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The Florida and her Commander

The Illustrated London News, vol. 43, no. 1221, p. 274.

September 12, 1863


"J. L.," writing from Brest, Aug. 31, furnishes the Times with some interesting details respecting the Florida and her commander. After speaking of the excitement and lively gossip which her presence has created, "J.L." says:--

To-day the weather was most propitious, and early morning found us alongside the Florida. We sent our cards to Captain Maffitt, and were immediately admitted on board, the Captain himself coming to the top of the companion to receive us. Directly Captain Maffitt understood that we were British subjects he invited us below into his little cabin, and when I told him that there were many people in England who regarded his career with great interest he entered very freely into a recital of his adventures. I will here subjoin a copy of some notes which Captain Maffit subsequently handed to me relative to the career of the Florida, promising, at the same time, a continuation, which has not yet arrived. They are as follow:--

"The Confederate States' steamer Florida, Commander J. N. Maffitt--This steamer was built in Liverpool and sent to Nassau in April, 1862; was put in the Admiralty Court; cleared on the 6th of August, when her present commander took charge, with some eighteen men, went to sea, met her tender, and received guns, &c. On the 16th of August the yellow fever appeared on board, and Captain Maffitt had to perform surgeon's duty until necessity forced the vessel into Carducas. There she lost nearly all her crew, her paymaster, and third engineer. She ran the blockade off Havannah in and out, and on the 4th of September appeared off Mobile. The entire blockading fleet put after her. Captain Maffitt was brought up from a bed of sickness (yellow fever) to take her in. For two hours and forty-eight minutes she was under a close fire. All the crew were sent below, and the officers only remained on deck, for she had but eleven men on duty, and her guns were not furnished with rammers, quoins, beds, or sights; in fact, she was almost helpless. Three heavy shots struck her hull. One shell struck her amidships, and passed through, killing one man and wounding seven. Her standing rigging was shot away, and some 1500 shrapnel-shot struck her hull and masts."

Of the Captain himself, I may say that he is a slight, middle-sized, well-knit man, of about forty-two; a merry-looking man, with a ready, determined, and full of life and business; apparently the sort of man who is equally ready for a fight or a jollification, and whose preference for the latter would by no means interfere with his creditable conduct of the former.

His plainly furnished little state-room looked as business-like as a merchant's office. The round table in the centre was strewn with books and innumerable manuscripts, and on the shelves were formidable-looking rows of account books, charts, &c. I may observe of the cabin, as of every part of the Florida, that none of it appears to have been built for ornament--all for use. "You see," said the Captain, pointing to the heaps of papers, letters on files, account books, &c., which literally littered the table--"you see I have no sinecure of it. Since my paymaster died I've had to be my own paymaster. There's a young man named Davis--no relation to our President--who does paymaster's duty, but he is not quite up to the work." Captain Maffitt forthwith began an animated recital of his career and adventures. He is the oldest officer on board. All the officers were born in the Confederate States, and most of them were officers in the United States' navy before the outbreak of the war. The oldest of the officers is not more than twenty-three. The men are more mixed. There are one hundred able seamen on board the Florida and about thirteen officers. Four fine fellows are from the neighbourhood of Brest. Captain Maffitt says that he has hardly ever taken a prize but what some of the crew of the prize have come forward to say, "Should like to serve with you, Sir." Generally speaking, he has to refuse; but if he sees a very likely fellow he takes him on.

Captain Maffitt was a Lieutenant of the United States' navy before the outbreak, and in that capacity distinguished himself greatly. In 1858 he commanded the brig Dolphin, when he captured the slaver Echo, with 400 slaves on board, and took her into Charleston. For this feat his health was drunk at a public dinner at Liverpool; and it is a curious fact for those who maintain that the civil war in America is founded upon the slave question that the commander of this important Confederate cruiser should be the very man who has distinguished himself actively against the slave trade. In 1859 Captain Maffitt commanded the United States' steamer Crusader, and captured four slavers. The Captain had a great deal to say about his successful feat at Mobile. In his opinion it has been the greatest naval feat of modern times. He dwelt long and warmly upon the incidents of the affair, and pointed proudly to the marks of shrapnel, which are numerous enough, upon the masts and smoke-stacks. The Florida was struck with three heavy shots on that occasion, and one can easily perceive in the side of the ship where the mischief caused by the 11-inch shell has been repaired. The Florida made no endeavour to reply to the fire which she received, the sea running too high to admit of steady aim, and her small crew being too much occupied in the management of the ship. The Captain showed us a watercolour sketch (very well drawn, by one of the midshipmen) of the Florida running the blockade. It would not have disgraced a professional artist.

The only broadside which the Florida has fired in anger was against the Ericsson, an armed merchantman, which she encountered some forty miles from New York. The Ericsson, a very large vessel, did not reply, but made the best of her way off, and succeeded in escaping. When they ventured within forty miles of New York they did not know that the arrival of the Tacony (one of their "outfits") had put the New Yorkers on their guard, and they soon found that there were about seventy armed vessels out searching for them, and so were glad to retreat. "We never seek a fight, said Captain Maffitt, and we don't avoid one. You see, we've only two vessels against 1500, so we should stand a poor chance. Our object is merely to destroy their commerce, so as to bring about a peace. We've taken altogether seventy-two prizes, and estimate the value at about 15,000,000 dols. The Jacob Bell alone was worth 2,100,000 dols." The Captain exhibited a book, in which all the prizes were regularly entered and all particulars relating thereto. He explained that their mode of procedure was to burn and destroy the property of the Northern States wherever they found it. I asked if they took gold and precious articles, and the reply was "Pretty quick, when we get them." The papers of the burnt prizes are all kept, and a valuation is made before the destruction of the vessel, in the expectation that, when peace is restored, the Confederate Government will make an appropriation of money equivalent to the claims of the captors. In consequence of this arrangement there is very little actual treasure on board the Florida, and the officers and crew are working mainly on the faith of the future independence and solvency of the Confederacy. "Any way," said Captain Maffitt, "we have cost the Government very little, for we've lived on the enemy. Oh, yes; we've served them out beautifully." In reply to some questions as to the method of capture, the Captain said, "We only make war with the United States' Government, and we respect little property. We treat prisoners of war with the greatest respect. Most of those whom we have captured have spoken well of us. To be sure we have met with some ungrateful rascals; but you meet with those all the world over. The last prize we took was the Anglo-Saxon, which we took in the English Channel the other day, in mid-channel, about sixty miles from Cork. She had coal on board, and we burnt her. The pilot was a saucy fellow, and maintained that he was on his piloting-ground. He insisted on being landed in an English port, but we could not do that. I brought him and twenty-four men here (to Brest) and sent them to the English Consul. If the pilot has any just claim upon us it will be settled by the Confederate Government. That's not my business. My business is to take care of the ship."

When the Florida came into Brest she had been at sea for eight months, without spending more than four entire days in port. Before entering the port of Brest she had not been more than twenty-four hours in any one port, although she had visited Nassau, Bermuda, Pernambuco, and Sierra (Brazil). "Yes, indeed, Sir!" said the Captain, "245 days upon solid junk, without repairs or provision." During all this time [t]hey have only lost fifteen men, including those who were killed and wounded at Mobile, the paymaster (who died of consumption), and one officer (who was accidentally drowned). They have come into Brest to repair the engines, which are somewhat out of order, the shaft being quite out of line. The Florida mounts only eight guns--six 48-pounders of the Blakeley pattern, made at Low Moor, and stern and bow chasers.

On taking our leave I asked whether he expected to be intercepted on leaving Brest, pointing at the same time to the Goulet, the narrow passage which affords the only ingress and egress to and from the Rade. "Well" replied he, "I expect there will be seven or eight of them out there before long; but I am not afraid. I have run eight blockades already, and it will go hard but I will run the ninth."

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