Confederate President Davis Encourages Privateers
After Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate forces on April 13, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days to preserve the Union. The South scrambled to respond. Realizing the Confederacy lacked an effective navy, President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation on April 17 offering to give sanction to any armed private vessel that was willing to attack Northern ships.
This official sanction was called a “letter of marque”: essentially, a license for privateers to attack at will. Without such sanction, acts of violence on the high seas by private vessels were acts of piracy. With a letter of marque, however, these privateers could ennoble their plundering by acting on behalf of the Confederate States of America.
In his proclamation, Jefferson Davis was careful to demand a high standard of conduct by these privateers. He had no interest in collaboration with lawless pirates. Private armed vessels serving under a Confederate letter of marque had to post a bond and follow all laws and regulations governing their behavior.
President Davis’ proclamation was obviously of great interest to the North. The entire proclamation was published in the April 26, 1861, issue of the Farmer’s Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire):
Proclamation by Jefferson Davis
Letters of Marque to be issued by the Confederate States
Montgomery, April 17.
Whereas Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, has announced his intention of invading the Confederacy with an armed force, for the purpose of capturing its fortresses, and thereby subverting its independence, and subjecting its free people to the dominion of a foreign power; and whereas it has become the duty of this government to repel the threatened invasion, and defend the rights and liberties of the people by all the means which the laws of nations and the usages of civilized warfare place at its disposal;
Now, therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this my proclamation, inviting all those who may desire by armed service in private armed vessels on the high seas to aid this government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, to be issued under the seal of these Confederate States.
And I do further notify all persons applying for letters of marque to make a statement in writing, giving the name and suitable description of the character, tonnage and force of the vessel, the name of the place of residence of each owner concerned therein, and the intended number of the crew, and to sign each statement and deliver the same to the Secretary of State or Collector of the port of entry of these Confederate States, to be by him transmitted to the Secretary of State.
And I do further notify all applicants aforesaid before any commission or letter of marque is granted to any vessel, or to the owner or owners thereof, and the commander for the time being, that they will be required to give a bond to the Confederate States, with at least two responsible sureties, not interested in such vessel, in the penal sum of five thousand dollars, with the condition that the owners, officers and crew, who shall be employed on board, shall observe the laws of these Confederate States, and the instructions given them for the regulation of their conduct, that shall satisfy all damages done contrary to the tenor thereof by such vessel during her commission, and deliver up the same when revoked by the President of the Confederate States.
And I do further specially enjoin upon all persons holding offices civil and military under the authority of the Confederate States, that they be vigilant and zealous in the discharge of the duties incident thereto. And I do moreover solemnly exhort the good people of the Confederate States, as they love their country, as they prize the blessing of a free government, as they feel the wrongs of the past, and those now threatened in aggravated form by those whose enmity is more implacable because unprovoked, that they exert themselves in preserving order, in promoting concord, in maintaining the authority and efficiency of the laws, and in supporting and invigorating all the measures which may be adopted for the common defence, and by which, under the blessing of Divine Providence, we may hope for a speedy, just and honorable peace.
In testimony whereof I have set my hand and seal this 17th day of April.
(Signed) Jefferson Davis
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