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Confederate privateersmen.

Letter from President Jefferson Davis.

Beauvior, Harrison Co., Miss., June 21 1882.
The Picayune of yesterday, in its column of ‘Personal and General Notes,’ has the following:

General William Raymond Lee, of Boston, carries in his pocketbook [182] a little slip of paper bearing the single word “Death.” It is the ballot he drew, when a prisoner of war in a jail at Richmond, when he and two others were chosen by lot to be hanged, in retaliation for the sentencing to death of certain Confederate officers charged with piracy. The sentence of the pirates was happily commuted, and General Lee and his comrades were subsequently exchanged.

During the war a persistent effort was made to misrepresent our cause, and its defenders, by the use of inappropriate terms. Our privateers were called ‘pirates,’ our cruisers were called ‘privateers,’ and Admiral Semmes, though regularly commissioned, was sometimes called ‘a pirate,’ by Northern officials and writers. I find this word even now, when time and reflection should have corrected the misnomer, is used in the paragraph copied into your paper. I know nothing of the person referred to, but the story of a ballot having been drawn with a premature sentence of death is refuted by the statement of the course pursued by the Confederate Government on the question of retaliation, in the event of the threat to execute some of our privateersmen who had been captured when cruising, with letters of mark, in 1861.

On pages 10, 11, 12, vol. 2, of the ‘Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,’ the case is fully stated as follows:

Reference has been made to our want of a navy, and the efforts made to supply the deficiency. The usual resort under such circumstances to privateers was, in our case, without the ordinary incentive of gain, as all foreign ports were closed against our prizes, and, our own ports being soon blockaded, our vessels, public or private, had but the alternative of burning or bonding their captures. To those who, nevertheless, desired them, letters of marque were granted by us, and there was soon a small fleet of vessels composed of those which had taken out these letters, and others which had been purchased and fitted out by the Navy Department. They hovered on the coast of the Northern States, capturing and destroying their vessels, and filling the enemy with consternation. The President of the United States had already declared in his proclamation of April 19th, as above stated, that “any person, who, under the pretended authority of the said (Confederate) States, should molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board,” should be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention of piracy. This was another violation of international law, another instance of arrogant disregard for universal opinion. The threat, if meant for intimidation, and to deprive the Confederacy of one of the usual weapons of war, [183] was unbecoming the head of a government. To have executed it upon a helpless prisoner, would have been a crime intensified by its cowardice. Happily for the United States, the threat was not executed, but the failure to carry out the declared purpose was coupled with humilitation, because it was the result of a notice to retaliate as fully as might need be to stop such a barbarous practice. To yield to the notice thus served was a practical admission by the United States government that the Confederacy had become a power among the nations.

On June 3, 1861, the little schooner Savannah, previously a pilot boat in Charleston harbor and sailing under a commission issued by authority of the Confederate States, was captured by the United States brig Perry. The crew were placed in irons and sent to New York. It appeared, from statements made without contradiction, that they were not treated as prisoners of war, whereupon a letter was addressed by me to President Lincoln, dated July 6, stating explicitly that “painful as will be the necessity, this Government will deal out to the prisoners held by it the same treatment and the same fate as shall be experienced by those captured on the Savannah; and, if driven to the terrible necessity of retaliation by your execution of any of the officers or crew of the Savannah, that retaliation will be extended so far as shall be requisite to secure the abandonment of a practice unknown to the warfare of civilized man, and so barbarous as to disgrace the nation which shall be guilty of inaugurating it.” A reply was promised to this letter, but none came. Still later in the year the privateer Jefferson Davis was captured, the captain and crew brought into Philadelphia, and the captain tried and found guilty of piracy and threatened with death. Immediately I instructed General Winder, at Richmond, to select one prisoner of the highest rank, to be confined in a cell appropriated to convicted felons, and treated in all respects as if convicted, and to be held for execution in the same manner as might be adopted for the execution of the prisoner of war in Philadelphia. He was further instructed to select thirteen other prisoners of the highest rank, to be held in the same manner as hostages for the thirteen prisoners held in New York for trial as pirates. By this course the infamous attempt made by the United States Government to commit judicial murder on prisoners of war was arrested.

The attention of the British House of Lords was also attracted to the proclamation of President Lincoln threatening the officers and crews of privateers with the punishment of piracy. It led to a discussion, [184] in which the Earl of Derby said, he “apprehended that if one thing was clearer than another, it was that privateering was not piracy, and that no law could make that piracy, as regarded the subjects of one nation, which was not piracy by the law of nations. Consequently, the United States must not be allowed to entertain this doctrine, and to call upon her Majesty's Government not to interfere.” The Lord Chancellor said, there was “no doubt, that if an Englishman engaged in the service of the Southern States, he violated the laws of his country, and rendered himself liable to punishment, and that he had no right to trust to the protection of his native country to shield him from the consequences of his act. But, though that individual would be guilty of a breach of the law of his own country, he could not be treated as a pirate, and those who treated him as a pirate would be guilty of murder.”

This narration of facts, and the opinions of two disinterested and distinguished foreigners, must be conclusive to every fair mind, that to term the prisoners ‘pirates,’ was an inexcusable pretext, and that the conduct of the Confederate Government was in strict accordance with the usages of civilized war, and that the desire to protect its citizens, was marked by no stain of inhumanity.

Respectfully yours,

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