The capture of the CSS Florida – 7 October 1864 

Comment: This is the work of Matt Palmquist, a writer, editor Civil War enthusiast and unabashed Unionist. His CivilWar Humor Twitter account was a great source of amusement and history. I’ve been holding onto this Twitter thread of his for several years. I’m finally publishing it here on the anniversary of the capture of the Confederate raider CSS Florida. It’s a ripping yarn amusingly told. It also points out that Washington DC has been doing what it wants, where it wants long before recent times. Enjoy.

OTD in 1864, one of my favorite episodes in Civil War naval history occurred off the coast of Brazil (what? You thought all the action went down in Northern Virginia?), when the CSS Florida was captured in tricksy, hilarious fashion, and an International Incident(™) ensued. Like many other Rebel ships, the CSS Florida was built in Liverpool, sans guns or a crew so it wasn’t TECHNICALLY a warship. (Cuz as you will see in this thread, 19th-century International Maritime Law was TRULY an ass.) After sailing to the Bahamas, it was outfitted as a raider.

Like German U-boats in WW II, Rebel raiders prowled the seas from South America to Europe, seeking to capture Union merchant vessels. I’ve posted previously about the most famous of these, the Alabama. The Florida wasn’t as renowned, but racked up 37 captures; in 1863, it snared a merchantman carrying $2 million worth of tea. (If I’m onboard that merchantman, I don’t raise the white flag until we’ve recreated The Boston Tea Party; no Reb is gonna get his hands on MY Chamomile.)

Smash-cut to 1864, when the Florida had a couple close scrapes with the Union warships sent to track it down (would this be an exhilarating movie? Yes, yes, it would–but, alas, we don’t make those anymore). Needing repairs and supplies, the Florida docked here: in Bahia, Brazil.

Now, as you might know, Brazil has an, umm, complicated relationship with the U.S. Civil War; when it ended, some 10,000 Rebels fled to Brazil, where slavery was legal. So, yup, there are still staunch neo-Confed Brazilians out there.

Over the protests of U.S. diplomats, the Rebs were granted a two-day stay in the harbor. Because it was a neutral port, the Florida’s captain, Charles Morris, figured he was safe; it also didn’t hurt that the “neutral” Brazilians stationed a gunboat nearby to protect the ship.

But lurking outside the harbor was the USS Wachusett, helmed by one Napoleon Collins. And you know what I say about 1800s guys named Napoleon: They either wilted under the pressure (see: Buford) or went ALL-IN on living up to it. Mr. Collins, thankfully, was one of the latter.

So Collins sent Morris an envoy with an invitation to duel outside the 3-mile international “safe zone” around the harbor. (“Wait a minute, CivilWarHumor, you mean Prideful Victorians even had formal duels USING WARSHIPS?!? And here I thought Aaron Burr was going too far.”) Morris, however, declined to accept Collins’ invitation cuz he didn’t write “C.S.S.” before Florida — in other words, Collins didn’t acknowledge the Confederacy as a legit nation, and Morris used this “slight” as an excuse not to fight. It was all more Miss Manners than Sun-Tzu.

So, figuring he was, uh, free for the night (albeit with an ENEMY SHIP blockading him in a foreign port), Morris made one of the more confounding decisions in Naval Warfare history, one you RARELY see recommended from Greenwich to Annapolis… He went to the opera.

Look, I’m no stranger to a Night at the Opera; I’ll dab away single tears with my perfumed handkerchief at even a PEDESTRIAN rendition of “Nessun dorma.” But I’M NOT A SHIP CAPTAIN DURING THE CIVIL WAR BEING RELENTLESSLY PURSUED BY A STRIKE FORCE. Just IMAGINE the meeting on the quarterdeck:

“Where you off to, cap’n?”

“The Bahia Repertory Theater — they’re doing The Magic Flute. And half the men can come with me.”

“Who’ll guard the ship?”

“The other half.”

“But they’re hungover from LAST night.”

“Then they won’t miss us!”

Napoleon Collins, meanwhile, had come up with a cunning plan. Around 3 a.m. he slipped his ship from its moorings, evaded a Brazilian gunboat, loosed a few salvos, then rammed into the Florida. CUZ WHO NEEDS TO FIRE BROADSIDES WHEN YOU’VE GOT A BIG PROW? The hungover Rebels onboard tried to fire back with pistols & rifles (prompting Collins to report, with a presumably straight face, that Johnny Reb Shot First) but the whole thing was over in minutes; with a shattered mizzenmast, the raider was dead in the water, and surrendered. The Brazilian forts fired a few shots as the Wachusett towed away the Florida, and half-heartedly sent a sloop in pursuit, but soon the faster Union vessel, with its prey, was in open water. By this time a stunned Morris had arrived at the docks; let’s hope he had time to wave.

Morris, outraged, called Collins’ ruse an “infamous, blackguardly trick,” but this is coming from a guy who spent the night peering through OPERA GLASSES instead of a TELESCOPE. The Brazilians were infuriated by the violation of their neutrality; and Europeans also tut-tutted. So the Navy decided it had to court-martial Collins, even though he was hailed in the Northern press. (Indeed, some Southern newspapers, while suggesting the Tricksy Yanks would never pull such a move on bigwigs like ENGLAND or FRANCE, grudgingly admired Collins’ chutzpah.)

Collins’ trial, for the benefit of the Brazilian gov’t, was held the next year; he pled and was found guilty, but insisted he’d done it for the good of the country. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the Navy but (oops!) the pink slip must’ve gotten lost as the war wound down. Cuz by 1866, Collins was promoted to captain (high-five to Gideon Welles). And that’s not QUITE the last twist: The Florida, which would have to be returned to the Rebs if courts deemed its seizure illegal, collided with a transport and sunk — a TOTAL ACCIDENT, I’m sure.

So what did we learn? 

In dire times, don’t go to the Opera. Unless you’re high and it’s Elton John’s “Aida.” Cuz that’s WORTH IT.

If History’s involved, the Brazilian gov’t is on the wrong side.

There’s a long tradition of outsmarting Secesh in this country; let’s embrace it.

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One Response to The capture of the CSS Florida – 7 October 1864 

  1. Fred says:

    His Majesty’s government did a similar violation of neutral waters battle half a century prior when capturing the USS Essex.

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