Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sesquicentennial of a Sinking

A contemporary illustration shows a whaleboat from USS Atlanta (foreground) returning to the ironclad at about daybreak, November 28, 1864, following the unsuccessful effort to save the prize steamer Florida.  Although the broken mizzen mast is shown correctly, the former Confederate commerce raider actually had two funnels, and her jib boom had been lost during a collision on November 19.   
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, anyone gazing over the James River from Newport News Point looking for the recently captured prize cruiser Florida would have seen only its fore and main masts jutting out of the water.  To the men who had spent years scouring the seas looking for the elusive Confederate commerce raiders, there must have been something satisfying about seeing her consigned to the river bottom.  To her former crew who by this time had either arrived back in England from Brazil or were prisoners near Boston, the image of the wreck in the northern press might have appeared tragic.  The northern press, however, treated the sight as both emblematic of the Confederacy’s folly and the Union’s supremacy.  

Symbolism aside, Florida had been a captured enemy warship, and even if international opinion at the time favored her return to the Brazilian port from whence she was taken, she should have remained in place, well-guarded and maintained, as negotiations continued.

By order of Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Florida had been well-guarded, placed 1,200 yards away from the former Confederate ironclad USS Atlanta on November 24, 1864, with the instruction to "always have steam up, make sure deck pumps are working in case of failure of steam."  There was also a signaling plan in place in case things went awry.  But after things did go awry, starting with a sudden increase of water within Florida's engine compartment late on the evening of November 27, she was settling on the bottom of the James by 7:30 the following morning.   

Had the sinking actually been the accidental outcome of a well-intentioned yet insufficient effort?  Or, rather, had things gone exactly according to plan?

Surviving documents from the period show both the former and the latter.  

Let’s look at the first one.  Within the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Acting Master Jonathan Baker, who had been put in charge of Florida on November 18, described the circumstances of the sinking in an initial report to Rear Adm. Porter: 

This morning at 1:30 the engineer in charge reported that he could not keep her clear; that the water was gaining constantly.  I called all hands and rigged the deck pumps and commenced bailing, and signalized to the U.S.S. Atlanta for assistance.  Her commander with two boats came to me, and did all in his power to keep her afloat, but in spite of all our efforts the water kept gaining on us, till, finding that our utmost endeavors were unraveling, I gave orders that all the property belonging to the crew should be put into the boats and sent to the Atlanta.
At 7:15 I got a tugboat alongside for the purpose of towing her into shoal water, but she was settling so rapidly that I considered it dangerous to make fast, and at 7:30 she went down in 9 fathoms water.

The papers of John N. Maffitt, who had captained CSS Florida through her first and most successful cruise, offer an alternative explanation for the sinking; one that does not appear on any official government record, investigative document or piece of diplomatic correspondence.  But if true, the account of what really happened, supposedly given to Maffitt after the Civil War by none other than Porter himself, stands as a fascinating example of the deficiencies official records pose to those seeking the truth.

Maffitt wrote:

Admiral Porter placed an engineer in charge of the stolen steamer, his imperative instructions being, “Before midnight open the sea cock, and do not leave that engine-room until the water is up to your chin.  At sunrise that rebel craft must be a thing of the past, resting on the bottom of the sea.”

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