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Instructions to Blockading Vessels and Cruisers

North Atlantic Station.



Off Havana Harbor Cuba,     

May 2, 1898. 



1.- The vessels of this Squadron while engaged in blockading and cruising service, will be governed by the rules of International law and the decisions of Prize courts, laid down in the text-books and manuals furnished by the Navy Department to Ship’s Libraries.

     The following brief instructions based upon the above rules and decisions, are established for convenient reference.

WILLIAM T. SAMPSON,            

Rear Admiral.               

Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Naval Force,

North Atlantic Station.          



2.- A blockade to be effective and binding, must be complete and continuous. The force must be sufficient to arrest or render extremely difficult ingress to or egress from the port, and this force, or a part of it, must be continuously on station. If such vessels be driven away by stress of weather, returning without delay to their stations, the continuity of the blockade is not thereby broken; but if they leave their stations voluntarily, except for purposes of the blockade, such as chasing a blockade runner, or are driven away by an enemy’s force, the blockade is abandoned, or broken, and new notice as to the port or ports affected, becomes necessary. It is probable that the universal employment of steam will diminish the indulgence of the old rule as to stress of weather, and will substantially require blockading vessels to occupy their stations at all times. As a suspension of blockade is a serious matter, requiring new notification, and thereby interfering with the efficiency of the blockade, Commanding Officers will exercise especial care not to give grounds for such allegation.


3.- Neutral vessels are entitled to notification of a blockade before they can be made prize for its attempted violation. The character of this notification is not material. It may be actual, as by a vessel of the blockading force, or constructive as through proclamation to neutral powers, conveyed by them to their subjects, or through common notoriety of the fact. If a neutral vessel can be shown to have had notice of the blockade in any way, she is good prize and should be sent in for adjudication; but should formal notice not have been given, the rule of constructive knowledge arising from notoriety should be construed in a manner liberal to the neutral.

4.- Vessels appearing before a blockaded port, having sailed without notification, are entitled to actual notice by a blockading vessel. They should be boarded by an officer, who should enter in the ship’s log the fact of such notice, such entry to include the name of the blockading vessel, giving notice, the extent of the blockade, the date and place, verified by his official signature. The vessel is then to be set free; and should she again attempt to enter the same or any other blockaded port, she is good prize.

5.- Should it appear from a vessel’s clearance that she sailed after the notice of blockade had been communicated to the country of her port of departure, or after the fact of blockade had, by fair assumption, become commonly known at that port, she should be sent in as a prize. There are however, treaty exceptions to this rule. Vessels of Greece, and of Sweden and Norway, are entitled to actual notice at the blockading line, although sailing with notice of the blockade, unless it can be shown that they have received, enroute, notice of the continuance of the blockade.

6.- A neutral vessel may sail in good faith for a blockaded port with an alternative destination to be decided upon by information as to the continuance of the blockade obtained at an intermediate port. But, in such case she is not allowed to continue her voyage to the blockaded port in alleged quest of information, as to the status of the blockade, but must obtain it and decide upon her course before she arrives in a suspicious vicinity; and if the blockade has been formally established with due notification, any doubt as to the good faith of such a proceeding should go against the neutral and subject her to seizure.

7.- Neutral vessels found in a port at the beginning of its blockade are entitled to a reasonable time in which to leave. They may depart with cargo bona-fide purchased and laden before the blockade began; but with no other. The time during which they may withdraw has been fixed by the President’s proclamation of blockade at thirty days from April 22nd.

8.- A vessel under any circumstances, resisting the visit of a blockading vessel, destroying her papers, presenting fraudulent papers, or attempting to escape, should be sent in for adjudication. The liability of a blockade-runner to capture and condemnation, begins and terminates with her voyage. If there is good evidence that she sailed with intent to evade the blockade, she is good prize from the moment she appears upon the high seas. Even if she does not herself expect to attempt to run the blockade, but carries a cargo for the enemy’s port with intent to have it transshipped at an intermediate port, she is good prize. The entering of this cargo at an intermediate port, and even the paying of duties upon it, will not shield her from condemnation if the transaction was evidently a fraudulent evasion. Similarly, if she has succeeded in escaping from a blockaded port, she is liable to capture at any time before she reaches her home port. But with the termination of the voyage the offense ends.

9.- The crews of blockade-runners are not enemies, and should be treated not as prisoners of war, but with every consideration. Any of the officers or crew however, whose testimony before the prize court may be desired, should be detained as witnesses.

10.- The men-of-war of neutral powers should be, as a matter of courtesy, allowed free passage to and from a blockaded port.

11.- It should be clearly understood that blockade-running is a distinct offense and subjects the vessel attempting it, or intending it, to seizure without regard to her cargo. The presence of contraband of war in a cargo becomes the cause of seizure of the vessel under different circumstances: viz., when she is bound to a port of the enemy not blockaded, and to which, contraband of war excepted, she is free to trade.


12.- The belligerent right of search may be exercised without previous notice, upon all neutral vessels after the beginning of war, to determine their nationality, the character of their cargo, and the ports between which they are trading.

13.- The exercise of this right should be attended with tact and consideration. After firing a blank charge, and causing the vessel to lie-to, the cruiser should send a small boat, no larger than a whaleboat, with an officer to conduct the search. There may be arms in the boat, but the men should not wear them on their persons. The officer, wearing only his side arms, and accompanied on board by not more than two men of his boat’s crew, unarmed, should first examine the vessel’s papers to ascertain her nationality and her ports of departure and destination. If she is neutral, and trading between neutral port, the examination goes no further. If she is neutral, and bound to an enemy’s port not blockaded, the papers which indicate the character of her cargo should be examined. If these show contraband of war the vessel should be seized; if not, she should be set free. No sealed hatches should be broken nor any examination of the cargo made. If a vessel does not stop when the blank charge is fired, a shotted gun should be fired across her bow.

14.- Irrespective of the character of the cargo, or her purported destination, a neutral vessel should be seized if she:

I.- Attempts to avoid search by escape; but this must be clearly evident.

II.- Resist search with violence.

III.- Presents fraudulent papers.

IV.- Is not supplied with the necessary papers to establish the objects of search.

V.- Destroys, defaces, or conceals papers.

15.- A neutral vessel carrying hostile despatches, as a despatch vessel practically in the service of the enemy, is liable to seizure; but not when she is a mail packet and carries them in the regular and customary manner, either as a part of the mail in her mail bags, or separately as a matter of accommodation and without special arrangement or renumeration.

16.- A neutral vessel carrying troops or military personages of the enemy is liable to seizure.

17.-A neutral vessel under enemy’s convoy should be seized.


18.-Are always good prize, except under such circumstances as may be provided at the beginning of a war as to vessels of one belligerent loading in enemy’s ports, or bound from, or to, such ports. See the President’s proclamation of April 26th.


19.- Is free. The Government of the United States has announced its intention to adhere to the four articles of the Declaration of Paris.1


20.- What shall be considered contraband of war is frequently laid down in treaties. In default of such definition, it includes all military and naval arms and equipments and stores of special character, exclusively or principally designed for the furnishing of armies and fleets and the prosecution of war.

21.- The carriage of such articles destined to a belligerent port, subjects a neutral vessel to seizure, and the doctrine of “continuous voyages” applies to the carriage of contraband of war in the same manner as to blockade-running. The ultimate destination of the contraband cargo is the criterion; and if this is clearly for a belligerent port, the vessel is good prize, although she may have been cleared for an intermediate neutral port, with intent to transship.

22.- Coal bound for Cuban or Porto Rican ports will be considered as contraband unless instructions are given to the contrary.


23.- Prizes should be sent in for adjudication, unless otherwise directed, to the nearest home port in which a prize-court may be sitting.

24.- The prize should be delivered to the court in as nearly as possible her condition at the time of seizure; and to this end her papers should be sealed at the time of seizure, and kept in the custody of the prize-master. Attention is called in this connection to Articles Nos. 16 and 17 for the Government of the U. S. Navy.2

25.- All witnesses, whose testimony is necessary to the adjudication of the prize, should be detained and sent in with her, and if circumstances permit, it is preferable that the officer making the search should act as prize-master.

26.- As to delivery of the prize to the judicial authority, consult sections 4615, 4616 and 4617, Revised Statutes of 1878.3 The papers, including the log-book of the prize, are delivered to the prize-commissioners, the witnesses to the custody of the U. S. Marshal and the prize itself remains in the custody of the prize-master until the court issues process directing one of its own officers to take charge.

27.- The title to property seized as prize, either vessels or cargo, changes only by decision rendered by the prize-court, and therefore so far as practicable, all captures should be sent in for adjudication, intact, in the condition in which they were seized. But if the vessels themselves, or their cargoes, are necessary for immediate public use, they may be converted to such use, a careful inventory and appraisal being made by impartial persons, and certified to the prize-court.

28.-If there are controlling reasons why vessels may not be sent in for adjudication, as unseaworthiness, the existence of infectious diseases, the lack of a prize-crew, they may be appraised and sold; and if this cannot be done, they may be destroyed. The imminent danger of recapture would justify destruction. If there was no doubt that the vessel was good prize. In all such cases, all the papers and other testimony should be sent to the prize-court, in order that a decree may be duly entered and the proceeds of sale, if sold, or an amount equal to the appraised valuation, if taken for Government use, must be deposited subject to the order of the court.


The following proclamation by the President of the United States is published for the information of this command.4

It affects paragraphs 2, 13, 18, 19 and 22 of the above order of May 2nd, and is to be appended to that order.

“Whereas, by an Act of Congress, approved April 25th, 1898, it is declared that war exists, and that war has existed since the 21st day of April, A. D., 1898, including said day, between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain. Whereas it be desirable that such war should be conducted upon principles in harmony with the present views of Nations and sanctioned by their recent practice. It has already been announced that the policy of this Government will be not to resort to privateering, but adhere to the rules of the declaration of Paris. Now, therefore, I, William McKinley, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the power vested in me by the Constitution and the laws, do hereby declare and proclaim:

1. The neutral flag covers enemy’s goods with exception of contraband of war.

2. Neutral goods, not contraband of war, are not liable to confiscation under the enemy’s flag.

3. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective.

4. Spanish merchant vessels in any ports or places within the United States shall be allowed till May 21st, 1898, inclusive, for loading their cargoes, and departing from such ports or places, and such Spanish merchant vessels, if met at sea by any United States ship, shall be permitted to continue their voyage if on examination of their papers, it shall appear that their cargoes were taken on board before the expiration of the above term, provided that nothing herein contained shall apply to Spanish vessels having on board any Officer in the military or naval service of the enemy, or any coal, except such as may be necessary for their voyage, or any other article prohibited, or contraband of war, or any despatch of, or to, the Spanish Government.

5. Any Spanish merchant vessel, which prior to April 21st, 1898, shall have sailed from any foreign port bound for any port or place in the United States, shall be permitted to enter such port or place and to discharge her cargo, and afterwards forthwith to depart without molestation, and any such vessel, if met at sea by any United States ship, shall be permitted to continue her voyage to any port not blockaded.

6.- The right of search is to be exercised with strict regard for the rights of neutrals, and the voyage of mail steamers are not to be interfered with except on the clearest grounds of suspicion of a violation of law in respect of contraband or blockade.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington on the 26th day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight, and of the Independence of the United States the one hundred and twenty-second.”

By the President,       William McKinley

John Sherman,

     Secretary of State.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 313, Entry 56, Box 11. Docketed: “U.S. Flagship NEW YORK,/(1st RATE)/Philip, J. W./Captain, U.S.N./Commanding, North Atlantic Station/SUBJECT:” This print misidentifies John W. Philip as Commander of the North Atlantic Station. The actual commander was RAdm. WILLIAM T. SAMPSON.

Footnote 1: Under the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 16 April 1856, signatory nations agreed to four articles. Those articles were:

1. Privateering is, and remains, abolish;

2. The neutral flag covers enemy’s goods, with the exception of contraband of war;

3. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy’s flag.

4. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.

The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1861 (NEW YORK: D. Appleton & Company, 1863), 258-259.  

Footnote 2: Articles for the Government of the United States Navy, otherwise known as “Rocks and Shoals,” was the governing document of the United States Navy until WWII (1941-1945). Article 16 stated:

No person in the Navy shall take out of a prize, or vessel seized as a prize, any money, plate, goods, or any part of her equipment unless it be for the better preservation thereof or unless such articles are absolutely needed for the use of any of the vessels or armed forces of the United States before the same are adjudged lawful prize by a competent court; but the whole, without fraud, concealment, or embezzlement, shall be brought in in order that judgment may be passed thereon; and every person who offends against this article shall be punished as a court- martial may direct.

Article 17 stated:

If any person in the Navy strips off the clothes of or pillages or in any manner maltreats any person taken on board a prize, he shall suffer such punishment as a court-martial may adjudge.

See, Department of the Navy -- Bureau of Navigation, “Articles for the Government of the United States Navy, 1930,” (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1932).

Footnote 3: Sections 4615, 4616 and 4617 of the Revised Statutes of 1878 are described in paragraphs 26 and 27.

Footnote 4: President William McKinley’s proclamation was issued on 26 April 1898.

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