“. . . to be divided between Robert Smalls and his associates.”
“Prize money” is a concept very familiar to maritime history buffs, or those who’ve read a lot of Forester or O’Brian. The idea was simply to provide a monetary incentive to naval personnel not just to destroy, but to capture intact, enemy vessels that could be either used as warships by their captors, or sold at auction to private owners. (Several ACW blockade runners went through this cycle several times.) A captured ship would be put through a legal proceeding — a “prize court” — and if “condemned,” it would be sold and (after deductions for expenses related to the appraisal, court costs and sale), the proceeds divided up among the crew of ships participating in the seizure of the vessel. The lion’s share of the money would be shared by the captain and officers of the capturing ship, on the assumption that they were more responsible for the capture than individual sailors; a successful cruise might set up a lucky naval captain for life, financially, while a sailor or ordinary seaman would collect enough for a wild evening of eating, drinking, and other, uh, forms of shoreside entertainment.
Prize money isn’t mentioned much in popular accounts of the ACW at sea, but it was nonetheless an important element in the minds of sailors in the Union blockading squadrons at the time. The Federals used a relatively complex formula at the time for apportioning prize money. After deductions for expenses, one-half of the money went straight to the government. Five percent went to the commander of the regional blockading squadron (in this case, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron), and a further 1% went to the local squadron commander. These shares combine to account for 56% of the value of the prize.
The remaining 44% was divided among the officers and crew of the capturing vessel(s). This amount was split into 20 equal shares, with the captain taking 3 shares, the officers and midshipmen taking 10 shares, and the enlisted men dividing up the remaining 7 shares between them. Clear as mud, right? Here’s a made-up example to show how it worked:
Say a Union gunboat off Charleston, U.S.S. Hypothetical, captured a Confederate ship. Hypothetical has 1 captain, 10 officers and snotties, and 70 enlisted men in her crew. After deductions for the adjudication of the prize, the captured Confederate ship has a value of $10,000. With me so far? Here’s how that scenario would break out in terms of prize monies:
You can see immediately that a lucky and industrious ship’s captain could amass a substantial amount of money quickly, and a senior admiral on a prize-rich station – say, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, off Cape Fear and Wilmington, North Carolina – could become wealthy indeed. The disparity of prize money distribution between the senior officers and ordinary seamen (who, after all, were exposed to most of the same risks) was a perennial complaint around mess tables in navies on both sides of the Atlantic:
A British cartoon from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The officer asks the praying sailor if he’s afraid of the enemy. “Afraid? No!,” the sailor replies, “I was only praying that the enemy’s shot may be distributed in the same proportion as the prize money, the greatest part among the officers!”
Anyway, that’s how prize money was supposed to work in the Union navy during the Civil War. The case of Planter and her makeshift crew, though, had some unusual wrinkles. First, the Confederate steamer was not really captured in action, but rather simply ran out to the nearest Union warship (in this case, U.S.S. Onward), and surrendered. More important, Planter’s makeshift crew were not U.S. naval personnel, and so not eligible for prize money under normal circumstances. Samuel F. Du Pont (left, 1803-65), the flag officer commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wasn’t sure how to handle the question of prize money in this case, but passed the question along to Washington. “I do not know whether. . . the vessel will be considered a prize,” Du Pont wrote in his report of the incident to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “but, if so, I respectfully submit to the Department the claims of this man Robert [Smalls] and his associates.”
Welles may or may not have sorted out the legal complexities of the case for himself, but he hardly had time to consider it regardless. On May 19, 1862 – just six days after Planter’s daring run out of Charleston – Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa (right, 1816-72), a member of the Naval Committee, introduced legislation authorizing the Welles to have the steamer and its gear appraised, and half the values awarded to “Robert Small [sic.] and his associates who assisted in rescuing [Planter] from the enemies of the Government.” The legislation further instructed Welles to, at his discretion, invest the monies in U.S. securities and pay Smalls and his companions the interest “annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay him or his heirs the principal sum.” In the House of Representatives, the Senate bill was held up briefly on procedural grounds by the infamous Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, but it passed a week later on May 26, 1862, by a vote of 121 to 9, with Vallandigham in the latter group. The bill was formally enrolled the next day, and signed by the president on May 30, just over two weeks after Smalls’ escape. The full act read:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause the steam transport boat Planter, recently in the rebel service in the harbor of Charleston, and all of the arms, munitions, tackle, and other property on board of her at the time of her delivery to the Federal authorities, to be appraised by a board of competent officers, and when the value thereof shall be thus ascertained to cause an equitable apportionment of one-half of such value so ascertained as aforesaid to be made between Robert Small[s] and his associates who assisted in rescuing her from the enemies of the Government. Section 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of the Navy may, if he deems it expedient, cause the sum of money allotted to each individual under the preceding section of this act to be invested in United States securities for the benefit of such individual, the interest to be paid to him or to his heirs annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay to him or his heirs the principal sum as aforesaid.
The provision for Planter’s prize monies to be invested in securities and held indefinitely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy is, as far as I know, virtually unknown when it comes to regular U.S. naval personnel. To be sure, as with anything associated with governmental bureaucracy and accounting, delays, lost paperwork, and missing approvals were routine, and it was common for seamen and officers to wait many months, or even years, to receive the prize monies they’d earned during the war. (I once researched a case in which a Union officer’s claim against a civilian ship went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost in late 1867. Or rather, his estate lost; the officer himself had died more than two years before.) But once prize money was cleared to be awarded, it was distributed. There’s little doubt that this case was handled as it was because the recipients were African Americans, former slaves, who were assumed to be unable to trusted to handle large sums of money wisely. It was well-intentioned, but patronizing and ultimately an insulting rationalization that kept Robert Smalls and his crew from receiving direct compensation for their actions for a long time, if ever.
Welles forwarded the text of the new legislation to Flag Officer Du Pont on June 6, along with instructions to have the captured steamboat appraised. In due course, Planter was inspected and assessed to be worth $9,000; the four loose guns, intended by the Confederates for the new battery being built on pilings in the middle of Charleston Harbor, were valued at an additional $168, for a total of $9,168. That number is strikingly low for a nearly-new steamboat in good operating condition, loaded with munitions; I may discuss that in another post. Regardless, under the legislation passed in May 1862, Smalls and his crew were entitled to half that amount, or $4,584. Du Pont ultimately divided the monies as follows:
How much was their prize money worth, in modern terms? An historical economist might say, “quite a bit” or “a lot.” In fact, there’s no single, direct answer to that question. There are a variety of formulae and indices used by economists to track the value of currency over time, and they give widely (and wildly) different results. Even in a single category, tracking income and wealth, the modern equivalent of the prize money awarded the crew of Planter varies between a low of around $106,000 to as high as $12M. The equivalent using unskilled labor as a basis of comparison pegs the modern equivalent at around $737,000, which seems very roughly in the ballpark to me.
Did Robert Smalls, William Morrison and the others ever see any of the principal of the money they’d been awarded by Congress? I’d like to say they eventually did, but if fact I don’t know. For certain, there would be plenty of people, in government and out, to whom the idea of turning over a large sum of money to freedmen and –women would be an anathema, and there were plenty of ways for them to rationalize cheating Smalls and the others of their hard-earned reward. (Think about the corrupt recruit depot quartermaster in the film Glory.) I hope they did eventually receive their prize money, along with the interest it had accrued.
 Rodman L. Underwood, Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003), 35.
 S. F. Du Pont to Gideon Welles, “Abduction of the Confederate steamer Planter from Charleston, S. C., May 13, 1862.” May 14, 1862. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. 12, 821.
 Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, May 19, 1862, 2186-87; ibid., 2363; ibid., 2392; Statutes at Large, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, 904.
 Gideon Welles to S. F. Du Pont, “Letter from the Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy, transmitting copy of an act of Congress in the case of Robert Smalls and others.” ORN, Series I, Vol. 12, 823.
Images: Top, escape of the steamer Planter by R. G. Skerrett, from the ORN. Images of Planter’s crew adapted from “Heroes in Ebony–The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 21m 1862, via Library of Congress. Gridiron’s name is given elsewhere as “Gradine”; I’ve adopted the spelling used in official naval correspondence.