The Grapeshot

The citation for this case is 76 US [9 Wall.] 129.

In April, 1858, the bark Grapeshot was in the port of Rio de Janeiro badly in need of repair, reprovisioning, and remanning in order to make its return to the United States. Its master, Joseph Clark, had no money to pay for this, so he took out a bond with Wallerstein, Massett, & Company for $9,767.40, which he used to effect the repairs, reprovisioning, and remanning. He was able to make the return voyage and arrived at New Orleans around June 7, 1858, whereupon he refused to pay the bond. The bond holders sued him for payment. The case was pending in the US District Court for the State of Louisiana in 1861 when Louisiana’s secession interrupted the proceedings.

Meanwhile, in 1862, the U.S. authorities were able to capture New Orleans and reestablish U.S. authority in areas of Louisiana. “On the 20th of October, 1862, President Lincoln, by proclamation, instituted a Provisional Court for the State of Louisiana with authority, among other powers, to hear, try, and determine all causes in admiralty. Subsequently, by consent of parties, this cause was transferred into the Provisional Court thus constituted, and was heard, and a decree was again rendered in favor of the libellants. Upon the restoration of civil authority in the state, the Provisional Court, limited in duration, according to the terms of the proclamation, by that event, ceased to exist. On the 28th of July, 1866, Congress enacted that all suits, causes, and proceedings in the Provisional Court, proper for the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, should be transferred to that court, and heard and determined therein; and that all judgments, orders, and decrees of the Provisional Court in causes transferred to the circuit court should at once become the orders, judgments, and decrees of that court, and might be enforced, pleaded, and proved accordingly.” [76 US 129, 131-132]

Chief Justice Chase delivered the opinion of the Court, in which he went over the maritime law as it existed, including an explanation of a bottomry bond. He explains the law in great detail before finding for the libellants. We, however, aren’t interested in that portion of the case. What we are interested in was his determination of the constitutionality of the provisional courts President Lincoln established and Congress’ subsequent ratification of the rulings by those courts.

As the case syllabus tells us, “This case, which in its original form was a libel in the District Court of Louisiana on a bottomry bond, and as such involved nothing but the correct presentation of the principles of maritime law relating to that matter, and the examination of a good deal of contradictory evidence, to see how far the particular case came within them, presented subsequently, and in consequence of the rebellion and the occupation by our army of the mere City of New Orleans, while the region surrounding it generally was still held by the Confederate powers and troops, a great question of constitutional law, the question namely, how far, with that clause of the Constitution in force which declares that: ‘The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish,’ the President could establish a Provisional Court, and how far Congress, on the suppression of the rebellion, could, by its enactment, validate the doings of such a court, transfer its judgments, and make them judgments of the now reestablished former and proper federal courts, from one of which, the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Louisiana, the cause purported to be brought here.” [76 US 129, 130]

In his ruling, Chase wrote, “That the late rebellion, when it assumed the character of civil war, was attended by the general incidents of a regular war, has been so frequently declared here that nothing further need be said on that point. The object of the national government, indeed, was neither conquest nor subjugation, but the overthrow of the insurgent organization, the suppression of insurrection, and the reestablishment of legitimate authority. But in the attainment of these ends, through military force, it became the duty of the national government, wherever the insurgent power was overthrown, and the territory which had been dominated by it was occupied by the national forces, to provide as far as possible, so long as the war continued, for the security of persons and property, and for the administration of justice. The duty of the national government, in this respect, was no other than that which devolves upon the government of a regular belligerent occupying, during war, the territory of another belligerent. It was a military duty, to be performed by the President as commander-in-chief, and entrusted as such with the direction of the military force by which the occupation was held.” [76 US 129, 132] Chase found both Lincoln’s and Congress’ actions to be constitutional.

Chase summed this portion up by saying, “We have no doubt that the Provisional Court of Louisiana was properly established by the President in the exercise of his constitutional authority during war, or that Congress had power, upon the close of the war and the dissolution of the Provisional Court, to provide for the transfer of cases pending in that court, and of its judgments and decrees, to the proper courts of the United States.” [76 US 129, 133]

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