederates had indeed committed treason, but because of Andrew Johnson’s Proclamation of Pardon and Amnesty they could not be punished for that treason.



  1. SWMODave · · Reply

    “There has been some difference of opinion among the members of the Court as to cases covered by the pardon of the President, but there has been none as to the effect and operation of a pardon in cases where it applies. All have agreed that the pardon not merely releases the offender from the punishment prescribed for the offense, but that it obliterates in legal contemplation the offense itself.”

    Could this not mean that while the Confederate soldier had been guilty of treason in the courts eyes, the pardon not only meant that they could not be prosecuted, but that the crime was negated and therefore, we in current times, have no right to call them treasonus/traitors? Legally of course – not defending them or their cause. Just noticing on cwt this phrase is thrown around quite freely by both sides and I am uncomfortable with that. Would have asked you privately on cwt but don’t remember your handle there 🙂

    1. No, it doesn’t. It means that only as far as punishment goes, it is like the offense never happened; however, it doesn’t wipe away their actions from history. Historically, they did in fact commit treason and as a matter of historical fact were indeed traitors to the United States; however, only from the standpoint of legal punishment it was as if it never happened.

      1. SWMO Dave · · Reply

        Thank you for your reply. I think I had the legal term expunged and pardon confused. Thanks again

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