Briggs v. United States

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United States Supreme Court

143 U.S. 346

Briggs  v.  United States

Appeal fom the court of claims.

Petition by James A. Briggs, as executor of C. M. Briggs, deceased, to recover the proceeds of certain cotton seized and sold by the forces of the government during the Rebellion. Judgment below dismissing the petition. Petitioner appeals. Reversed.


This is an appeal from a decree of the court of claims dismissing the petition of the appellant, praying judgment for the amount of the proceeds of certain cotton, the property of his testator, which was seized by the forces of the United States and sole, and the proceeds paid into the treasury. The facts of the case, briefly stated, are as follows:

Charles S. Morehead was a citizen of Kentucky at the breaking out of the late civil war. He was a man of distinction in that state, and had once been its governor. He was a lawyer by profession, and before and until the war practiced law in partnership with C. M. Briggs. In the spring of 1861 he was the owner of two plantations near Egg's Point, in Mississippi, and at the opening of the war he was on the plaintations; but some time in the following May or June, when a prolonged struggle seemed inevitable, he left one of the plantations in charge of an overseer and the other in charge of his son, and returned to Kentucky. Not long afterwards he was arrested and confined in Fort Warren as a suspected rebel, because of his sympathy with the Confederate cause, but, upon taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, he was, in February, 1862, released. On the 18th of April following he sold to C. M. Briggs, his former partner, by a bill of sale in writing, all the cotton on his plantations, baled and unbaled, gathered and ungathered, and all that should be raised in 1862, to satisfy certain indebtedness to him, and to secure him for certain debts which he was under obligation to pay for Morehead. The bill of sale was as follows:

'For and in consideration of money loaned and advanced heretofore by C. M. Briggs, and further valuable considerations by way of suretyship for me by said Briggs, I hereby sell and transfer to said C. M. Briggs all the cotton on my two plantations in Mississippi, near Egg's Point and Greenville. Said cotton so sold embraces all that I may have, baled and unbaled, gathered and ungathered. This is intended to cover all cotton that I have now or may have this year on said two plantations, supposed to be about two thousand bales. C. S. MOREHEAD.

'April 18, 1862.' The bill of sale was delivered to C. M. Briggs on the day of its execution, and at the time both parties were citizens and residents of Kentucky.

The agents left in charge of the plantations in Mississippi superintended the raising of cotton on them, and had general direction of the affairs of the plantations in the years 1861, 1862, and 1863. The son of Morehead sold some of the cotton in order to obtain money to carry on the plantations, and some of the sales were made to an agent of the Confederate government; but it does not appear that Morehead gave any directions to his agents as to the disposition of any of the cotton, or had any communication with them in 1862 or 1863.

None of the cotton belonging to Morehead which was on the plantations at the time of the sale to Briggs came into the possession of the United States. All that came into their possession was raised subsequently. In 1862, after the sale, the agents left in charge of the plantations raised a crop of cotton, a portion of which, in December, 1862, or in January, 1863, was hauled to Wilson's Burn, a place then used for the storage of cotton belonging to, or intended to be sold to, the Confederate government, and also for the storage of the cotton of individuals. The cotton was marked by the agents 'C. S. A.,' in order to save it from destruction by Confederate soldiers, but it was not so marked by direction of Morehead.

While the cotton was there 380 bales of it were, in March, 1863, taken by Capt. Osband, of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry, acting under orders of Gen. Grant, to Worthington's Landing on the Mississippi river, where it was intermingled with other cotton from adjacent plantations, and shipped to Memphis, Tenn., and there turned over to Capt. Fort, assistant quartermaster general of the United States army. The whole amount of cotton received by him was 2,130 bales, which, after being rebaled and thereby reduced to 2,111 bales, was sold by him, and the proceeds accounted for to the United States, amounting to $422,125.70. The cotton, including the 380 bales mentioned above, which came from the plantations of Morehead, amounted to 455 bales, and their proportional part of the proceeds was $91,000. There is a discrepancy between this amount and that which is subsequently claimed in the amended petition. There is also a discrepancy between the number of bales stated in the findings to have been received by the quartermaster general and the number mentioned in the act of congress of June 4, 1888. But these discrepancies are slight, and do not affect the questions considered.

The exact state of the indebtedness from Morehead to Briggs, at the time of the execution of the bill of sale, does not appear. Briggs had paid eight or ten thousand dollars for Morehead, and the latter had collected Briggs's portion of a fee amounting to $5,000, and was in the habit of borrowing money from him during the continuance of their law partnership, until the commencement of the war. It does not appear that any definite settlement was had between them. C. M. Briggs having died, his brother, James A. Briggs, was on the 15th of July, 1875, appointed executor of his estate by the county court of Jefferson county, in Kentucky, of which county the deceased was at the time of his death a citizen and resident. He accepted the trust and qualified by taking the necessary oath and executing the required bond.

By a special act of congress, passed on the 4th of June, 1888, (25 St. p. 1075,) the court of claims was given, subject to certain conditions hereafter named, like jurisdiction to hear and determine the claim of the legal representatives of C. M. Briggs for the proceeds of 455 bales of cotton, stated in the act to be then in the treasury of the United States, and alleged to have been owned in whole or in part by the deceased, as was given to that court by the acts of March 12, 1863, and July 2, 1864, upon petition to be filed in that court within two years from the passage of the act, notwithstanding any statute of limitations to the contrary. One of the conditions named was that on a preliminary inquiry the court should find that Briggs was in fact loyal to the United States government, and that the assignment to him from Morehead was bona fide; the sale from Morehead being thus designated in the act. A further condition was that, if the court should find that the alleged assignment from Morehead to Briggs, under which Briggs claimed the cotton, was intended only as security for indebtedness and against contingent liabilities assumed for Morehead then judgment should be rendered for such portion of the proceeds of the said cotton as would satisfy the debts and claims. It was also provided that the judgment should not be paid out of the general fund in the treasury arising from the sale of captured and abandoned property, but should be paid out of the special fund charged to and accounted for by Capt. Fort, assistant quartermaster, arising from the sale of the 2,209 bales of cotton received by him, with which claimant's cotton was intermingled; the claim ant to receive only the proportionate part which his cotton might bear to the net proceeds accounted for by Capt. Fort.

The executor accordingly filed his petition, in which, as amended, he alleges that, of the net proceeds of the cotton accounted for by Capt. Fort, there remains in the treasury, after deducting the payments properly chargeable to the same, and which have been paid out to various claimants on judgments of the court of claims, the sum of $138,523.92, being the net proceeds of 621 bales of cotton, for which no claim has ever been made on which judgment has been rendered, or payment obtained from the treasury. And the petitioner alleges that of this sum he is entitled to recover his pro rata share, corresponding to his 455 bales, amounting in the aggregate to $101,794.57, for which he prays judgment.

A preliminary inquiry was had by the court of claims as to the loyalty of the testator, C. M. Briggs, during the war, and as to the bona fide character of the assignment to him by Morehead; and it was found that the testator was in fact loyal to the United States government, and that the assignment to him by Morehead of April 18, 1862, was bona fide.

The case being thus freed from these preliminary inquiries, the only questions remaining for consideration were-First, the effect of that assignment in passing title to the cotton raised on the plantations and seized by the forces of the United States and sold; second, the right of the owner or assignee to the proceeds recieved, he being loyal to the government of the United States during the war; and, third, the amount of the claims of the deceased against Morehead payable out of such proceeds.

The court held that cotton raised in the Confederate States during the war was hostile property, which the United States had the right to and did apply to their own uses while it continued; that the fact that the owner or assignee of the cotton was a loyal man during the war did not affect the right of the United States to thus apply it, or the proceeds of its sale, to their own use; and that therefore no liability rested upon the government of the United States to account for the property, or its proceeds when sold, to the owner or assignee. The petition was accordingly dismissed, (25 Ct. Cl. 126,) and from the decree of dismissal the case is brought to this court on appeal.

Phil. B. Thompson, Jr., for appellant.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Maury, for the United States.

Mr. Justice FIELD, having stated the case, delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).