Wednesday, December 31, 2014

CSS Florida: Symbol and Substance

The front page of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of December 24, 1864, currently displayed in the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, shows the defeat of an antiquated, moribund Confederacy symbolized by the submerged Florida, under the guns of the modern Union Navy in the form of a Passaic-class ironclad, possibly USS Sangamon.  In reality, the Confederate commerce raider and the Union ironclad were both launched in 1862.  
At the close of 1864, two different messages were being broadcast to two different audiences concerning the sinking of the captured Confederate commerce raider Florida.  The image shown by the Northern press to its domestic readership was one of triumph. 

The accompanying story above the illustration did not refer directly to the Florida, its capture from Brazil in October or its sinking near Newport News Point the following month.  It was an editorial on Abraham Lincoln's state of the union address, made on December 6.  It read in part, "There is something almost marvelous in the positive proofs thus furnished that the great loyal section of the Union, in the fourth year of this stupendous civil war, is vastly more powerful in men, materials, resources, all the elements of strength, wealth and prosperity, than at the beginning of the struggle."  The vanquished rebel steamer and victorious Union ironclad merely served as a useful illustration of the state of affairs between the Union and the Confederacy during what would prove to be the latter's final winter.

Within his state of the union address to Congress, Lincoln himself made mention of the international backdrop to the Florida affair; the contentious relations between the US government and those nations granting the status of belligerents to Confederate vessels, diplomats and agents: 

It is possible that if it were new and open question the maritime powers, with the lights they now enjoy, would not concede the privileges of a naval belligerent to the insurgents of the United States, destitute, as they are, and always have been, equally of ships of war and of ports and harbors. Disloyal emissaries have been neither less assiduous nor more successful during the last year than they were before that time in their efforts under favor of that privilege, to embroil our country in foreign wars. The desire and determination of the governments of the maritime states to defeat that design are believed to be as sincere as and can not be more earnest than our own. Nevertheless, unforeseen political difficulties have arisen, especially in Brazilian and British ports and on the northern boundary of the United States, which have required, and are likely to continue to require, the practice of constant vigilance and a just and conciliatory spirit on the part of the United States, as well as of the nations concerned and their governments.
William H. Seward (Wikimedia Commons) 

As with such speeches made today, the state of the union address is an important way for the chief executive to communicate policies and intentions to foreign powers.  A way to send a more direct message, of course, is through the Secretary of State.  A message sent on December 26 from William H. Seward to the Brazilian charge d' affaires in Washington reflected the uncompromising stance Lincoln's cabinet took towards the Confederacy.  In response to an official protest made on December 12 against the US government over Florida's seizure by USS Wachusett from the port of Bahia, Seward replied:

This Government disallows your assumption that the insurgents of this country are a lawful naval belligerent, maintains that the imputation of that character by the Government of Brazil to insurgent citizens of the United States who have been hitherto been, and who still are, destitute of naval forces, ports, and courts is an act of intervention in derogation of the law of nations.... 

So also the Government disallows your assumptions that the Florida belonged to the aforementioned insurgents, and maintains... that the vessel, like the Alabama, was a pirate belonging to no nation or lawful belligerent, and therefore the harboring and supplying of these piratical ships and their crews in Brazilian ports were wrongs and injuries for which Brazil justly owes reparation to the United States as ample as the reparation which she now receives from them.

Seward then declared that, although the Florida's crew were "enemies of the United States, and as they contend, enemies of the human race," they had been unlawfully brought into custody and therefore "could not lawfully be subjected to the punishment which they had deserved."  They would then "be set at liberty to seek a refuge wherever they may find it...."  

"The Florida was brought into American waters and was anchored under naval surveillance and protection at Hampton Roads," Seward continued.  "While awaiting the representation of the Brazilian government, on the 28th of November she sunk, owing to a leak which could not be seasonably stopped."  Seward announced that a naval court of inquiry had submitted its report, concluding that " is assumed that the loss of the Florida was a consequence of some unforeseen accident which casts no responsibility upon the United States."   

Because CSS Florida and the men who sailed upon her were considered the unlawful combatants of their day by the United States Government, the laws of warfare, such as there were, did not apply to them.   The demands of the Brazilian government that the United States government abide by international laws and treaties by returning the steamer were met by the insistence that Brazil was abrogating those same laws and treaties by recognizing Florida as a lawful combatant in the first place.

Seen in this light, Seward's alleged suggestion to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter that Florida be surreptitiously sunk is perfectly plausible.  And if this was the real reason for her demise, it would be far from the first or last time international laws and conventions were skirted, bent or broken in the interest of defeating an enemy perceived as illegitimate.  

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