Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State.
Mr. Clinch to Mr. Chase.
Custom-house, New York,
August 19, 1863.
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the
receipt of your communication of the 14th instant, covering a letter
of the Secretary of State, and a copy of an opinion of the Acting
Attorney General, in regard to the despatching of American vessels
in ballast to neutral ports with the intent to there take in cargo
and sail thence to break the blockade; and you request me to report
what steps, if any, can be taken, under this opinion, in respect to
vessels leaving the port of New York for such a purpose.
As I understand your request, I am to assume that the opinion of the
Acting Attorney General is sound law, and applies only to American
vessels; and that your inquiry covers the two subjects of the
seizure and condemnation of the vessels, and the arrest and
punishment of the parties implicated in the transaction.
The Acting Attorney General seems to be of the opinion that when a
vessel with this intent as to her ultimate destination “has started
on her voyage,” she is liable to forfeiture, and the implicated
parties to punishment.
It will hardly be disputed that when a vessel clears from the
custom-house at this port, and then hauls out into the stream or
drops down the bay, “she has started on her voyage.”
You are aware that this office has no direct control over civil or
criminal proceedings in the class of cases described by the Acting
Attorney General; but it [Page 1350]
sometimes has in its possession, or can obtain, important
information in regard to such cases. Heretofore the officers of the
customs in possession of this kind of information have either
formally or informally communicated the facts to the United States
district attorney for the southern district of New York, accompanied
by such suggestions as were deemed proper.
If a vessel is to be regarded (within the meaning of the Acting
Attorney General) as having started on her voyage so soon as she
clears and hauls into the stream or drops down the bay, then there
would seem to be no special obstacle in the way of seizing her
before she got to sea, nor of arresting the implicated parties, if
within the jurisdiction of the court, provided the United States
district attorney and the United States marshal were previously in
possession of the requisite facts, and were diligent in issuing and
serving the necessary process. The course above indicated has been
successfully pursued by the revenue officers of this port, in cases
where their authority to seize arose after vessels had commenced
their voyage in the manner above stated.
If it is deemed necessary to adopt more stringent measures than those
mentioned, I know of no way to enforce them except by stationing a
blockading force near the mouth of the harbor of New York.
In this connexion, I beg leave to suggest that the number of American vessels of the kind under
consideration which has left this port is believed to have been
small, the greater part of those that have been suspected of sailing
in ballast with the intent of ultimately breaking the blockade
having been, according to the tenor of their papers, the property of
the subjects of her Britannic Majesty.
I return to you the letter of the Secretary of State, and the opinion
of the Acting Attorney General.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
C. P. CLINCH, Assistant
Hon. S. P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury.