Tag Archives: Commerce Raider

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

Naval Operations Along the Coast and at Sea

July 6, 1861 – C.S.S. Sumter completed her first major raid on Federal shipping, Federals strengthened their blockade and their strategy, and a Federal crew fought back against Confederate privateers off the Atlantic Coast.

C.S.S. Sumter

Capt Raphael Semmes | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Capt Raphael Semmes | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On July 3, C.S.S. Sumter under Captain Raphael Semmes captured her first prize: the 700-ton bark Golden Rocket from Maine, off the coast of Cuba. Sumter brought the vessel to Cienfuegos, Cuba. Three days later, Sumter brought seven more prizes to Cienfuegos in the Confederacy’s first major raid on Federal commercial shipping: Cuba, Machia, Ben Dunning, Albert Adams, Niad, West Wind, and Lewis Kilham.

Semmes informed the Spanish colonial officials at the port that he had brought his prizes there “with the expectation that Spain will extend to cruisers of the Confederate States the same friendly reception that in similar circumstances he would extend to the cruisers of the enemy…” However, the Spanish government later released the captured ships on the grounds that Spain had not recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation.

The Federal Blockade

U.S.S. South Carolina under Commander James Alden began blockading duty off the important port of Galveston, Texas. On July 4, South Carolina seized Confederate blockade-runners Shark, Venus, Ann Ryan, McCanfield, Louisa, and Dart.

At the vital port of Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate privateer Petrel ran the blockade and made it out to sea. North of Charleston, U.S.S. Daylight under Commander Samuel Lockwood began blockading duty off Wilmington, North Carolina, another key port.

As Federals continued working to strengthen their blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens expressed confidence that “in some way or other (the blockade will) be raised, or there will be revolution in Europe… Our cotton is… the tremendous lever by which we can work our destiny.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Navy Blockade Strategy Board recommended to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that the navy purchase old vessels weighing at least 250 tons each, load them with heavy stones, and sink these “stone fleets” to block southern waterways.

The idea was based on Confederates who had sunk four hulks in Charleston’s Main Ship Channel on January 11, after the merchant vessel Star of the West tried provisioning Fort Sumter. The Board justified the plan by reiterating the importance of cutting off Confederate shipping. Welles approved, and 7,500 tons of stone filled 25 whaling vessels, to be manned by specially recruited captains, seamen, and mates.

The Board also proposed dividing the Atlantic Blockading Squadron into a North and South Atlantic Squadron, with the division between North and South Carolina.

Confederate Privateering and Federal Reprisal

As C.S.S. Sumter threatened Federal shipping and the Federal blockade threatened Confederate commerce, Confederate privateers operated along the Atlantic coast. The most prominent vessel was Jefferson Davis, which seized the brig John Welsh and the merchant schooner Enchantress off southern Delaware. The Confederates seized five crewmen and $13,000 worth of cargo. This became a national story due to the Federal government’s strong opposition to Confederate privateering on the high seas.

A little over two weeks later, U.S.S. Albatross captured the newly Confederate-manned Enchantress off Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. Enchantress was brought to North Carolina, and the Confederates were placed in irons and transported to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to face prosecution for piracy.

On July 7, Jefferson Davis moved northward and seized the schooner S.J. Waring some 150 miles off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Confederates transferred Waring’s charts, supplies, and quadrant to Davis, along with Waring Captain Francis Smith, two mates, and two seamen. They left two seamen, a passenger, and a black steward named William Tilghman aboard Waring, along with five unarmed crew members from Davis. Waring’s new Confederate captain ordered the U.S. flag lowered, shredded, and sewn into a Confederate flag. Tilghman vowed revenge for this insult.

His revenge came nine days later, when he overwhelmed the Confederate crew and reclaimedWaring. Late that night, Tilghman took advantage of unwitting Confederate seamen on relief duty by killing the Confederate captain and his first and second mate with an axe as they slept. The seamen quickly surrendered and were spared death by promising to bring Tilghman and his fellow Federals to a northern port.

Waring arrived in New York on the 22nd under Tilghman’s command. He received $6,000 for his efforts to retake the ship, becoming the first black hero of the war.

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Sources

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 54-56, 58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 41-43, 45; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 733; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 90-92, 94-95; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 243; 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. 383; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535, 703; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 146