Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Lieutenant Commander Jouett’s Prize

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 28, 2017

One important inducement for Union sailors was prize money. When a ship or other suspected enemy property was captured, the officers and enlisted crew members of the seizing vessel were entitled to a share of the cash value of enemy ship, or “prize.” (The Confederate Navy had rules governing prize money, too, but its crews were rarely in a position to bring captured ships into southern ports for adjudication.) The awarding of prize money was part of a long tradition in Europe and, later, in the U.S. Navy. When a suspect vessel was taken, its captors would put a skeleton crew on board to sail it to the nearest U.S. admiralty court for adjudication; for ships seized off the Texas coast, that was usually at New Orleans or Key West. There, the navy would present a “libel” against the prize, evidence that the vessel had, in fact, been caught running in or out of a blockaded southern port. The ship’s papers would be entered into the record, along with cargo manifests, logbooks and other records. Often one or more of the captured ship’s officers or crew would be brought in to give testimony as well.

The seized ship’s owners, or their representatives, were also permitted to present evidence of their own to show that the seizure had been unwarranted. Sometimes these challenges were successful on first hearing or, like any other legal case, were drawn out interminably by appeals that might go as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. It was not unusual for prize cases during the Civil War to drag on for many months or even years. Even when a case was quickly adjudicated and prize money assigned for allotment, it could be a very long time before the men entitled actually received their share. Francis Davenport, a former officer on USS Portsmouth, writing long after the war about the first prize his ship had captured, noted laconically, “I think I got some $43 prize money about twelve years afterward…”

In most cases the seizure was upheld by the court, and the vessel and all its contents were inventoried, appraised and put up for auction. After deductions for court costs and inventorying, appraising and auctioning the prize, half the proceeds was retained by the government and placed in a fund for disabled seamen, while the other half was divvied up between the officers and crew of the squadron that made the capture. The admiral commanding the regional squadron (e.g., the West Gulf Blockading Squadron) collected 5 percent of the total proceeds, the local commodore received 1 percent and the remaining 44 percent was split among the officers and men of the naval vessel(s) that had actually made the capture. In keeping with a U.S. law dating to 1800, the captain and officers aboard the capturing vessels claimed the lion’s share of the prize money, while the far more numerous enlisted sailors and Marines were left to divide a small part of the proceeds among themselves.

My friend Ed Cotham recently passed along this letter from an auction site, relating to blockade prize money and from an officer who had earlier participated in a rather notable exploit here early in the war, Lieutenant Commander James E. Jouett (1826-1902), when he led a boarding party that cut out the privateer Royal Yacht from Galveston harbor. The letter Ed sent me is from three years after that event, and is addressed to a Philadelphia attorney, John Goforth, asking the latter to represent Jouett’s interests in an upcoming prize case:

U.S. Steamer “Metacomet”
Key West Fla

Novb. 30th, 1864

My dear Goforth.

Will you please Consider yourself appointed to say to the Court, the captors of the Blockade running Steamer “Susanna” [sic.] desire you to act as their counsel.

A speedy adjustment of the Case will ensure other vessels being sent to your Port.

The long delays in the payment of the “Donegal,” or at least [of] the Cargo, Seriously injures the reputation of your Port. Boston had no delays.

Very truly yours, & c.

Jas. E. Jouett
Lieut. Commd.

John Goforth Esq.
Atty At Law
Phila Penn

You can read Jouett’s account of the capture here. But getting back to his letter to attorney Goforth, there are a number of interesting elements there.

Jouett’s interest in having a quick adjudication of the case (and subsequent distribution of prize money) was obviously an important consideration. In the same way that courts and particular judges are today perceived to be sympathetic or hostile to certain kinds of cases, naval prize courts during the Civil War developed similar reputations. Clearly in Jouett’s view, the prize court in Philadelphia wasn’t working through its caseload as fast as it might, and certainly not as fast as the one in Boston. Similarly, the amount of money capturing crew ultimately received depended on how much condemned vessel and its contents sold for at auction. Here, simple supply-and-demand came into play, because obviously the prize would be worth more in a local market where there was a high demand for vessels and whatever cargo they happen to be carrying when captured, then in a port where there was a market glut of either. A number of naval officers made small fortunes through serendipity when cargoes they had captured happened, by chance, to come up for auction in New Orleans in the fall of 1864, where the price of good quality cotton spiked to more than a dollar a pound.

Jouett (left) may also have wanted Susanna and her cargo to be adjudicated in Philadelphia because he had someone there (Goforth) who could directly represent his case before the prize court. While Goforth’s fee would come out of Jouett’s share of the prize money awarded, some officers found hiring personal attorneys to represent them to be a worthwhile investment. Samuel Phillips Lee, who commanded the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Wilmington, North Carolina, reportedly referred to his post as the “prize money command.” Lee was so protective of his perquisite that he hired his own attorney, acting on commission, to represent him in prize cases. The lawyer did his job well, helping Lee to collect $109,689.99 in prize money during his two years’ tenure in command, the highest of any Union officer.

So how much did Jouett collect — not counting his attorney’s fee — on the capture of Susanna? As if happens, we can know that amount to the penny.

Susanna was captured on November 27, 1864, and the case settled at Philadelphia on March 25, 1865 — a period of almost exactly four months, relatively quickly by the standard of the day. (The case of Donegal, about whose “long delays” Jouett complained in his letter to Goforth, had taken nearly five months. Jouett was clearly an impatient man.) The total amount raised by the sale of the ship and her cargo was $60,284.20, from which $5,297.60 was deducted to cover court costs, inventorying, and other expenses related to the case. This left $54,986.60 for disbursement to the various concerned parties. Half of that money  — $27,493.30 — went to the U.S. government to support naval hospitals; and the other half was then set for distribution among various officers, Marines, and seamen.

Five percent of the total value of the prize ($2,749.33) went to Jouett’s Squadron Commander (Rear Admiral David G. Farragut), and another one percent ($549.87) went to his division commander. That left 44% of the total value of Susanna and her cargo, or $24,194.10, for Jouett and his crew.

That $24,194.10 was then split into 21 equal shares of $1,209.71. Jouett himself was entitled to three of those shares, or $3,629.13. His officers and midshipmen collected between them ten shares ($12,097.10), which probably came out to about $240 each. The enlisted seamen and Marines claimed the remaining seven shares, or $24,194.20. If Metacomet was at or near her full complement at the time of Susanna’s capture, each seaman and Marine probably stood to collect between $55 and $60.

As a Lieutenant Commander with a sea appointment, Jouett’s annual pay was $2,343, so his share of Susanna‘s value, $3,629.13, amounted to roughly a year and a half’s pay. For a Ordinary Seaman who normally earned $16 per month, his $55 or $60 prize money from Susanna amounted to about four months’ regular pay.

As Francis Davenport noted, however, it often took months or even years for sailors to collect the prize monies owed them. In response, there developed business opportunity for prize money brokers, who would advance seamen a portion of the money owed them in return for prize claim documents. It was an arrangement not unlike modern payday lending, and it took advantage of seamen who were unwilling or unable to wait an extended period to collect the funds owed them on the Navy’s slow and arbitrary schedule.

USS Metacomet (left) slugs it out with a Confederate gunboat in the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

Over the course of the war, Jouett became one of the Navy’s more celebrated junior officers. Only a few months before capturing Susanna, Jouett’s Metacomet had been lashed alongside Farragut’s flagship, Hartford, as the West Gulf Blockading Squadron entered Mobile Bay. (If Farragut really said, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” James Jouett probably heard it live.) He eventually rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, and retired in 1890. He died in 1902 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Three U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Jouett after him — a Paulding Class destroyer (1912), a Somers Class destroyer (1938), and a Belknap Class guided missile cruiser (1964).




5 Responses

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  1. Mike Musick said, on June 29, 2017 at 9:01 am

    Fascinating and extremely well-done post. Bravo!

  2. OhioGuy said, on June 29, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for posting this, Andy. Lots of interesting information here, most of it new to me. I learned a good deal about U.S. Navy practices while reading this piece. I always like to learn new stuff about the Late Rebellion and about the Navy, since I served in that branch of the service — 100 years after that war.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 29, 2017 at 10:11 am

      I cheated and lifted a few background grafs from my book.

  3. Justin said, on November 26, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    I was researching James E. Jouett and came across this. I assume you don’t have other info on his life, but I found this very interesting. I hadn’t seen this letter previously.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 26, 2020 at 6:54 pm

      Justin, thanks for your note. Jouett is not a particular research focus of mine; I thought that letter was a good opportunity to speak more broadly about the prize money system. He is, however, noted for capturing the vessel ROYAL YACHT here early in the war. I might need to write some about that. You have seen this image of him, yes?

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