The Commerce Raider CSS Florida

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John Newland Maffitt, the commanding officer of CSS Florida.

On February 12, 1863, Florida intercepted the giant clipper ship Jacob Bell.

In 1862 Stephen Mallory had already moved to acquire more, bigger, and better-armed ships for commerce raiding. To orchestrate this effort, he relied on a Georgia-born, 38-year-old former U.S. naval officer named James Dunwoody Bulloch, who among other claims to fame was the uncle of the then four-year-old future president Theodore Roosevelt. Despite his relative youth, Bulloch had a receding hairline for which he compensated by sporting spectacular mutton chop whiskers. He was an active and vigorous man whose first choice of duty was command at sea, but when he reported to Richmond, Mallory declared at once that he wanted him to go to England. Bulloch did not hesitate; he announced that he was ready to leave as soon as Mallory told him what he was to do there. Taking passage on a steamer from Montreal, Bulloch arrived in Liverpool in June of 1861, the same week the Sumter was commissioned in New Orleans.

To fulfill his mission of obtaining warships specially designed for commerce raiding, Bulloch had to walk a fine line, for building warships in a neutral country was a violation not only of Britain’s proclamation of neutrality, but also of its Foreign Enlistment Act, which set very specific limits on what British subjects could do in dealing with foreign governments. Bulloch was aided greatly in his eff ort by Charles K. Priolieu, the managing partner of Fraser, Trenholm, and Company in Liverpool, the same company that played a key role in blockade running. A South Carolina native, Priolieu personally guaranteed Bulloch’s letter of credit, effectively bankrolling the effort. Because of that, the first ship built expressly for Confederate commerce raiding was under construction at the Liverpool shipyard of William C. Miller and Son even before Bulloch received any funds from Richmond to pay for it.

After the war, Bulloch insisted that “the contract was made with me as a private person, nothing whatsoever being said about the ultimate destination of the ship, or the object for which she was intended.” But the true purpose of the ship was an open secret. It was constructed from a set of plans that Miller & Sons had on the shelf for a Royal Navy gunboat, and even Bulloch acknowledged that the builders had to have guessed the ship’s real owner and intended use, but with a wink and a nudge, they kept quiet about it and participated in the hoax by calling the vessel the Oreto and putting it out that it was being built for the Italian government, though the Italian Minister denied any knowledge of it. Despite that, Union officials—the U.S. Minister, Charles Francis Adams, and the American consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley—met only frustration in their efforts to convince the British government to step in and halt the project. Bulloch’s solicitors argued that “the mere building of a ship within her Majesty’s dominions” was not, by itself, a violation of British law, and that “the offence is not the building but the equipping.” In effect, so long as the ship in question did not have guns on board, it could not be classified as a warship. Though the sides of the Oreto were pierced for 16 guns and it had platforms fore and aft for pivot guns, because it had no actual guns on board, British officials overlooked its obvious purpose and left it unmolested.

The Oreto was a bark-rigged wooden-hulled steam ship. (Bulloch could have ordered an iron-hulled ship, but he wanted a vessel that did not require a major shipyard to make repairs.) Though it had two 300-horsepower engines, it also carried an oversize suite of sails and a retractable brass propeller that allowed it to sail more efficiently. These characteristics were essential for a ship that would have no home base of operations. Dependent in part on supply ships that would meet it at predetermined locations, the Oreto would necessarily have to conserve its fuel and rely mostly on sail power to move from place to place. As Bulloch said, “A vessel without good sailing qualities . . . would have been practically useless to a Confederate cruiser.” The Oreto was ready for sea by early January 1862, the same month that the Sumter dropped anchor in Cadiz, though it remained in port until March when Bulloch returned from a blockade running trip to Savannah. Unwilling to wait for the arrival of a prospective captain, Bulloch ordered the Oreto to sea on March 22 under the command of a British captain and with a British crew.

A month later, the Oreto arrived at Nassau. There it met a cargo vessel carrying its guns and ammunition, and a week later, Confederate navy lieutenant John N. Maffitt arrived at Nassau on a blockade runner. At an isolated key in the Bahamas, Maffitt took formal command, changing the ship’s name from Oreto to CSS Florida, in honor of Mallory’s home state. Maffitt had hoped that most of the Oreto’s English crewmen would agree to sign on with the Confederate navy, but only 13 of them did so. This was a serious setback because the Oreto —renamed the Florida —required a crew of 140. Working long hours in the August heat, the ship’s tiny crew struggled mightily to transfer the heavy guns brought out from Nassau onto the Florida, but even though it was armed, the Florida still could not fight, or even raid Union commerce, without a crew. Worse, yellow fever soon broke out on board, and it was evident that Maffitt would have to find a friendly port where he could lay up, recruit a crew, and allow his ill sailors to recover. Maffitt first put in at Cardenas, Cuba, but concerned that Federal warships might attack him at that semi-remote port, sailed for Havana where he thought Spanish officials were more likely to interpret the neutrality laws in his favor. Unable to obtain a crew there, Maffitt determined to take his ship into the nearest Confederate port, which was Mobile, Alabama.

At five in the afternoon on September 4, 1862, U.S. Navy Commander George Preble, the senior officer on the blockading squadron off Mobile, spotted a strange sail approaching from the southeast. It was flying the British Union Jack, but that meant little since flying false colors was a common ruse de guerre. It seemed unlikely that this was a blockade runner since it was still broad daylight and this vessel was making no eff ort to disguise its approach. Moreover, it had the appearance of a warship rather than a merchantman. When it failed to respond to his signals, Preble closed on it in his flagship, Oneida, and hailed its deck. He got no reply, and the ship continued to steam on passively toward the entrance to the bay. Preble next fired a warning shot across its bow, but this did not elicit a response either. Concerned that it might be a Royal Navy warship, and unwilling to provoke an international incident, Preble fired two more warning shots before he finally fired for effect, his shells smashing into the hull and rigging of the vessel. That, at least, provoked a response from the still-unidentified vessel as the British flag fluttered down. But the ship neither stopped nor fired back; it simply continued on toward the entrance to Mobile Bay.

On board the Florida, Maffitt could not fire back, not only because he lacked enough men to steam and fight at the same time, but also because he did not have any rammers or spongers on board. He therefore simply held his course and hoped that he could make it safely into Mobile Bay before he was sunk by Union warships. The Florida’s rigging was badly cut up, and at least two 11-inch shells hulled it. One “passed clean through her just above the waterline,” and another came to rest in the captain’s cabin, but did not explode. Once the Florida reached the protection of Fort Morgan on the eastern headland at the entrance to Mobile Bay, the Union ships hauled off. Preble was forced to report to the squadron commander, David G. Farragut, that the quarry “by his superior speed and unparalleled audacity managed to escape.”

Farragut replied that he was “much pained” to hear that a rebel warship had run into Mobile right through the Union blockade in broad daylight, but “incensed” would have been more accurate. He reported the incident to Secretary Welles, bemoaning Preble’s failure to fire into the warship at once when it first failed to respond to his hail. Welles took the complaint to Lincoln, whose normal patience had been strained recently by his dealings with George McClellan, and who decided to make an example of Preble. By order of the president, Preble’s name was struck from the rolls of the navy and he was banished from the service. Even Farragut was shocked by this draconian punishment, and he responded that while Preble no doubt “deserved some censure,” his hesitation to fire into a ship that he believed might be a British warship was perhaps understandable. Others in the navy were shocked as well. Preble bore one of the most honored names in the service; his grandfather, Edward Preble, had been the hero of the Barbary Wars back in the first decade of the century and the role model for a whole generation of officers. Moreover, George Preble’s service had been exemplary to that point. Even Gideon Welles suggested that Preble’s case deserved a second look. In response to this reaction, Lincoln restored Preble to his former rank five months later in February 1863.

By then, the Florida was back at sea, running out through the blockade in the dark of a rainy night as easily as it had run in. With a full crew and all the necessary equipment, it began a campaign of maritime destruction. Mallory’s orders were open ended, instructing Maffitt to do Union trade “the greatest injury in the shortest time,” which Maffitt proceeded to do. He took his first prize on January 19, 1863, when he stopped a sailing brig off the coast of Cuba by firing a shot across its bow. The brig turned out to be the Estelle of New York bound from the West Indies to Boston with a cargo of sugar. Maffitt took its officers and crew—eight men—on board, and set it afire. The next day, Maffitt put into Havana to recoal. He received a warmer welcome from Spanish authorities there than Semmes had at Cadiz. In general, the further a port was from the political pressure of European capitals, the more welcoming the representatives of European governments were to Confederate visitors. Consequently, Maffitt was “enthusiastically welcomed” in Havana, though he was less pleased after putting back to sea the next day when he found that the coal he had purchased there was “worthless” and had to be thrown overboard.

That same afternoon, the Florida took two more prizes: a Maine-built brig with another cargo of sugar, and a Philadelphia brig with a mixed cargo bound for Cardenas, Cuba. Maffitt burned them both, though he was embarrassed when the latter vessel, still afire, drifted into the harbor at Cardenas, which may have moderated the enthusiasm of his welcome when he put in there soon afterward. After a week of fruitless cruising, Maffitt took the Florida into the British port of Nassau in the Bahamas. Once again he received an enthusiastic welcome from a putatively neutral power, and though the coal he purchased there proved to be of good quality, he was chagrinned when 26 of the Florida’s crew deserted. Tasting sour grapes, Maffitt noted in his journal that only two of those sailors were of much service anyway, and he managed to recruit six new crewmen before leaving.

The Florida had its way with every merchantman it encountered, but on February 1, the lookout espied an armed side-wheel steamer that Maffitt pegged as a Yankee warship. Though the Florida was heavily armed—more heavily armed than most Union warships—Maffitt’s mission was not to fight, but to pillage. He therefore turned away from this stranger, which began at once to pursue him. For most of two days the vessels raced across the ocean, the Florida at first seeming to have the faster turn of speed, then losing ground as the stranger came up to within three miles. Finally with all sails set, and the engines working at full capacity, the Florida pulled away and left the Yankee warship over the horizon. This episode underscored the dual role of Confederate commerce raiders as both hunters and hunted.

On February 12, the Florida encountered the clipper ship Jacob Bell returning to New York from China with a cargo of 1,380 boxes of tea and 10,000 boxes of firecrackers, together valued at more than two million dollars. Here was a prize worth keeping. The Jacob Bell also carried 41 passengers, including two ladies. Instead of burning it, therefore, Maffitt put a prize crew on board and ordered it to keep in company. That proved difficult, however, and the two ships became separated in the night. Moreover, having the Jacob Bell in company inhibited the Florida’s freedom of movement. Maffitt reluctantly decided that he would have to burn the ship after all. He brought the passengers on board the Florida, and set fire to the Jacob Bell . There is no notation in Maffitt’s journal about the resulting spectacle of setting fire to a ship laden with 10,000 boxes of firecrackers.

Over the next seven months, the Florida caught and burned 18 more ships before steaming into the harbor at Brest, France, for a refit. It stayed there for six months. Among other things, the propeller shaft was so out of line that the resulting vibration threatened to shake the ship to pieces. Maffitt, too, was out of sorts, and after making his way overland from Brest to Paris to report his arrival to the Confederate Minister, John Slidell, he declared himself too ill to continue in command. Lieutenant Commanding Charles M. Morris relieved him in January 1864.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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