Tag Archives: C.S.S. Florida

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Florida

November 28, 1864 – The famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida, which had been captured under dubious circumstances in October, suspiciously sank before she could be returned.

C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Commander Napoleon Collins of the U.S.S. Wachusett had captured the Florida while she was docked in a Brazilian port. Brazilian authorities protested that such an action violated international law because Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the war. However, Collins argued that Brazil had allowed the Florida to bring prizes of war to Brazilian ports, making her fair game for capture. Collins and his crew towed the Confederate vessel back to America.

Collins arrived to a hero’s welcome at Norfolk on the 12th. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward was outraged by Collins’s violation of Brazil’s neutrality and demanded that he return the Florida to Brazilian authorities.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, docked the Florida at Hampton Roads, where she awaited her return to Brazil. During this time, an army transport crashed into the Florida and sank her.

An international court most likely would have ruled that the U.S. had wrongly seized the Florida in the first place and demanded her return. Therefore, some alleged that this was an intentional act to prevent the Florida from being returned.

Collins was court-martialed for seizing the Florida and dismissed from the navy. He defended his actions by saying, “I respectfully request that it may be entered on the records of the court as my defense that the capture of the Florida was for the public good.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles eventually reinstated him.

The U.S. government agreed to apologize to Brazil, and in July 1866, the crew of the U.S.S. Nipsic fired a 21-gun salute as an amende honorable in Bahia Harbor, where the Florida had been seized.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 486; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12344-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 263; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

The Capture of the C.S.S. Florida

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.

C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

Florida towed by Wachusett | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 413, 26 Nov 1864

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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Sources
Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 793; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 469-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 12303-353; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 505-07; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 263; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 579-80; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 205-06; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150-51

Birth of the C.S.S. Florida

March 22, 1862 – The steamship Oreto left England, destined to become the menacing Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida.

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Oreto, a twin-bladed screw steamer, had been under construction at Liverpool. U.S. officials expressed suspicions that the ship was being built for the Confederate navy. Those suspicions were supplemented by the fact that Liverpool was largely a pro-Confederate city that a U.S. diplomat claimed had been “made by the slave trade, and the sons of those who acquired fortunes in the traffic, now instinctively side with the rebelling slave-drivers.”

Building or arming warships for belligerent powers such as the Confederacy violated Great Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act. The U.S. consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley, had discovered the ship’s true purpose as a commerce raider before she left port, but Confederate naval agent James D. Bulloch produced forged papers claiming that a Palermo merchant, not the Confederate government, owned the Oreto. The U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, presented Dudley’s evidence that the ship violated British law to the Foreign Office, but it was not acted upon before the Oreto was taken out of port, ostensibly just for a trial run.

Bulloch hosted a group of guests aboard the steamer on March 22. The new ship was commanded by a British captain, bore the British flag, and carried no armaments. After a short cruise in the harbor, all the guests but one were removed to smaller boats and the vessel left Liverpool. The lone remaining guest was John Low of the Confederate navy, and the ship headed for Nassau in the Bahamas to be fitted with four seven-inch guns.

She was later rechristened the C.S.S. Florida, a powerful Confederate commerce raider under Commander John N. Maffitt.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 520-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 145; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 126; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 187; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 546; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 112; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 121