The Captured Ships
The four ships, Hiawatha, Crenshaw, Amy Warwick, and Brilliante had all been condemned in lower courts after having been seized by the Union Navy. Hiawatha was a British barque captured in Hampton Roads in May of 1861. While the ship was loading a cargo of cotton for export, the captain had received word that the blockade was in effect. Lower courts sustained the seizure and forwarded the case to the Supreme Court for ruling on the constitutional issues.
Amy Warwick had been taken off Cape Henry in July of 1861 by the U.S. gunboat Quaker City. A court in Boston upheld the seizure of property aboard the vessel belonging to residents of Virginia, arguing that property belonging to persons resident in enemy territories was subject to condemnation if taken at sea. The schooner Crenshaw was owned by two partners, one Southern and one Northern, and the ship was carrying a cargo of tobacco from Richmond, Virginia to Liverpool, England when it was seized in May of 1861. Lower courts ruled that property aboard the ship belonging to Englishmen was exempt from seizure, but condemned all the rest of the cargo. Brilliante was a schooner owned by an American and a Mexican citizen, carrying cargo that belonged to the owners of the vessel and to two other Mexicans. Captured in June of 1861 while anchored off Biloxi, Mississippi, it was found to be carrying cargo it had picked up in New Orleans, Louisiana, after the beginning of the blockade. In a local court in Key West, Florida, the seizure was upheld, and the owners appealed to the Supreme Court.
While these four cases were being heard in the Supreme Court, other cases which had arisen from the blockade were postponed, pending a decision in Washington, D.C. Even so, the Prize Cases were not heard until June of 1863, after Abraham Lincoln had appointed new members to the Supreme Court. Even with his own appointees in the Court, however, the decision was close.
The case for the government was argued by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., famous for his factual novel, Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Dana argued that the government's right to capture property had no relationship to the status of the owners. Rather, if the owners were under the jurisdiction of the enemy, the government could seize the property, because that control gave the enemy an interest in the property. Further, he argued that the state of war existed, even if it had not been declared by Congress. The president could exercise war powers without such a declaration. The state of war gave the U.S. government belligerent rights, but no such rights were to be assumed for the Confederacy, because an area in rebellion did not have the same rights as a sovereign nation.
Each of the groups of claimants were represented by different attorneys, but Charles Edwards handled the petitioners in the cases of the Crenshaw and the Hiawatha. The attorneys for the claimants argued that the rebels could not be considered enemies, and the conflict could not be considered war. However, Justice Grier, in writing the majority opinion of the Court, accepted Dana's argument that the war was a fact and that Lincoln was empowered to pursue the war without waiting for Congress to recognize it. Justice Nelson wrote the minority opinion, holding that no war could exist before Congress acted to recognize it in July of 1861. Since the president had no power to set up a blockade or to conduct war before that date, the minority held, the decrees of condemnation of property should be set aside.
The most far-reaching effect of the Prize Cases was to uphold the president's claim to extensive emergency powers. The precedent set in the Prize Cases may have discouraged legal challenges to other acts of President Lincoln during the war, including suspension of free speech and press, the Conscription Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation. The Prize Cases established the theory that the president had extraordinary powers to preserve the nation and that he could exercise them legally. Furthermore, the Court had ruled that the Union had full powers as a belligerent but that the Confederacy could claim no such powers. The Curt accepted the paradox that the Union could exercise all power which would come with an international war, but that it could also exercise sovereign power over the area in rebellion.