President Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation on April 19 stating that Confederates interfering with the U.S. blockade or committing depredations against U.S. shipping on the high seas would be treated as pirates. When the Federals imprisoned the crew of the Confederate commerce raider Savannah, President Jefferson Davis wrote to Lincoln warning him that “if driven to the terrible necessity of retaliation by your execution of any of the officers or crew of the Savannah that retaliation will be extended so far as shall be requisite to secure the abandonment by you of a practice unknown to the warfare of civilized man, and so barbarous as to disgrace the nation which shall be guilty of inaugurating it…” Davis received no response.
In July, the Confederate privateer Jefferson Davis had captured the merchant schooner Enchantress and converted her into a Confederate commerce raider, commanded by Walter W. Smith. Later that month, the U.S. blockading vessel Albatross recaptured the Enchantress, and Smith and his crew were sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to face piracy charges.
In October, Smith stood trial in Philadelphia circuit court. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. His 14 officers and crewmen awaited trial in New York. Defense attorney Nathaniel Harrison appealed to President Davis to act on the defendants’ behalf, arguing that privateering was legal under international maritime law. Privateering was indeed legal between warring nations, but the Lincoln administration refused to acknowledge that the Confederacy was a nation.
When it seemed that the Federals would go through with Smith’s execution, Davis directed Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin to issue orders to Brigadier General John H. Winder, the provost marshal in charge of prisoners of war at Richmond:
“You are hereby instructed to choose by lot from among the prisoners of war, of highest rank, one who is to be confined to a cell appropriated to convicted felons, and who is to be treated in all respects as if such convict, and to be held for execution in the same manner as may be adopted by the enemy for the execution of the prisoner of war Smith, recently condemned to death in Philadelphia.”
Benjamin instructed Winder to select other prisoners to match the number of Smith’s crew being held for trial in New York on similar charges. Benjamin concluded, “As these measures are intended to repress the infamous attempt now made by the enemy to commit judicial murder on prisoners of war, you will execute them strictly, as the mode best calculated to prevent the commission of so heinous a crime.”
Winder conducted a lottery, and according to a newspaper, “the lot fell upon Colonel Corcoran.” Colonel Michael Corcoran had commanded the 69th New York militia until he was captured at the Battle of Bull Run. A reporter described him as a “professional soldier, totally unlike Abe Lincoln’s raw recruits.” Corcoran would meet the same fate as Smith. Also selected in the lottery were six colonels, two lieutenant colonels, three majors, and three captains.
The Federals finally gave in. Smith was not executed, and the prisoners who had “won” the lottery would be reprieved. This was a minor military and diplomatic victory for the Confederacy because it forced the U.S. to modify its policy of dealing with Confederate privateers as pirates.
- Garrison, Webb, True Tales of the Civil War: A Treasury of Unusual Stories During America’s Most Turbulent Era. New York: Gramercy, 1988.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.