October 7, 1864 – The Federal steam sloop U.S.S. Wachusett captured famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida under dubious circumstances that threatened diplomatic relations with Brazil.
Wachusett arrived at Bahia harbor in Brazil on October 2 to investigate reports that Florida was nearby. Florida had captured 36 Federal prizes totaling over $4 million in shipping, and had once caused panic by threatening New York Harbor. Commander Napoleon Collins led Wachusett, the sister ship of U.S.S. Kearsarge, and he had been ordered to do to Florida would Kearsarge had done to C.S.S. Alabama four months before—capture or destroy her.
Two nights later, Florida anchored in All Saints Bay in Bahia, unaware that Wachusett had anchored nearby. Florida’s commander, Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, assumed safety under international law since Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the conflict. The U.S. consul offered peaceful assurances to Brazilian officials, but Collins and his Wachusett crew watched Florida closely.
Through the U.S. consul, Collins sent an invitation to Morris to duel outside the three-mile international limit. Morris declined to even receive the message because it had been addressed to “the sloop Florida,” without acknowledging that she belonged to a Confederate nation. Both Collins and Morris pledged not to fight in the neutral area, with Collins removing the shot from his cannon in accordance with international law.
Morris and many of his crew came ashore on the night of the 6th to attend an opera and sleep in a hotel. In the darkness before dawn, Collins quietly slipped his cables, quietly backed up, eluded a Brazilian gunboat, then thrust full speed ahead and rammed Florida. The skeleton crew aboard Florida began firing small arms at Wachusett, prompting Collins to claim that Florida had “fired first.”
Though just a glancing blow, the collision crushed Florida’s starboard bulwarks and snapped the mizzenmast. Collins trained his cannon on the disabled ship and demanded surrender, then he ordered his men to board Florida and seize the crew. Wachusett pulled Florida out of the harbor, bound for Hampton Roads, Virginia. Lieutenant Morris arrived from his hotel to see his ship towed away.
Brazilian and European officials vehemently protested this violation of international law, as Florida’s seizure took place in a neutral port. Diplomatic tensions simmered through this month and into November.
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