Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

President and the Prizes.

____________

His Proclamation Not Retroactive-

Mr. McKinley1 Not Pleased with the

Capture of Merchantmen.

WASHINGTON, April 26.-The effect of the President’s proclamation2 defining the attitude of this country toward Spanish merchant ships on the captures already made by Admiral Sampson’s3 fleet has been subject of much speculation here.

     The proclamation does not make any specific reference to ships taken prior to its promulgation. In some quarters it has been assumed that it was intended to be operative from the day the war began, which is officially set down as April 21. Under this interpretation the vessels taken in Cuban waters up to date would be exempt from capture, and would have to be returned to their owners, with consequent loss of prize money to their captors. This, however, is not the view taken by the Administration. The entire matter was gone over at the Cabinet meeting to-day, and the conclusion reached was that the prize courts should be left to determine the disposition of the Buena Ventura and the other Spanish vessels captured by the fleet off Havana.4 An official of the Administration, whose name would add some weight to his words, could it be used, said to-night:

     “The President’s proclamation became operative immediately, but it is not retroactive, and it cannot be construed to apply to what has already been done. The captures made before the proclamation must be judged according to the general principles of international law, which do not preclude such captures. Each case will go before the prize court, which, in our system is the United States Court, and be adjudicated upon its merits according to the well defined rules and regulations of the laws of nations. Of course the court might so interpret the law as to release all of the ships seized between April 21 and 26, but it could not hold that the proclamation of the President issued to-day covered that period.”

     The information comes from thoroughly trustworthy sources that the President and his Cabinet have viewed the prize-taking performances of the fleet off Havana with anything but enthusiasm. The President is understood to be inclined to view these as unworthy of the dignity of American war ships, and to regret them as tending to put this country in a bad light before the world. The suggestion has been made that, regarding the seizure of these ships in the light of misfortunes as he does, the President might take upon himself to order their release. He has the power to do this before the cases are adjudicated in the prize court, and there is no doubt that he would exercise it were it not that such action might be taken by the officers of the fleet as a rebuke to their zeal, the good intentions of which are not doubted.5

Source Note Print: “President and the Prizes,” New York Times, 27 April 1898.

Footnote 1: President William McKinley.

Footnote 3: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 4: Buena Ventura, the first prize vessel, was captured by Nashville on 22 April.

Footnote 5: Prize money was highly sought after by U.S. Navy officers. See, Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, 316-25.

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