Seizure of the Arkansas Cannon at Cincinnati, Ohio - April 17, 1861
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Seizure of the Arkansas Cannon, 1861
The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12-13,
1861, ignited a fury of reprisal acts across the North. In
Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, a mob of citizens boarded two
steamboats and seized 23 boxes of war material they believed
was destined for Arkansas.
The boxes contained a wide variety of items including training
manuals for drilling trips. Perhaps most importantly, however,
the shipment included cannon that had been ordered by the
State of Arkansas from a foundry in New York.
Of little consequence to the members of the mob was the fact
that Arkansas had not seceded from the Union. In fact, it was still
somewhat questionable whether the Natural State would leave
the Union at all. Residents in the southern half of the state
generally favored such a move, while those in the mountains by
and large opposed it.
The Arkansas cannon and other supplies were subsequently
taken by the U.S. Marshal at Cincinnati and the District Attorney
July 13, 1861
Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, p. 1.
The Arkansas Cannon Case – Decision of Judge Leavitt – Their Restoration to the Claimants, &c., &c.
Our readers, no doubt, will remember the roused state of the public mind which existed in this city on the 17th of
April, on account of the seizure of six boxes, containing carriage-wheels for cannon, one brass piece of artillery,
cartridges, &c., on the steamers Glendale and Ohio No. 3, by a mob. The excitement on the Public Landing was
intense, and a determination exhibited by the mob that nothing in the shape of munitions of war or provisions should
go to the Southern States. The city authorities took possession of the above articles from the excited populace, and
by them they were placed in the custody of the United States Marshal. The United States District Attorney filed an
application to have them libeled and condemned as contraband of war, which was resisted by Messrs. W.J. Syms
and brother claimants of the property. The examination of witnesses and pleadings of counsel took place about ten
days since, and yesterday Judge Leavitt, of the District Court, disposed of the case in the following opinion:
This is a libel of information filed by the District Attorney on behalf of the United States, praying for the condemnation
and forfeiture of certain property as contraband of war. The libel avers in substance, that the six boxes in question,
containing guns and other munitions of war, were shipped from the port of Baltimore on the 10th of May, 1861, to
Little Rock, in the State of Arkansas; that on the 27th of April last, and ever since, that State, with others, was, and
has been, in a state of insurrection, rebellion and war; and that the ports and places within the same have been
declared by the proclamation of the President of the United States under blockade; and that the property specified in
the libel was shipped to the State of Arkansas in violation of the blockade and the laws of the United States, and is
legally subject to forfeiture as contraband of war. The property has been seized by and is now in the custody of the
Marshal, under the process of this Court.
William J. Syms and Samuel R. Syms, doing business in, and being citizens of the city of New York, under the name
of W.J. Syms and Brother, have intervened in the case, and have filed their answer, verified by oath, in which they
allege in substance, that on the 15th day of February last, at the city of New York, they entered into a written contract
with two individuals, as commissioners of the State of Arkansas, by which they agreed to furnish the articles named
in the libel at the prices stipulated, together with others not now in controversy of the same character; that pursuit to
said agreement, the property was shipped, a part on the 3d and a part on the 9th of April last, from the port of New
York, directed to their agent at Little Rock, in Arkansas, by way of Baltimore, and thence westward by the Baltimore
and Ohio Railroad and that the articles now in question were taken on the 17th of April, without legal warranty or
authority, by a number of citizens at Cincinnati, and a day or two afterward were delivered to the Chief of Police of
said city, for safe-keeping, until the circumstances of the shipment could be legally investigated, and were retained
by him until seized by the Marshal.
The claimants allege that they are loyal citizens of the United States, and that at the date of said shipment there was
no blockade of the ports or places within the State of Arkansas, and that none has yet been formally proclaimed, and
they deny that the property either when shipped or seized, was liable to condemnation as contraband of war. They
also aver that, on the 15th of February, the date of the contract, and for two months subsequently, the State of
Arkansas was reputed and believed to be in favor of the Union, and that a Convention of the State had voted against
secession. They further allege that it was not until about the 25th of April that there were any marked indications of
the purpose of the State to secede, and that the act of secession did not pass until the 7th of May, and that about the
25th of April, their agent in Arkansas repaired to Cincinnati, countermanded the shipment to that State, and ordered
all the property not delivered to be returned to New York; and that the claimants thereupon made contract with the
Union Defense Committee of that city for the sale to them of such of the property as should be returned to that place.
The evidence offered by the claimants sustains the allegations of their answer, as to the sale and shipment of this
property and its seizure and detention at Cincinnati. The testimony of George P. Williams, in and behalf of the
claimants, is before the court. He was the clerk of Lyons & Brother at the time of the contract made with the Arkansas
Commissioners, and identifies the property libeled as a part of that furnished by the claimants, and shipped by them
from New York on the 3d and 9th of April. He proceeded to Arkansas in the early part of that month to receive and
deliver the property, as the agent of the claimants. He traveled a good deal through the State, and swears that while
the sentiment of the people in the southern part of the State was favorable to secession, in other parts they were for
the Union; and that assurances were made to him that the state would not secede. He also states that it was not
until after the information was received of the Proclamations of the President, of the 15th and 19th of April, that there
were any decisive indications of the purpose of seceding; and that on the 25th of April he left Arkansas, and
proceeded to Cincinnati, for the purpose of stopping all further shipments to Arkansas, and that such an order was
given, and no further shipments were made. He also states that the claimants agreed to sell the property to the
Union Defense Committee of New York, when it should be returned to that place. The testimony of the witnesses to
the state of things in Arkansas prior to the 25th of April, is sustained by other witnesses offered by the claimants.
On these facts, it is insisted by the District Attorney that the articles entered are liable to forfeiture; first, as having
been shipped in violation of the President’s proclamation of blockade: and second, that the State of Arkansas was at
war with the United States, and the property was, therefore, when seized, contraband of war.
The first of these positions is clearly not sustained. The State of Arkansas was not embraced in the proclamations of
the President of the 19th and 27th of April, declaring the ports of the Seceded States under blockade. The formal act
of secession by the State of Arkansas, as before stated, did not take place until the 7th of May. Until after that date the
President could not properly declare the blockade of her ports: and trade with her was not, therefore, interdicted on
But the question still remains whether this property was subject to condemnation, as contraband of war, on general
principals of national law. The affirmative of this principal is strenuously urged by the Attorney for the Government.
Without attempting an extended investigation of this subject, I propose to state some of the reasons which lead me
to the opposite conclusion. And in the first place I may remark that there is no question that, by the well settled rule of
the law of nations, where a war exists between two distinct and independent powers, there must necessarily be a
suspension of all commercial intercourse between them. When two nations are arrayed in war against each other,
every subject and citizen of the one is regarded and treated as the enemy of the other. But does this principal apply
strictly to the so called Southern Confederacy, or to any of the individual States which have joined it? The President of
the United States, in all his proclamations and public acts, has cautiously avoided the recognition of the Southern
Confederacy as an independent sovereignty, and has properly proceeded on the doctrine that the right of secession
has no warrant in the Constitution, and that the exercise of the right is simply a nullity; and when attempted to be
sustained by arms it places all who give aid or countenance to the movement in the attitude of rebels against the
Government. It results from this view, that every citizen of a seceding state is not necessarily to be regarded as an
enemy, with whom all commercial intercourse is to be prohibited. The Government of the United States has acted on
the principle, in the case of Western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee, that the people of those sections, though
within the geographical limits of seceded States, are to be viewed as loyal, and entitled to the sympathy and
protection of the Government.
But this view of the subject seems to have no practical application to the case before the Court. At the time of the
shipment of the property described in the libel, and at the time of its stoppage at Cincinnati, Arkansas had not
seceded from the Union, nor does the evidence warrant the conclusion, that the state of things there was such as to
render it probably she would take this course. In fact there were no indications of this until the assault upon, and
surrender of Fort Sumter had rendered it a political necessity that the President should call on the States for a force
sufficient to subdue the rebellion then palpably existing. This requisition was made on the 15th of April, and included
Arkansas as a loyal State, and was followed on the 19th of that month, by a proclamation declaring the Seceded
States in a state of blockade. These acts, in Arkansas as in other States, excited all the slumbering elements of
Secession, which in the case of that State culminated in the passage of the ordnance of the 7th of May.
There is, however, a view of the case before the Court, which seems clearly to warrant the conclusion, that this
property was in no sense contraband of war, when seized as such at Cincinnati. The destination and the use
intended to be made of the property at the time of its seizure, must furnish the tests of its status, as contraband or
otherwise. If there were grounds for the presumption of a disloyal motive in the sale and shipment of the property, no
such presumption is warranted in regard to it, when taken by the Marshal on the 23d of May. The evidence already
referred to clearly establishes the fact, that the agent of the claimants, upon the first intimation that Arkansas might
adopt the ordnance of secession, repaired to Cincinnati, and promptly directed that the property should not be sent
according to its original destination, but should be forwarded to New York. It was not then in transitu to Arkansas, nor
could it by possibility ever reach that State, as it was under an order for shipment for New York, to be there used in
defense of the Union. In the light then of this fact, negativing, as it does, every presumption of a disloyal or unpatriotic
purpose on the part of the claimants, I do not feel that I am justified in a decree, which not only forfeits the property in
question, but would place a stigma on their reputation, which their conduct has not merited. And the view here stated
is corroborated by the circulars of the Secretary of the Treasury of the 2d of May and the 12th of June. In both these
papers, the Secretary enjoins great vigilance on the part of Collectors in preventing the shipment of contraband
goods to seceded States, or where there is just reason to suppose they will be used by persons in rebellion against
the Government. If satisfied that the property is not intended to be used for any unlawful purpose, they are merely to
notify the shipper or his agent of the fact and the cause of the detention. In the order of the 12th of June, this clause
occurs: “If any such shipper, personally or by agent, shall satisfy you that the merchandise so arrested will not be
sent to any place under insurrectionary control, but will be either returned whence it came, or be disposed of in good
faith for consumption within loyal States, you will restore possession of the same, and allow such disposition to be
made thereof, as the parties in interest may desire; under this instruction, with the knowledge that the property of the
claimants had been ordered to New York, the officer of the customs would have been fully justified in restoring it,
without any further investigation.
The case then before the Court is that of a loyal citizen of a loyal State, whose property has been libeled for
condemnation, and who has availed himself of his legal right, to assert his claim, and to show that there is nothing
in the facts to warrant a decree of forfeiture. In making this remark I am not to be understood as intimating that the
public officer at whose instance the seizure was made, is in any degree censurable. So far from this, it is probably
that under the circumstances supposed to exist, the institution of this proceeding was a proper act of official duty.
And I do not see any ground on which a certificate of probably cause of seizure, if applied for, could be refused by the
Court. But this is a wholly different question from that involving the legal right to the property, and its liability to
condemnation and forfeiture. There may be good reasons for the seizure of property: and yet upon a full investigation
of the facts, no sufficient ground for holding that that the owner has forfeited his right to it.
With these views, I can do mo otherwise than decree in favor of the claimants, and order the restoration of the
property to them.
Ball for the United States; Lincoln, Warnock and Smith for claimant.
|Cannon at Fort Smith
The guns seized at Cincinnati in 1861 were similar
to this cannon at Fort Smith National Historic Site.
They had been ordered by the governor of Arkansas.
moved to declare the items forfeit as having been destined for a state at war against the Union. The issue came
before a Federal judge in July and the result was a remarkable order returning the supplies to the company that had
originally shipped them from New York.
Here is the full text of the order, as included in an article that appeared in the Cincinatti Daily Enquirer on July 13,
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.