Slawson v. United States
83 U.S. 310 (1872)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Slawson v. United States, 83 U.S. 16 Wall. 310 310 (1872)

Slawson v. United States

83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 310

Syllabus

Under the proviso to the first section of the Abandoned and Captured Property Act, excluding from its benefits property which "has been used in waging or carrying on war against the United States," the Court of Claims was held to have rightly dismissed a petition asking for the proceeds of a vessel which had been so used at Charleston, S.C., though on the evacuation of that place by the rebels, the quartermaster's department of the navy, in ignorance of how the boat had been used, chartered her and took her into the service of the government, and kept her in such service for twelve months, when disregarding the claims of her owner it turned her over to the Treasury Department for sale as captured property.

An act of Congress, passed March 12, 1863, and known as the "Captured and Abandoned Property Act," enacted that the Secretary of the Treasury might appoint agents to receive and collect all abandoned or captured property in any state engaged in the late rebellion. Such property the act directed to be sold, and the proceeds to be paid into the Treasury, and any person professing to be the owner, on certain conditions prescribed, was authorized to prefer his

Page 83 U. S. 311

claim to the Court of Claims, and on proof of his ownership, loyalty &c., to recover the net proceeds of the sale. The act, however, by a proviso to its first section, expressly enacts that the property included within the act,

"Shall not include any kind or description which has been used or which was intended to be used for waging or carrying on war against the United States, such as arms, ordnance, ships, steamboats, or other watercraft."

With this act in force, one Slawson preferred his petition to the Court of Claims, claiming the proceeds of the steamer De Kalb, which had been taken and sold as abandoned property under this act, in the following circumstances:

In April, 1861, before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Confederate authorities at Charleston took forcible possession of a steamer owned at that time by one Dingle, and then in the possession of Slawson, who had charge of her -- he objecting to her being taken into the rebel service -- and used her for military purposes, under a charter, until the evacuation of Charleston, in February, 1865. During the continuance of this employment, and while she was under the charter, Dingle died, and in April, 1863, the boat was sold at administrator's sale to Slawson, who, either as agent of the owner, or as owner himself, had the management of her from the beginning of the rebellion to the evacuation of Charleston. On the morning that this event took place, the boat, while lying at the wharf, was set on fire by soldiers and turned adrift in the harbor. In this condition she was boarded by Slawson and the fire put out, but she drifted ashore on James Island, opposite Charleston, where she was when the United States forces took possession of the city.

On the occasion of this occupation, one Tower, an engineer in the navy, was placed in charge of the captured vessels and transport services. In a conversation between him and Slawson, his attention was called to the steamer, and after making inquiries as to her condition, he directed Slawson to bring her to Charleston, and agreed to place her in

Page 83 U. S. 312

the service of the United States. Accordingly, with the consent of Captain Moore, of the quartermaster's department, he fixed $150 per day as the compensation for her use. Neither this sum nor any other was ever paid for this use, nor would the quartermaster's department give up the vessel to Slawson again, though he asked to have her. The steamer remained in the service of the government until April, 1866. Then, without notice to Slawson, and against his will, under an order from the quartermaster-general's office -- directing that vessels captured at Charleston should, when not required by the quartermaster's department, be turned over to the agents of the Treasury -- she was turned over to the agents of the Treasury accordingly. Slawson then applied to the Secretary of the Treasury for the return of the boat, but the secretary replied that

"in view of the facts, if the property had been seized by a Treasury agent, or had not come into the possession of his department by transfer from the military authorities as captured, it might be within the scope of his authority as secretary to decide that the United States had no rightful claim to the boat, and to restore her. But that by the Act of transfer to the Treasury Department, the military power had adjudged and determined the fact, that the boat was the lawful capture or prize of the army, and that it was not within his power to revise that decision."

The boat was accordingly sold, and the proceeds paid into the Treasury.

Slawson now petitioned that court for their net amount. The court dismissed his petition on the ground of its restricted jurisdiction, and referred to the above-quoted proviso as to property which had been "used for waging or carrying on war against the United States." From this decree of dismissal Slawson appealed.

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