The Eleanor
15 U.S. 345 (1817)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

The Eleanor, 15 U.S. 2 Wheat. 345 345 (1817)

The Eleanor

15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 345

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR

THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

Syllabus

A libel against the commander of a squadron calling on him to proceed to adjudication or to make restitution in value of a vessel and cargo detained for search by the captain of a frigate belonging to the squadron and lost while in his possession. Libel dismissed.

The commander of a squadron is liable to individuals for the trespasses of those under his command in case of positive or permissive orders or of actual presence and cooperation. But quaere how far is he responsible in other cases?

Where a capture has actually taken place, with the assent, express or implied, of the commander of a squadron, the prize master may be considered as a bailee to the use of the whole squadron, who are to share in the prize money, and thus the commander may be made responsible; but not so as to mere trespasses, unattended with a conversion to the use of the squadron.

The commander of a single ship is responsible for the acts of those under his command, as are likewise the owners of privateers for the conduct of the commanders appointed by them.

To detain for examination is a right which a belligerent may exercise over every vessel except a national vessel which he meets with on the ocean.

The principal right necessarily carries with it all the means essential to its exercise; among these may sometimes be included the assumption of the disguise of a friend or an enemy, which is a lawful stratagem of war. If, in consequence of the use of this stratagem, the crew of the vessel detained abandon their duty before they are actually made prisoners of war and the vessel is thereby lost, the captors are not responsible.

Whenever an officer seizes a vessel as prize, he is bound to commit her to the care of a competent prize master and crew, not because the original crew, when left on board (in the case of a seizure of the vessel of a citizen, or neutral), are released from their duty without the assent of the master, but from the want of a right to subject the captured crew to the authority of the captor's officer. But this rule does not extend to the case of a mere detention for examination, which the commander of the cruising vessel may enforce by orders from his own quarter deck, and may therefore send an officer on board the vessel detained in order more conveniently to enforce it without taking the vessel out of the possession of her own officers and crew.

The modern usages of war authorize the bringing one of the principal officers of the vessel detained on board the belligerent vessel, with the papers, for examination.

Page 15 U. S. 346

This schooner, with her cargo, the property of the claimant, on a voyage from Baltimore to Bordeaux, fell in with the President and Congress frigates on the night of 16 October, 1813.

Commodore Rodgers was the commander of the President frigate, and the commodore and commander of the squadron composed of those two ships, then in company. Captain Smith, deceased, and charged in the libel as a co-defendant, commanded the Congress.

On the Eleanor being discovered by the two frigates, she was chased by the Congress and overhauled. The President stood on her course, being out of sight at the time she was overhauled and when she was subsequently dismasted, and so continuing until the signal guns were fired from the schooner. The

Page 15 U. S. 347

master, supercargo, and the officers and crew of the Eleanor, on seeing the frigates, considered them British cruisers, and when they found she could not escape them, concluded they were captured by the enemy. This produced a very general determination on the part of the crew to take no further concern in the navigation of the schooner. When boarded by lieutenant Nicholson of the Congress, the schooner was in the state of confusion to be expected from such a determination. He ordered the master to take one of his mates and his papers and go on board the frigate. The captain, after giving some orders to his second mate to adjust the sails of the schooner, which were not complied with, went with his first mate and papers in the frigate's boat to the Congress. Lieutenant Nicholson, on being asked by a boy what frigate it was, said it was the Shannon; immediately afterwards he undeceived the supercargo, whom he recognized as an old acquaintance, but said he was ordered not to make himself known, and therefore requested the supercargo not to disclose it. Upon endeavoring to restore order, and to provide for the safe navigation of the schooner, he could get no assistance from the crew (who refused to obey his orders, considering him a British officer) except from the second mate, and on observing this, he disclosed the name of the frigate, and he, the supercargo, and the mate, assuring the crew they were not prisoners, endeavored to prevail on them to return to their duty; they persisted in refusing, in consequence of which (the sea being tempestuous and the weather squally) a flaw struck

Page 15 U. S. 348

the vessel and both her masts went over. Lieutenant Nicholson, the mate, and supercargo, endeavored to save the vessel, but the crew would not obey either of them. She was afterwards assisted as far as possible by the frigates, but finally abandoned and lost.

The libel was filed against Commodore Rodgers and Captain Smith alleging that the loss of said vessel and cargo was owing

"to the deception unlawfully practiced on her crew by the officers of the said squadron, and through the want of care, inattention, and gross negligence of the officer of said frigate Congress in the navigating said schooner, of which he had taken and then had command,"

and praying for a monition against them to proceed to adjudication or to show cause why restitution in value should not be decreed.

The district court considered this allegation supported by the proof, and that Commodore Rodgers was answerable as commander of the squadron, and decreed against him for $43,250, the value of said vessel and cargo. The circuit court affirmed the decree pro forma, and thereupon the cause was brought by appeal to this Court. After the filing of the libel and before the decree in the district court, the death of Captain Smith, which had intervened, was suggested on the record.

Page 15 U. S. 355

MR. JUSTICE JOHNSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents two questions,

1. Are the appellees entitled to recover?

Page 15 U. S. 356

2. Does their right of recovery extend to the commander of the squadron?

In whatever view the case be considered, it is one of extreme hardship; both the claim and the defense are founded in the most rigid principles of the strictum jus, and it is impossible not to regret if the libellant has no means of indemnity or if that indemnity should be exacted of men whose characters and conduct were so far above all imputation of malice or oppression. Nor can this Court altogether close its feelings against the claims to protection of that navy which has so nobly protected the reputation of the country. Yet we mistake the character of the men who constitute it, if they would not be among the first to declare the government unworthy of their skill and valor, in which the rights of the meanest individual was not as much an object of earnest solicitude as the rights of those whom their country delights most to honor. Whether the commander of a squadron be liable to individuals for the trespasses of those under his command is a question on which it would be equally incorrect to lay down a general proposition either negatively or affirmatively. In case of positive or permissive orders or in case of actual presence and cooperation, there could not be a doubt of his liability. But on the other hand, when we consider the partial independence of each commander of a vessel, and that the association is not a subject of contract, but founded on the orders of their government, which leave them no election, it would be dangerous indeed, and dampening to the ardor of enterprise, to trammel a commander

Page 15 U. S. 357

with fears of liability where it is not possible, from the nature of the service and the delicate rules of etiquette, for him always to direct or control the actions of those under his command. We feel no inclination to extend the principle of constructive trespass, and will leave each case to be decided on its own merits as it shall arise. Where a capture has actually taken place with the assent of the commodore, express or implied, the question of liability assumes a different aspect, and the prize master may be considered as bailee to the use of the whole squadron who are to share in the prize money. To this case there is much reason for applying the principle, that qui sentit commodum sentire debet et onus, but not so as to mere trespasses unattended with a conversion to the use of the squadron.

The case of the commander of a single ship varies materially from that of the commander of a squadron, and the rigid rules of liability for the acts of those under our command may with more propriety be applied to him. The liability of the owners of a privateer or the acts of their commanders has never been disputed, and it is because they are left at large in the selection of a commander and are not permitted to disavow his actions as being unauthorized by them. So in the case of a commander of a ship, the absolute subordination of every officer to his command attaches to him the imputation of the marine trespasses of his subalterns on the property of individuals, when acting within the scope of his commands. Orders even giving a discretion to a subordinate in such cases is no more

Page 15 U. S. 358

than adopting his actions as the actions of the commander, and placing him in a command which requires skill, integrity, or prudence makes the commander the pledge to the individual for his competence to discharge the duties of the undertaking.

With these views of the subject we should have found no difficulty in deciding on the liability of Captain Smith, of the Congress, had be been a party to this libel and the facts of the case had made out a marine trespass in himself or in Lieutenant Nicholson, or a want of competence or due care in the latter to discharge the command assigned him. But we are of opinion that no one act is proven in the case which did not comport with the fair, honorable, and reasonable exercise of the rights of war. To detain for examination is a right which a belligerent may exercise over every vessel not a national vessel that he meets with on the ocean. And whatever may be the injury that casually results to an individual from the act of another while pursuing the reasonable exercise of an established right, it is his misfortune. The law pronounces it damnum absque injuria, and the individual from whose act it proceeds is liable neither at law nor in the forum of conscience. And the principal right necessarily carries with it also all the means essential to its exercise. Thus, in the present case, a vessel must be pursued in order to be detained for examination. But if in the pursuit she had been dismasted and upset or stranded or run on shore and lost, it would have been an unfortunate case, but the pursuing vessel would have stood acquitted. The counsel in argument

Page 15 U. S. 359

have not denied the general doctrine, but have endeavored to show that the commander of the Congress had unreasonably exercised the right of detention.

1st. By the deception in passing himself off for an enemy, thereby reducing the crew to a State of insubordination.

2d. By taking out both the master and the mate, and thus removing the possibility of bringing the seamen back to their duty.

3d. By divesting the master of his command without putting a competent crew on board to navigate her.

On the first of these grounds, it is only necessary to remark that to assume the guise of a friend or an enemy is, in legitimate warfare, an act the most familiar and frequent in its occurrence. It is so ordinary a ruse de guerre that it ought rather to be expected than the display of real colors. And innumerable cases that have come before this Court prove that in the actual state of things during the late war, it became as necessary to practice the deception upon our citizens as upon a neutral or an enemy. We therefore see nothing reprehensible in this. But on what ground could the crew assume the right of judging for themselves on this subject and of abandoning their duty before they were actually made prisoners? Suppose the frigate had been an enemy, it did not follow that their vessel must be made prize and they were unquestionably unpardonable in abandoning their duty? Their doing so was by no means a necessary consequence

Page 15 U. S. 360

of ordering their officers on board the frigate, nor ought the captain of the Congress to have anticipated such a state of things as their vessel was reduced to by their misconduct. They were bound to obey the second mate in the absence of their other officers, and if they had done so, this misfortune would not have happened. So far from actually divesting him of his command, it appears that Nicholson's orders were addressed to him, and only addressed to the men to try his personal influence in bringing them to order.

To the second and third grounds the attention of this Court has been drawn with peculiar force. Either of them appeared to be an irregularity which the reasonable exercise of the right of search did not strictly justify. But upon a close examination of the testimony, we are of opinion that neither of those grounds is supported by the evidence. It is true that both the master and first mate were taken on board the frigate, and the master and supercargo say they were both ordered on board. But Nicholson, the boarding officer, who certainly knew best what orders he gave, swears that he ordered the master to go on board with "one of his mates," thus leaving it to his election to choose between them; he further swears that these were the orders he received from the captain. And there is a fact in the case, which makes it probable, that the master of the schooner himself called on the first mate to attend him, for at that time the second mate was stationed at the bow, in charge of sinking certain dispatches, in case of capture. Had the master remonstrated

Page 15 U. S. 361

against taking his first mate along with him, he would have done his duty, and perhaps saved his vessel. On the third point, it is unquestionably true that whenever an officer seizes a vessel as prize, he is bound to commit her to the care of a competent officer and crew. Not that the original crew, when left on board in case of seizure of the vessel of a citizen or neutral, are released from their duty without the assent of the master, for they are bound to attend the vessel as she may be discharged and pursue her original destination. But the obligation to man the prize results from the want of a right to subject the crew of the captured vessel to the authority of his own officer. If, then, this vessel had been seized as prize and no one put on board but the prize master, without any undertaking of the original ship's company to navigate her under his orders, it is very questionable whether the appellants would not have been liable for any loss that followed from the insubordination of the crew. For after capture, as before observed, the prize master becomes the bailee of the squadron, which is to share in the partition of the proceeds.

But we are of opinion that this was a mere case of detention for search; that the vessel was never actually taken out of possession of her own officers; that the captain of the Congress had a right to detain the vessel by orders from his own quarterdeck and that the officers of the schooner, at their peril, were bound to obey; that Lieutenant Nicholson was left on board for no other purpose than to enforce in a more convenient mode the observance on their

Page 15 U. S. 362

part of the duty which the rights of war authorized the frigate to exact of her. And all the misfortunes which followed resulted to the appellees from the fault or folly of their own crew.

One argument insisted on at the bar it is proper for this Court to notice before we conclude. It was contended that the master of the Eleanor ought not to have been removed from his vessel; that the right of search only authorized the sending of an officer on board to examine her papers. But we think otherwise. The modern usages of war authorize the bringing of one of the principal officers on board the cruising vessel, with his papers, for examination. To divest her of both her principal officers without putting on board her for the time a competent officer and crew would certainly be irregular. But it is for the interest of the commercial world that the investigation should be made by the commander himself, and not left to any subordinate officer. In that case it would be absurd to require of the commander of the commissioned vessel to quit his command for the purpose of making the necessary examinations.

We are upon the whole of opinion that the court below erred, that the decree must be annulled, and the libel dismissed.

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