- Civil War Blockade-Runners: Prize Claims and the Historical Record, Including the Denbigh’s Court Documents by Gerald R. Powell, Matthew C. Cordon, J. Barto Arnold III
Authored by two law school professors and a nautical archaeologist, Civil War Blockade-Runners is the sixth text in a series on the Denbigh, a Confederate blockade-runner that defied the Union Navy in the Gulf of Mexico from 1863 to 1865. In late May 1865 on her seventh run into Confederate-held Galveston, the Denbigh ran aground and was abandoned. The next morning the Union blockading fleet located the Denbigh, set the vessel afire and destroyed it. Ironically, one month earlier Denbigh had run aground while leaving Galveston. After jettisoning 200 bales of cotton, the crew freed the vessel, returned to Galveston, and subsequently ran the Union blockade, escaping to Havana. The Union blockading fleet eventually retrieved 140 bales of Denbigh’s jettisoned cargo, which became subject of a New Orleans prize court. Since the Denbigh was destroyed on her return voyage from Havana a month later, more is known about the jettisoned cotton than the cargo she carried when it was abandoned and burned by the Union blockading fleet.
The text’s authors extensively analyzed admiralty and maritime law, the development of American prize law, and the historical foundations of the North’s blockade of the southern coastline during the American Civil War. Records reveal that from April 1861 to November 1865, the Union captured more than 1400 blockade-runners. Of these captures, 654 were subject to prize claims. Prize courts required that a captor maintain possession of a hostile ship for a minimum of twenty-four hours to effectuate possession, that the captor bore the burden of proof to prove the existence of an actual blockade at the time of capture, and that the captor institute appropriate paperwork so that a lawsuit, known in admiralty law as a libel, could be filed in federal district court. When a prize claim [End Page 90] was appropriately filed, the presiding judge would appoint prize commissioners to assist determining adjudication of the prize claim. Prize claims were based on evidence “limited to the depositions, interrogations, and affidavits taken of the crew of the capturing vessel and of the captured vessel, as well as the papers and documents of the captured ship” (91).
Once a prize claim was established among the actual participants in a ship seizure, prize statutes provided an explicit formula to distribute prize proceeds among the captors. The authors acknowledge that such prize claims records are important archival resources on Civil War captures such as the Denbigh. A ship’s papers, cargo manifests, prize claim paperwork, eye witness testimony, and even seized mail provide a historical snapshot of the circumstances surrounding a ship’s capture. Today the vast majority of prize court information about Civil War era seizures resides with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in regional depositories throughout the United States.
The authors return to the fate of the Denbigh and her owners, the European Trading Company, in the final chapter, identifying several blockade runners owned and operated by the aforementioned company. Of those cited ships, the Denbigh proved to be the first, the last, the most successful, and the most enduring of the European Trading Company’s fleet of blockade runners. By investigating the Denbigh “through the prism of prize law,” the authors conclude that the Denbigh remains “the greatest prize of all” (129).
Civil War Blockade-Runners is not a text for the casual reader of the Civil War or maritime history. The authors’ analysis is heavy on legalism with limited narrative of 129 pages, with appendices totaling 210 pages. The text will be appreciated by specialists in maritime law, particularly as it pertains to Civil War litigation and prize court rulings.