Mrs. Alexander’s Cotton

The citation for this case is 69 US [2 Wall.] 404.

In 1864, the Union conducted the Red River campaign under Major General Nathaniel Banks, operating with Admiral David Dixon Porter. Around March 26, a party from the USS Ouachita captured seventy-two bales of cotton from the plantation owned by sixty-five-year-old Mrs. Elizabeth Alexander. It was taken to Cairo, Illinois, where it was libeled as a prize of war in the District Court there, then it was sold. Mrs. Alexander filed a claim for the proceeds, claiming she was a loyal citizen, having taken the loyalty oath required by President Lincoln’s proclamation of amnesty issued on December 8, 1863 some three weeks after the cotton was seized. The court awarded the proceeds to her, and this was confirmed by the Circuit Court. The government appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The central question of the case became Mrs. Alexander’s loyalty. “She had assisted somewhat to build Fort De Russy, which was within a few miles of her own plantation, but, according to the testimony, did this only on compulsion. She was equally kind, it was testified, to loyal persons and to rebels, when either were sick or wounded. She had particular friends among persons of known loyalty, but there were one or two Confederate officers who came to her house — the testimony being, however, that they were perhaps attracted thither neither by Mrs. Alexander’s politics nor by her cotton, but by the beauty of some “young ladies” who resided with her, and whom they went to ‘visit.’ ” [69 US 404, 406] Additionally, the president’s proclamation required that after taking the oath the citizens should remain loyal to the United States. Mrs. Alexander decided to remain living in rebel territory. The assistance she had provided was in the form of mules and slaves to provide labor. She claimed it was provided involuntarily.

A number of laws impacted this case. “Congress, by Act of August 6, 1861, [12 SAL 319] to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes, declared, that if any person should use or employ any property in aiding, abetting or promoting the insurrection, or consent to such use or employment, such property should ‘be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.’ And by Act of July 17, 1862, [12 SAL 591] to suppress insurrection, to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels &c., it declared (§ 6), that ‘all the estate and property’ of persons in rebellion, and who, after sixty days public warning [which warning the President gave by proclamation] did not return to their allegiance, liable to seizure, and made it the duty of the President to “seize” it prescribing the mode in which it should be condemned. And by a third Act, that of March 12, 1863, [12 SAL 821] ‘to provide for the collection of abandoned property, and for the prevention of frauds in insurrectionary districts,’ &c., made it the duty, under penalty of dismission &c. (§ 6), of ‘every officer or private of the regular or volunteer forces of the United States, or any officer, sailor or marine in the naval service of the United States who may take or receive any such abandoned property, or cotton, sugar, rice or tobacco from persons in such insurrectionary districts or have it under his control to turn the same over to an agent’ to be appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury, under whose charge the matter is put by the act and who accordingly issued regulations in regard to such property. The act provides, however, that none of its provisions shall apply ‘to any lawful maritime prize by the naval force of the United States.’ This act, it may be added (§ 3), provides that ‘Any person claiming to have been the owner of such abandoned or captured property may, at any time within two years after the suppression of the rebellion, prefer his claim to the proceeds thereof in the Court of Claims, and on proof to the satisfaction of the said court of his ownership &c., and that he has never given any aid or comfort to the present rebellion, receive the residue of such proceeds after the deduction of any purchase money which may have been paid, together with the expense of transportation and sale.’ With these acts there may perhaps, for the sake of absolute completeness, be presented the Act of July 17, 1862, for the better government of the navy, [12 SAL 606] enacting (§ 2), ‘That the proceeds of all ships and vessels, and the goods taken on them, which shall be adjudged good prize, shall, when of equal or superior force to the vessel making the capture, be the sole property of the captors, and when of inferior force be divided equally between the United States and the officers and men making the capture,’ and also that of 2 July, 1864, [13 SAL 377] passed after this capture, declaring ‘That no property, seized or taken upon any of the inland waters of the United States by the naval forces thereof, shall be deemed maritime prize,’ but shall be turned over, as provided in the already mentioned Act of March 12, 1863.” [69 US 404, 407-408]

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase delivered the Opinion of the Court. He said, “There can be no doubt, we think, that it was enemies’ property. The military occupation by the national military forces was too limited, too imperfect, too brief, and too precarious to change the enemy relation created for the country and its inhabitants by three years of continuous rebellion, interrupted, at last, for a few weeks, but immediately renewed and ever since maintained. The Parish of Avoyelles, which included the cotton plantation of Mrs. Alexander, included also Fort De Russy, constructed in part by labor from the plantation. The rebels reoccupied the fort as soon as it was evacuated by the Union troops, and have since kept possession. It is said that though remaining in rebel territory, Mrs. Alexander has no personal sympathy with the rebel cause, and that her property therefore cannot be regarded as enemy property; but this Court cannot inquire into the personal character and dispositions of individual inhabitants of enemy territory. We must be governed by the principle of public law, so often announced from this bench as applicable alike to civil and international wars, that all the people of each state or district in insurrection against the United States must be regarded as enemies until by the action of the legislature and the executive or otherwise that relation is thoroughly and permanently changed.” [69 US 404, 418-419] In the opinion, Chase ruled the seizure was justified by both the nature of the property and the policy toward it, and by the legislation: “It is well known that cotton has constituted the chief reliance of the rebels for means to purchase the munitions of war in Europe. It is matter of history that rather than permit it to come into the possession of the national troops, the rebel government has everywhere devoted it, however owned, to destruction. The value of that destroyed at New Orleans just before its capture has been estimated at eighty millions of dollars. It is in the record before us that on this very plantation of Mrs. Alexander, one year’s crop was destroyed in apprehension of an advance of the Union forces. The rebels regard it as one of their main sinews of war, and no principle of equity or just policy required, when the national occupation was itself precarious, that it should be spared from capture and allowed to remain, in case of the withdrawal of the Union troops, an element of strength to the rebellion. And the capture was justified by legislation as well as by public policy. The Act of Congress to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes, approved August 6, 1861, declares all property employed in aid of the rebellion, with consent of the owners to be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found. And it further provided by the Act to suppress insurrection and for other purposes, approved July 17, 1862, that the property of persons who had aided the rebellion and should not return to allegiance after the President’s warning should be seized and confiscated. It is in evidence that Mrs. Alexander was a rebel enemy at the time of the enactment of this act; that she contributed to the erection of Fort De Russy, after the passage of the act of July, 1862, and so comes within the spirit, if not within the letter, of the provisions of both. If, in connection with these acts, the provisions of the Captured and Abandoned Property Act of March 12, 1863, be considered, it will be difficult to conclude that the capture under consideration was not warranted by law. This last-named act evidently contemplated captures by the naval forces distinct from maritime prize, for the Secretary of the Navy, by his order of March 31, 1863, directed all officers and sailors to turn over to the agents of the Treasury Department all property captured or seized in any insurrectionary district excepting lawful maritime prize.” [69 US 404, 420-421]

Chase then gets to the nub of the matter. “Were this otherwise, the result would not be different, for Mrs. Alexander, being now a resident in enemy territory and in law an enemy, can have no standing in any court of the United States so long as that relation shall exist. Whatever might have been the effect of the amnesty had she removed to a loyal state after taking the oath, it can have none on her relation as enemy voluntarily resumed by continued residence and interest. But this reasoning, while it supports the lawfulness of the capture, by no means warrants the conclusion that the property captured was maritime prize. We have carefully considered all the cases cited by the learned counsel for the captors, and are satisfied that none of them is an authority for that conclusion. In no one of these cases does it appear that private property on land was held to be maritime prize, and on the other hand we have met with no case in which the capture of such private property was held unlawful except that of Thorshaven.” [69 US 404, 421]

Chase continues, “There is certainly no authority to condemn any property as prize for the benefit of the captors except under the law of the country in whose service the capture is made, and the whole authority found in our legislation is contained in the act for the better government of the navy, approved July 17, 1862. By the second section of the act, it is provided that the proceeds of all ships and vessels, and the goods taken on board of them, which shall be adjudged good prize shall be the sole property of the captors, or in certain cases divided equally between the captors and the United States. By the twentieth section, all provisions of previous acts inconsistent with this act are repealed. This act excludes property on land from the category of prize for the benefit of captors, and seems to be decisive of the case so far as the claims of captors are concerned. As a case of lawfully captured property not for the benefit of captors, its disposition is controlled by the laws relating to such property. By these laws and the orders under them, all officers, military and naval, and all soldiers and sailors are strictly enjoined, under severe penalties, to turn over any such property which may come to their possession to the agents of the Treasury Department, and these agents are required to sell all such property to the best advantage and pay the proceeds into the national Treasury. Any claimant of the property may, at any time within two years after the suppression of the rebellion, bring suit in the Court of Claims, and on proof of ownership of the property or of title to the proceeds and that the claimant has never given aid or comfort to the rebellion, have a decree for the proceeds, deducting lawful charges. In this war, by this liberal and beneficent legislation, a distinction is made between those whom the rule of international law classes as enemies. All who have in fact maintained a loyal adhesion to the Union are protected in their rights to captured as well as abandoned property.” [69 US 404, 422]

Chase concluded, “We think it clear that the cotton in controversy was not maritime prize, but should have been turned over to the agents of the Treasury Department, to be disposed of under the Act of March 12, 1863. Not having been so turned over, but having been sold by order of the district court, its proceeds should now be paid into the Treasury of the United States in order that the claimant, when the rebellion is suppressed or she has been able to leave the rebel region, may have the opportunity to bring her suit in the Court of Claims and, on making the proof required by the act, have the proper decree. The decree of the district court is reversed, and the cause remanded, with directions to dismiss the libel.” [69 US 404, 423]


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  1. […] Mrs. Alexander’s Cotton Mrs. Alexander’s Cotton Student of the American Civil War […]

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