Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Capture of CSS Florida, October 7, 1864

USS Wachusett rams CSS Florida at daybreak, October 7, 1864 (Century Magazine)
US Navy ships based in Hampton Roads today routinely make port calls around the world, but their journeys in times of war or peace usually begin and end in their home port.  During the Civil War, however, those working aboard Confederate commerce raiders could claim no such luxury; every port in their homeland was sealed off by Union warships.      
The Confederate strategy to attack Union commercial shipping with privateers and commerce raiders, called guerre de course, was often employed by weaker naval powers (including the United States).  But the strategy came with more than its share of vulnerabilities.
The commerce raiders’ dependence upon using the ports of neutral powers for operations not only hobbled their ability to take on essential provisions and make needed repairs, but an adversaries’ disregard of neutrality also made possible the capture of one of the Confederacy’s most important raiders: the cruiser CSS Florida.  Like the famous CSS AlabamaFlorida wreaked havoc on Union shipping over two extended cruises, accounting for 60 of more than the 200 merchant ships lost to raiders during the Civil War.  More than just a naval victory, the ship’s capture 150 years ago is also a controversial example of the American diplomatic corps’ role in armed conflict. 
Built as Oreto in a Liverpool shipyard, Florida would have never seen action if American consular authorities had achieved their aims early on.  After its arrival at Nassau in April of 1862, Samuel Whiting, the United States Consul, immediately recognized Oreto as a possible blockade runner and demanded the ship’s seizure, claiming that it was being armed in a neutral British port, and thus was in violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act.  After the Royal Navy briefly complied with the request, the British governor C.J. Bayley intervened and ordered her release, pointing out that Oreto was registered as a British vessel, flew the British flag, and carried no armament.  Nevertheless, the vessel was seized two more times in Nassau as the British civil and military authorities of the colony struggled amongst themselves as to whether the American diplomats were right about the ship.  Bayley finally decided that a trial by an admiralty court was in order. 
Despite a litany of sworn statements from American officials attesting to the nefarious nature of the ship, the British attorney general in Nassau, G.L. Anderson, stuck to the defense throughout the trial that although Oreto was designed like a warship, it was simply not a warship due to the fact that no weapons were aboard.  It was also a fact that Anderson had been quoted in public that his sentiments were with the Confederacy, but no matter.  His nakedly legalistic defense won the day and Oreto was released on August 7, meeting a British schooner loaded with arms and ammunition two days later near deserted Green Cay north of Nassau.  Ten days after that, with guns loaded and ready for action, Oreto was officially christened Florida and commissioned into the Confederate Navy. 
        
During two eventful cruises capturing 38 enemy vessels, CSS Florida paid call on the ports of officially neutral but friendly ports in Cuba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Portuguese island of Madeira, the French island of Martinique, Spain, and Brazil, and even a lengthy yard period in France, all the while under the vociferous objections of American diplomats, who would simultaneously demand the ship be detained while frantically trying to summon the nearest Union warship.   In almost every case, the US Navy arrived too late.  But after 61 days at sea over the summer of 1864, Florida’s luck ran out in the port of Bahia, Brazil, where it had arrived on October 4 to take on coal and provisions, as well as make some needed repairs to its boilers.  Waiting in the harbor was USS Wachusett, commanded by Napoleon Collins, who dispatched a boat pretending to be from HMS Curlew in order to ascertain the ship’s identity.  He readied the ship for a fight, yet took no immediate action as Florida settled in.
Florida's commanding officer, Confederate Navy Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris, assured the president of the province that he would respect Brazilian neutrality and take no action against the larger Federal ship across the harbor.  In response, the president told Morris that Thomas F. Wilson, the United States Consul at Bahia, had pledged that Wachusett would also respect the port’s neutrality.  This was a pledge Wilson would later deny making.
The plan to attack Florida while in a neutral port did not originate with the US Navy.  It was actually hatched by US Minister to Brazil J. Watson Webb and Consul Wilson, after securing the advance approval of Secretary of State William H. Seward.  Seward had encouraged Ambassador Webb: “If nations shall in violation of our right suffer their ports to become bases for the operations of pirates against us we shall adopt such remedies as the laws of self defense allow.”  For his part, Collins was just as reluctant at first to violate neutrality as his Confederate adversary and said as much during his first meeting with Wilson.
On October 5, the day after Florida’s arrival, Consul Wilson attempted to deliver two letters challenging Florida to fight Wachusett, but the Confederate lieutenant refused to even read them.  With several tubes being removed from the boilers of his cruiser and half his crew on leave, Morris would have none of this Federal pugnaciousness. 
After a second contentious meeting with Collins on the afternoon of the 6th, the Consul finally persuaded him to summon his officers for a vote, and with the exception of one, all decided that attacking the ship outweighed all other considerations.  After having committed his diplomatic office to the destruction or capture of Florida, Consul Wilson elected to stay aboard for the duration of hostilities.
As it happened, the Confederate commander was not aboard Florida when Wachusett approached at full steam on the morning of October 7, ramming the smaller commerce raider on the starboard quarter, cutting down her bulwarks and carrying away her mizzenmast and main yard.  The most the stunned crew of Florida, only half of whom were aboard, could answer with were a few pistols.  None of her larger Parrott Rifles were even loaded.  Collins thought he might have put Florida in a sinking condition and he backed his ship off.  The crews began to exchange small arms fire and Wachusett delivered two broadsides.
At this point Collins demanded Florida’s surrender.  This left the difficult decision to submit or fight in the hands of Confederate Lieutenant T.K. Porter, commanding the ship in Morris’ absence.  After conferring with the other officers present, Porter boarded Wachusett to present his sword and ship’s ensign to Collins.   
     
Collins took his prize in tow and made his way quickly out of the port.  He was hurried along by the Brazilian gunfire from the harbor forts.  The Brazilians missed their mark and Collins escaped.  Brazilian and international outrage was swift and severe.  Consul Wilson wisely escaped with Wachusett, as the citizens of Bahia sacked the American consulate the next day.  No matter, the captured Florida was on her way to Hampton Roads.
Despite the fact that the American diplomats goaded him into capturing Florida, Napoleon Collins was nevertheless court-martialed under pressure from Brazil and sentenced to be dismissed from the service.  In reality, he rejoined the active Navy and ultimately rose to the rank of rear admiral in 1874.