On April 17, 1861, I issued a proclamation in which I offered to grant letters of marque and reprisal to seamen. On April 19th President Lincoln issued a counter-proclamation, declaring that, ‘if any person, under the pretended authority of said States, or under any other pretense, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person shall be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy,’ which was death. Some small vessels obtained these letters of marque and were captured. Their officers and crew constituted the first prisoners that fell into the hands of the enemy. They were immediately imprisoned, and held for trial as pirates. The trial came on later in the year. A report of it states that ‘the views of all the judges seemed to center upon the one point, that these men were taken in arms against the Government of the United States, and that, inasmuch as the laws of that Government did not recognize the authority under which the men acted, there was no course but to condemn them.’ As soon as the treatment of the prisoners was known in Richmond, before their trial and as early as July 6, 1861, I sent by a special messenger a communication to President Lincoln, in substance as follows:
Having learned that the schooner Savannah, a private armed vessel in the service and sailing under a commission issued by the authority of the Confederate States of America, had been captured by one of the vessels forming the blockading squadron off Charleston Harbor, I directed a proposition to be made to the commanding officer of the squadron for an exchange of officers and crew of the Savannah for prisoners of war held by this Government, ‘according to number and rank.’ To this proposition, made on the 19th ultimo, Captain Mercer, the officer in command of the blockading squadron, made answer, on the same day, that ‘the prisoners’ (referred to) ‘are not on board any of the vessels under my command.’ It now appears, by statements made without contradiction in newspapers published in New York, that the prisoners above mentioned were conveyed to that city, and have been treated not as prisoners of war, but as criminals; that they have been put in irons, confined in jail, brought before courts of justice on charges of piracy and treason; and it is even rumored that they have been convicted of the offenses charged, for no other reason than that they bore arms in defense of the rights of this Government and under the authority of its commission. I could not, without discourtesy, have made the newspaper statements above referred to the subjects of this communication, if the threat of treating as pirates the citizens of this Confederacy, armed for its service on the high-seas, had not been contained in your proclamation of the 19th of April last. That proclamation, however, seems to afford a sufficient justification for considering these published statements as not devoid of probability.