- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

On a gray February day in 1863, a twin-funneled Confederate cruiser fired a warning shot across the bow of a suspected enemy merchantman sailing east of Cuba.
The Jacob Bell, en route to New York from China, carried a rich cargo, including tea, camphor and spices. The captain of the CSS Florida removed the crew of the Jacob Bell and then ordered the ship burned. With a value estimated by the Confederates at $1.5 million, the ill-fated clipper would prove to be the most valuable ship and cargo captured by any Confederate warship in the war against Northern commerce.
Like the Alabama, the only Confederate warship that would exceed it in captures, the Florida had been constructed in Britain under the watchful eye of a Confederate purchasing agent, James D. Bulloch. The Florida was Bulloch's first purchase, and he took care to avoid any action that might allow British authorities to detain it as a warship destined for one of the American belligerents. Questioners were told that the new vessel was the Oreto, destined for Italy's navy.
The "Oreto," manned by a British crew, hastily departed Liverpool for the Bahamas on March 22, 1862. There it took on armament and its first Confederate skipper, 33-year-old John N. Maffitt, under whose charismatic leadership it would achieve its greatest renown.
For a while, however, it seemed doubtful that the Florida would even get to sea. Yellow fever ravaged the crew, forcing Maffitt himself sick to take his undermanned vessel through the Federal blockade to Mobile, Ala., to recruit a new crew. Then, on Jan. 15, 1863, Maffitt made a daring escape from Mobile and began the most destructive phase of the Florida's career.
International law made enemy property at sea subject to capture and confiscation. That meant that any maritime power was vulnerable because not even the most powerful country could protect its entire merchant fleet from an enemy with seagoing warships. Technology, too, was a boon to sea raiders. With a fresh breeze from their best quarter, many sailing vessels of the 1860s could hold their own against a steamer like the Florida, but the raider's ability to make nine or 10 knots without regard to wind made it a deadly predator.
Maffitt captured and burned three Yankee merchantmen off Cuba, then encountered the luckless Jacob Bell. At the end of March, Maffitt left the Caribbean for waters off Brazil. There, in the sea lanes traveled by ships bound for South America and the Pacific, the Florida and Alabama between them captured 25 Northern merchantmen in a three-month period.
In early June, Maffitt took his ship north. There was no shortage of prey off Brazil, but he was having troubles with his engines and hoped to have them overhauled in Bermuda.
He spent 11 days in Bermuda, and then, in late July, set a course for Europe. The Florida made three captures in the North Atlantic, but Maffitt concluded that his ship required a complete refit and chose to go to a French harbor, Brest. There he requested relief on the grounds of ill health, and he was succeeded as the Florida's skipper by Lt. Charles M. Morris, one of a pool of Confederate naval officers on call in Europe.
The Florida underwent repairs for more than five months and by all rights never should have been allowed to leave Brest. The Confederate vessel was blockaded there by a Federal cruiser, the Kearsarge, but no single ship could maintain a blockade, and on Feb. 10, while the Kearsarge was off coaling, the Florida escaped.
Under Maffitt, the cranky cruiser had captured 24 Yankee ships. Now, under Morris, 13 more prizes were taken before the Florida dropped anchor at the Brazilian port of Bahia (now Salvador) on the night of Oct. 4, 1864.
From the Florida's anchorage, its officers could make out the silhouette of a warship on the far side of the harbor. The morning light revealed it to be a Federal cruiser, the USS Wachusett.
The skipper of the Wachusett was 50-year-old Napoleon Collins, an officer of uncertain judgment who earlier had embarrassed the government in Washington by capturing a British vessel in Bahamian waters. Although eager to take on the Florida, Collins promised local authorities to respect Brazil's neutrality and not initiate hostilities in its waters.
As he reflected on his position, Collins grew increasingly frustrated. Because the Florida was entitled to a 24-hour head start once it weighed anchor, it was highly unlikely that the Wachusett would catch it at sea. Collins consulted the U.S. consul at Bahia, Thomas F. Wilson, who might have been expected to counsel caution. However, Wilson was all too aware of the damage wrought by Confederate raiders and encouraged Collins to destroy the Florida where it lay. Collins consulted his officers, and when all except one supported Wilson, he resolved to attack.
At 3 a.m. on Oct. 7, while Morris and many of the Florida's crew were on shore leave, the Wachusett weighed anchor. Collins' plan was to ram the Florida, but he was unable to pick up speed in the narrow confines of Bahia harbor. The Wachusett struck its target a glancing blow on the starboard quarter but did not inflict enough damage to sink it. The Wachusett was backing away when the skeleton crew aboard the Florida began firing small arms. The Federals returned fire.
When Collins demanded that the Florida surrender, Lt. Thomas Power, the senior officer on board, agreed, even as he protested the attack. Collins ordered a line attached to the Florida and towed it out to sea. When the Brazilians awoke to what was happening, shots were fired from a fort overlooking the harbor, and three Brazilian gunboats set out in pursuit. Even with the Florida in tow, however, the Wachusett outdistanced its pursuers.
Had Collins sunk the Florida at its anchorage, he would have had some explaining to do but would have accomplished his objective. In bringing his prize to American waters, as he undertook to do, he was inviting trouble. Perhaps Collins realized this, for his behavior on the voyage home became increasingly erratic. He quarreled with his officers and expressed fear that the 70-odd Confederate prisoners might take over his ship. During layovers at the Caribbean islands of St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas, Collins permitted his prisoners to escape.
After a monthlong voyage from Bahia, the Wachusett and its prize arrived at Hampton Roads, Va., on Nov. 12. There, Adm. David D. Porter ordered that the Florida be anchored at the exact spot where the Confederate ironclad Merrimack had rammed and sunk the USS Cumberland more than two years earlier.
Satisfaction in Washington over the seizure of the Florida was tempered by recognition that the administration had a diplomatic problem with respect to Brazil. The Brazilian government protested Collins' violation of its waters and demanded that the United States disavow his action. There may have been suggestions that the Florida be returned to Bahia.
Then "fate" intervened. On Nov. 28, Porter advised Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that the Florida had sunk at its moorings, supposedly after a collision with another vessel. Ten days later, Secretary of State William H. Seward advised the Brazilian minister that Collins indeed had acted without authority and that he was subject to a court-martial. As for the Florida, Seward indicated that the vessel had been lost as a result of "some unforeseen accident."
In due course, Collins was brought before a court-martial and sentenced to dismissal from the Navy. Six months later, however, Welles set aside the verdict and restored him to the active list. After the war, he was promoted to rear admiral.
In the bars of Norfolk and Newport News, there long would be stories of how the Florida had come to sink at its moorings. Some of these stories reached John Maffitt, who after the war was attempting to work a farm near Wilmington, N.C. Maffitt had friends in the U.S. Navy, and on a visit to Washington in 1872, he called on Porter. The subject turned to the Florida, and Maffitt asked what really had happened to his old ship. He took notes on what Porter told him, he later recounted.
During an interview between Seward and Porter, the former had exclaimed, "I wish [the Florida] was at the bottom of the sea." "Do you mean it?" Porter had asked. "I do, from my soul," was the answer. "It shall be done," Porter had replied. The admiral placed an engineer in charge of the stolen steamer, his imperative instruction being: "Before midnight open the sea cock and do not leave that engine room until the water is up to your chin." At daylight, the Florida was no longer to be seen.
The strange fate of the Florida was a tribute to the Federals' belated recognition of the threat posed by Confederate cruisers. The Lincoln administration was determined that the Florida was one raider that would never take to sea again.
John M. Taylor is the author of several books concerning the Civil War, including "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide