The Iron-Clad Atlanta

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United States Supreme Court

70 U.S. 425

The Iron-Clad Atlanta

AN act of Congress [*] of July 17, 1862, provides that prizes taken by the navy at sea, when of equal or superior force to the vessel or vessels making the capture, shall be the sole property of the captors, and when of inferior force shall be divided equally between the United States and the officers and men making the 'capture.' When the United States thus receive prize-money it is passed to the Naval Pension Fund.

With this act in force the Atlanta, a vessel of the late rebel confederacy, was captured by our navy and condemned, with her armament and stores, as prize by the District Court for Massachusetts.

Before the vessel could be brought into port for adjudication she was taken by the Secretary of the Navy for the use of the government, and her appraised value, $351,000, deposited with the proper officers of the Treasury subject to the order of the court.

In distributing this fund so deposited the question arose between the United States and certain of the captors whether the captured vessel was of superior or of inferior force to the force which had captured her; the importance of the question being, of course, in this,-that if she was of superior, the captors would get the whole of her value: while, if of inferior, they would have to share it with the government.

The facts of the capture were thus:

The Atlanta-originally the British ship Fingal, and converted, by enormous labor and the cost of near a million of dollars, into a powerful iron-clad for the destruction of the government fleets, then blockading the rebel ports and coast-had been for some time previous to her capture anchored in Wassau Sound, Georgia. Two monitors of the United States, the Weehawken and the Nahant, guarded the entrance to prevent her egress. The captain of the Weehawken, Captain Rodgers, U.S. N., was the senior and commanding officer of the government force in that region, and the pilot was on board his monitor. The presence of the monitors and their character and force were known to the rebels. In the belief that the Altnata was of superior force to both, she was sent down the sound to capture or destroy them; 'General Beauregard,' the log stated, or as Captain Rodgers testified, 'the general commanding the rebel army in the military department of Charleston and Savannah'-following with a select party in a wooden gunboat behind to witness her anticipated conquest. It was early in the morning of the seventeenth of June, 1863, that her approach was descried by the monitors. These immediately prepared for action. The Weehawken, laying further up the sound than the Nahant, slipped her cable, and steamed towards the sea; the Nahant weighed her anchor and, under orders of Captain Rodgers, followed in the wake of the Weehawken. The vessels took their course towards the sea for the purpose of gaining time to get fully ready for engagement. After going out some distance, the Weehawken turned suddenly toward the enemy. At this moment the Atlanta opened her fire on the Nahant, which was then the nearer vessel to her, but the shot did not take effect. The Nahant soon afterwards rounded, following the Weehawken, and the latter vessel, being now within between three and four hundred yards of the Atlanta, opened her fire, and when within two hundred yards repeated it. The first shot of the Weehawken, weighing four hundred pounds and fired with thirty-five pounds of power,-the largest shot, it is said, ever fired in naval warfare,-struck the Atlanta upon the side of her casemate, knocking a hole in it, but without going through, and scattering over the inclosed decks great quantities of wood and and iron splinters, some of dangerous size, wounding several men, and prostrating on deck, insensible, many others. As many as forty persons were knocked down and either wounded or stunned for the moment by the effects of this shot, and it demoralized the entire crew. The next discharge carried a ball which struck the top of the pilot-house, crushing and driving down the bars on the top and sides, wounding both pilots and one helmsman, and stunning the other helmsman as well as the wounded men. These men fell in a heap on the floor of the pilot-house, and the rebel officers said prevented any one from getting up into it. In the words of Captain Rodgers, 'the first shot took away the desire to fight, and the second the ability to get away.' Such, in short, was the terrific effect of the Weehawken's shot, that the Atlanta in a few minutes surrendered. She had, in fact, struck after the first shot, though, in the smoke, her white flag was undistinguishable from a blue one used as her battle-flag. In the meantime, the Nahant was advancing with all practicable speed, making directly for the Atlanta, the captain reserving his fire until he could lay his vessel alongside the enemy, thinking that it could then be delivered with greater effect. The shortness of the period between the first fire of the Weehawken and the surrender of the Atlanta prevented the captain of the Nahant from accomplishing his purpose.

The capture of this iron-clad Atlanta was one of the early conclusive evidences that the rebel confederacy could not stand at all before the power of the government; and it was justly regarded as a great event of the war. In its bearings upon naval science, and particularly upon naval gunnery, it has been thought to be the most significant battle of modern times except that of the Monitor and Merrimack.

The monitors were of 844 tons each; one had eighty-four men, the other eighty-five; together, 1688 tons, and one hundred and sixty-one men. They were as nearly equal to each other as could be. The Atlanta was of about 1000 tons, and had a hundred and forty-three men.

Upon this case the court below, considering that the Nahant had, in contemplation of law, taken part in the capture, and, therefore, that the capturing force was superior to the vessel captured, decreed one-half the fund to the captors, and the other half to the United States.

From this decree the officers and crew of the Weehawken appealed; a certain Hodge appealing also; the ground of his appeal being that the entire officers, crew, and hands-eighty-five persons in number-had by power of attorney appointed him thier agent to represent their interest in the prize-money, binding themselves, their heirs and executors, to pay him one per cent. of all moneys which should be collected and severally adjudged to them as prize-money, and by the instrument of appointment requesting 'the proper officers of government to pay the said fee to their said agent as a charge or fee, to be deducted from the award of prize-money to be paid to us, previous to paying over the same for distribution:' and that the court below had distributed the whole fund between the government and the captors without taking any notice at all of him, Mr. Hodge aforesaid.

Mr. Reverdy Johnson, for the appellants; the Attorney-General, Mr. Speed, and the Assistant Attorney-General, Mr. Ashton, not opposing, having in fact left the court-room in company of each other soon after the case was called.

What is a capturing force? Is it the vessel which took the only active part in the capture, or does it include the other vessels, present or within signal distance, who took no part in the action, and in no way contributed to the successful result? There were on the Union side two monitors, the Weehawken and Nahant. The Weehawken, when she approached the enemy, was the leading vessel, followed by the Nahant. The Weehawken engaged the Atlanta, and compelled her to surrender before the Nahant could get into action or had fired a gun; she was, therefore, really the capturing force, unaided by the other monitor; and had the Nahant been absent, it is evident that all the circumstances and events of the fight, and the result, would have been precisely the same. The result was due simply to the tremendous effect of a single shot; a shot, the like of which the world never heard of, and of which science had not before conceived. The old rules of warfare were superseded by the use of novel engines of destruction. Whoever was first struck was conquered. Whoever fired that shot was victor. The Weehawken was notoriously a vessel of inferior force to her antagonist. Will it be said that the presence of other vessels has a great moral influence on the result (even if these other vessels do not take an active part), by discouraging the one side and encouraging the other? There might be some force in this argument, had the Atlanta suddenly fallen in with the two monitors at sea by the lifting of the fog or the breaking of the day, or had she in any other manner come unexpectedly upon them; but no such moral influence existed in this case; for the Atlanta trusting in her strength, really very great, and supposed to be capable of resisting any shot, well knowing, too, what the opposing force was-came down produly and with deliberation to attack the two monitors, with the conviction that she could take or destroy both. The result was caused simply by the extraordinary and novel sort of armament, of which neither she, nor till then any one but its inventors, had formed a conception.

The officers of all these iron-clad monitors have had, may it please the court, a most severe duty to perform. They have lived in iron dungeons, under artificial ventilation, never being able, as any one who has once seen a monitor will readily believe, to appear on deck when afloat: the sea was constantly beating over them. They have been, too, without much hope and with only a slender chance of prize-money, as they were not cruising vessels. This in fact, we believe, is the only instance in which any of them has made a dollar of prize-money. This engagement was most important in its effects on the war. It did the highest honor to the naval reputation and resources of the United States abroad. If considerations of liberality are in any way to influence a decision, this is certainly a strong case for their exercise. We recall-needing but slightly to change it-the language of a great judge of past time in England, when speaking of a memorable case before him: [**] 'Affection, indeed, may never press on Judgment; yet it is a case in which no man who hath any apprebension of nobleness, but would lay hold of a twig or a twine-thread to support so honorable a claim.' Nearly every prize taken during the was has been by a superior force, as most of the prizes have been blockade-runners. In almost every case, therefore, the United States has received, for the Naval Pension Fund, half of the amount. That fund has thus, it is said, obtained nine to ten millions of dollars from captures. The income of the sum received is five-fold of all demands upon it. If it gets nothing here, there is nobody to complain, nobody to suffer.

It is obvious that the government is desirous that if the court can give the whole of this money to the gallant Rodgers and his crew, it will give it. The attorney-general and his young assistant-remarkable for the closeness and fidelity, as for the ability also, with which they protect in ordinary every interest of the government-have left this case undefended, as if willing to show, what without doubt they feel, that if the letter of the statute calls for a construction in favor of the government-which we deny-the case itself, and the just reward of bravery, and the spirit of the whole country, demand another.

As respects Mr. Hodge. The appointment given him by the captors was lawful and proper; as much for their benefit and for the interests of justice as for his own. He has done his duty. The vessel has been condemned as prize. The constant changes that are occurring in the naval service will render it impossible for him to trace up the eighty-five officers and men of these vessels, scattered as they are in the time since which the capture occurred. Some are dead. The Weehawken, it is matter of well-known and sad history, has been sunk, and between twenty and thirty of her crew drowned. Except under a decree of the court, Mr. Hodge is left without resource for collecting the percentage voluntarily allowed him by the brave captors.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


^*  12 Stat. at Large, 750.

^**  Sir William Jones, temp. Car. I; Case of the Earldom of De Vere, 1st Jones, 96.

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).