October 7, 1864 – The Federal steam sloop U.S.S. Wachusett captured the famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida under dubious circumstances that threatened diplomatic relations with Brazil.
The Wachusett arrived at Bahia harbor in Brazil on the 2nd to investigate reports that the Florida was nearby. In her career, the 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 the Wachusett, the sister ship of the U.S.S. Kearsarge, and he had been ordered to do to the Florida what the Kearsarge had done to the C.S.S. Alabama four months before: capture or destroy her.
Two nights later, the Florida anchored in All Saints Bay in Bahia, unaware that the Wachusett had anchored nearby. The Florida’s commander, Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, assumed his ship was safe under international law since Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the conflict. The U.S. consul, Thomas Wilson, offered peaceful assurances to Brazilian officials, but Collins believed the Florida had previously violated the neutrality by bringing prizes into Brazilian ports. He therefore resolved to confront the Confederate ship.
Through Wilson, 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 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. Around 3 a.m., Collins quietly slipped his cables, backed up, eluded a Brazilian gunboat, then thrust full speed ahead and rammed the Florida in her starboard quarter. The skeleton crew aboard the Florida began firing small arms at the Wachusett, prompting Collins to claim that the Florida had “fired first.”
Though just a glancing blow, the collision crushed the Florida’s bulwarks and snapped the mizzenmast. Collins trained his cannon on the disabled ship and demanded surrender, then he ordered his men to board the Florida and seize the crew. The Wachusett pulled the Florida out of the harbor, bound for Hampton Roads, Virginia. Lieutenant Morris arrived from his hotel to see his ship being towed away.
Brazilian and European officials vehemently protested this violation of international law, as the Florida’s seizure took place in a neutral port, after U.S. assurances that there would be no incident. Diplomatic tensions simmered through this month and into November.
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