Porter v. United States,
106 U.S. 607 (1883)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Porter v. United States, 106 U.S. 607 (1883)

Porter v. United States

Decided January 15, 1883

106 U.S. 607


1. Bounty was not allowed by the Act of Congress of June 30, 1864, c. 174, where vessels of the enemy were, during the rebellion, destroyed by the combined action of the sea and land forces of the United States.

2. Property seized upon any waters of the United States, other than bays or harbors on the seacoast, was not maritime prize, nor was any bounty paid by the United States for the destruction thereof.

This was a proceeding termed a libel of information filed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on behalf of David D. Porter and others, officers and men of the North Atlantic Squadron, to recover the bounty provided by the Act of Congress of June 30, 1864, c. 174, regulating prize proceedings and the distribution of prize money.

The eleventh section of that act declares

"That a bounty shall be paid by the United States for each person on board any ship or vessel of war belonging to an enemy at the commencement of an engagement which shall be sunk or otherwise destroyed in such engagement by any ship or vessel belonging to the United States or which it may be necessary to destroy in consequence of injuries sustained in action, of one hundred dollars, if the enemy's vessel was of inferior force, and of two hundred dollars, if of equal or superior force, to be divided among the officers and crew in the same manner as prize money, and when the actual number of men on board any such vessel cannot be satisfactorily ascertained, it shall be estimated according to the complement allowed to vessels of its class in the Navy of the United States, and there shall be paid as bounty to the captors of any vessel of war captured from an enemy, which they may be instructed to destroy, or which shall be immediately destroyed for the public interest, but not in consequence of injuries received in action, fifty dollars for every person who shall be on board at the time of such capture."

The libel in substance alleges that between the 8th of October, 1864, and the 28th of April, 1865, the North Atlantic Squadron, consisting of eleven ships of war -- which are mentioned --

Page 106 U. S. 608

was under the command of David D. Porter, now admiral of the navy; that by orders of the President of the United States and of the Secretary of the Navy, he ascended the James and York Rivers, in Virginia, with the vessels composing his squadron for the purpose of expelling the naval and military forces of the Confederate States from those waters and to assist in the capture of Richmond; that previously to April 1, 1865, the Confederates, in order to obstruct the passage of the vessels, had erected along those rivers batteries and other means of defense; had caused boats to be sunk in the streams and trees to be filled in and across them, and had placed in the James River, in support of the defenses of Richmond, many armed steam batteries, steam rams, iron-clad ships of war, and armed steamers, of which eleven are mentioned by name; that the fleet removed the obstructions from the river, attacked the naval forces of the Confederates, destroyed some of the vessels, and caused the enemy to destroy others to prevent them from falling into the possession of the United States, and that nine vessels, which are named, were thus destroyed.

The libel further alleges that the vessels of the enemies, aided by the guns of the batteries and the obstructions in the river, constituted a superior force to that under the command of Admiral Porter, and claims that by the Act of Congress of June 30, 1864, cited above, the officers and men of the squadron were entitled to a bounty of $200 a head for each man on the enemy's vessels at the commencement of the engagement. It therefore prays that such bounty may be allowed to them and that, in estimating the numerical strength of the enemy, the court will take into consideration and adjudge that all persons engaged on land, as well as those on the water, in resisting the United States naval forces in that engagement may be held to have been on board of the enemy's vessels and treated as adjuncts to them, and furthermore, as it will be difficult, and in some instances impossible, by reason of the lapse of time and from other causes, to show the number of men that were on and about the enemy's vessels when the engagement commenced, the libel prays that such forces may be estimated according to the complement of men allowed to vessels of the same capacity in the navy of the United States.

Page 106 U. S. 609

Upon this libel, process was ordered to be issued to the Secretary of the Navy notifying him of the commencement of the suit, and subsequently testimony in the case was taken and such proceedings were had as resulted in a decree in favor of the libellants, by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, sitting in admiralty, and held by a single justice. The case being subsequently carried before the full court, the decree was reversed and the libel dismissed.

From the decree of dismissal, the case is brought by appeal to this Court.

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