One-hundred-and-fifty years ago this week, the former CSS Florida, a cruiser less than three years old yet a shell of the dreaded rebel commerce raider it had been, arrived in Hampton Roads shadowed by its captor, the sloop of war USS Wachusett.
After leading the successful capture of Florida in the “neutral” port of Bahia, Brazil and successfully delivering her as a prize back to the United States, one would think Wachusett’s commanding officer Napoleon Collins might have been in a celebratory mood over his achievement. The U.S. Navy’s official records show, however, that he was a man with an axe to grind. Mistakes made during the sneak attack on the commerce raider followed by accusations and recriminations made along the 1,400 mile journey to Hampton Roads brought Commander Collins and a principal officer under his command to the point that each threatened to fire upon the other before reaching home waters.
According to Collins’ account, the trouble started before the journey even began.
In a report to Washington dated October 31, 1864, detailing the seizure, Collins mentioned two problems he encountered during the pre-dawn attack on October 7. The first was an “unforeseen circumstance that prevented us from striking [Florida] as intended.” The Union sloop of war dragged its anchor across the harbor as it made for the slumbering rebel raider. Collins had intended to stealthily cast away the anchor chain, slip her moorings and strike a decisive blow. He wrote later, “…it was my intention to strike her full speed amidships, without firing a shot of any kind or a loud work being spoken, and if we succeeded in sinking her to back off and go quietly to sea.”
Dragging her anchor along, however, Wachusett could only manage a glancing blow at less-than-optimal speed, taking down Florida’s mizzenmast and main yard, leaving the ship crippled, yet still very much afloat.
With a Brazilian navy corvette nearby preparing to intervene, the entire plan had to be changed.
After the half of Florida’s crew on duty during the attack either surrendered, escaped or were shot in the attempt, Collins ordered a prize crew dispatched to take over the raider. They would have to deal with managing a ship deprived of its aft sails at the very moment they would have to escape the now non-neutral harbor under fire from Brazilian warships and shore batteries and then sail their prize all the way back to America. Collins chose Lieutenant Commander Lester A. Beardslee to lead the prize crew.
There seemed to be no alternative. If Collins broke off the engagement and withdrew at this point, Florida, although damaged, would be retaken by her captain and the members of her crew who had been on liberty and who were no doubt converging on the port in the early dawn, drawn by the sounds of snapping timbers and cannon fire.
This leads us to the second problem mentioned in Collins’ report, which concerned the use of two of Wachusett’s 32-pounder guns to answer the Confederates’ small arms fire. Collins claimed they were fired “contrary to my orders.”
During their first stop en route, Wachusett put into the tiny island of St. Bartholomew for provisions and to transfer 19 of their 70 prisoners over to the Union sloop Kearsarge while Florida remained offshore. Collins later claimed that, despite having given the lieutenant commander strict orders not to let Wachusett out of his sight, Beardslee had by that evening somehow managed to drift over 20 miles from the five-mile-long island. Furious at what he regarded as Beardslee’s disregard of his orders, Collins was overheard by one of the prize crew officers threatening to shell Florida with one of his 100-pounder rifled guns.
The following day, the acting ensign returned and told Beardslee about the claim that he had disobeyed orders and that Collins had contemplated shelling him. In response, Beardslee fired off a letter to the commander denying he had gone further than nine miles and requesting a court of inquiry be convened upon their return to investigate not only the validity of that charge but the conduct of the entire operation. “I feel very confident that a court bringing out all the facts connected with the Florida since the day she arrived in Bahia will find little to censure in my conduct,” he wrote, “unless the capture itself be declared wrong [emphasis added].”
“Should the Wachusett at any time begin firing at this United States steamer,” continued Beardslee, “I should most certainly be led to the belief that the Confederates aboard of[sic] the Wachusett had captured the vessel and that my duty to my country called upon me to destroy her.” He added, ominously, “I shall most certainly return a shell from the Wachusett with both broadsides of this ship, which are in readiness, and if I shall have made a mistake none of us will live to rectify it, as I shall sink this ship, if I can not the Wachusett.”
Perhaps under the assumption that an investigation would indeed be forthcoming, Collins then wrote directly to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles from Hampton Roads two days after their arrival on November 12 requesting Beardslee be court-martialed on eight different counts, including failing to detach the anchor chain from his ship despite assurances it had been done, firing the broadside without permission, sending the “improper letter” to him (which he enclosed), repeating his intention to call for a court of inquiry upon their return, and even “charging me by implication with cowardice.”
Of course a court of inquiry would be convened and a court martial conducted in the months to come, but not because of the nearly fratricidal feud between the two officers.