One-hundred-fifty years ago this week, Confederate States Navy Lieutenant Thomas K. Porter, the man who had surrendered CSS Florida after a pre-dawn raid a month and a half earlier, beheld her sorry state on the James River while he was being transferred to Boston as a prisoner of war. “She had lost her jibboom[sic] by a steam tug running into her,” Lt. Porter reported after his release to his erstwhile commanding officer, Charles M. Morris.
On November 19, 1864, the Army troop transport Alliance, according to one witness, “thumped the Florida pretty hard, two or three times. She swung around for and aft and did the Florida considerable damage,” while getting underway.Five days after the collision, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the US Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, ordered Florida be taken about 1,500 yards further up the James and put beside another former Confederate warship, the ironclad USS Atlanta. Until then, the prize steamer had been anchored above the remains of USS Cumberland, famously sunk by CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads more than two-and-a-half years earlier.
Union officers made it clear to the Confederate lieutenant that he would in all likelihood never see Florida again.
Lt. Porter wrote, “A Lieutenant-Commander told me that if the United States Government determined to give her up, the officers of the navy would destroy her.”
Back in Brazil, United States Minister J. Watson Webb had known of the plan to attack CSS Florida. After all, he had told USS Wachusett’s commander Napoleon Collins, among other Union captains on the hunt for “rebel cruisers,” that they were to attack or “run down” any they found in Brazilian ports. Webb claimed that he “would make it all right with Brazil,” believing he had reached an understanding with their minister of foreign affairs. Webb had also written to Secretary of State William H. Seward in May 1863 that, “…if we should sink these Pirates in Brazilian waters, the government of Brazil would secretly rejoice over the act, and be content with a handsome apology.”
But taking the raider back to America as a prize? That had not been part of the plan and the operation exposed senior US officials to charges of hypocrisy that were hard to refute. In the end, the American Secretary of State merely claimed the operation had not been authorized to begin with, and that the blame for the Florida imbroglio rested with those responsible for carrying out the operation.
In his protest against the Florida seizure, the Brazilian charge d’affaires to the United States in Washington cited as a precedent the American government’s demands that the French release HMS Grange after the frigate L’Embuscade seized her in Delaware Bay in 1793. The CSS Florida case was more egregious however because of assurances made by the United States Consul in Bahia, Thomas F. Wilson, that Brazilian neutrality would be respected, only to have the diplomat board the offending warship just before the attack and sail away with the prize.
Seward, while claiming the Florida was, “…like the Alabama, a pirate belonging to no nation or lawful belligerent,” yielded to the Brazilians that “…the capture of the Florida was [an] unauthorized, unlawful, and indefensible exercise of the naval force of the United States within a foreign country in defiance of its established and duly recognized government.” As a consequence, Seward announced that Consul Wilson, the man most responsible for persuading Napoleon Collins that he should make the attack, would be dismissed, and that “[President Lincoln] will suspend Captain Collins, and will direct him to appear before a court-martial.”
As for acceding to demands to return the Confederate vessel to Brazil, her first commander John N. Maffitt wrote the following account of the conundrum after conducting a personal fact-finding mission years after the war:
Mr. Lincoln appeared exceedingly mortified and confused on receiving protests from the different representatives of the Courts of Europe denunciatory of this extraordinary breach of national neutrality. Mr. Seward, with his usual diplomatic insincerity and Machiavellian characteristics, prevaricated, while he plotted with a distinguished Admiral as to the most adroit method of disposing of this elephant. During an interview between Mr. Seward and Admiral Porter, the former exclaimed, “I wish she was at the bottom of the sea”
“Do you mean it?” exclaimed Porter.
“I do, from my soul!” was the answer.
“It shall be done” replied Porter.
Next week: A Sinking, an Investigation, and a Trial