Sunday, January 13, 2013

CSS Florida Escapes Out of Mobile Bay

CSS Florida during the height of her career. Image source: US Navy History and Heritage Command

After being partially outfitted in the Bahamas, the Confederate raider CSS Florida (a.k.a., “Oreto”) made a bold and audacious dash into Mobile Bay in September 1862 (post by Gordon in Sept. 2012). A large portion of the crew, including commander John Newland Maffitt, were stricken with yellow fever. Maffitt was so weak from the sickness he had to be lashed up to keep upright to direct the ship. After receiving a hero’s welcome in Mobile Bay, a two-week quarantine period had to be enforced before the ship could sail up to the docks at Mobile for repair and refitting. During this time in Mobile, Maffitt recruited additional officers, engineers, and crewmen to give his vessel a full complement.

By January 1863, Florida was ready to begin her predatory career. Seven USN gunboats patrolled the mouth of Mobile Bay (USS Susquehanna, Oneida, R. R. Cuyler, Pembina, Aroostook, Kennebec, and Pinola). Early on the morning of 16 January, Maffitt made his move. Under cover of heavy mists (but with strong winds blowing), he slipped by five blockaders (literally duplicating his trip into the Bay, when he evaded two out of 3 gunboats) before he was sighted. The officer commanding the Union blockaders, Commodore R. B Hitchcock, issued specific orders regarding signals to be used if the raider was sighted, and which ships should give chase, but the various ship captains’ reports in the ORN suggest that some confusion reigned as the Florida ran through the blockading vessels (some were not even sure it was the Florida making a run for it).

Maffitt ordered all sail set, and Florida made 14 knots in the gale-force winds under a full spread of canvas and her engines at full speed ahead. The blockader USS Cuyler pursued Florida all that day. During this chase, Florida also slipped by several other outside blockade vessels, one believed to be the sloop USS Brooklyn (close enough that a broadside from the Union ship could have blown Florida out of the water), along with “a large armed ship” and a “fast gunboat”. Maffitt believed he was mistaken by these for one of their own gunboats. The chase continued into the evening. Realizing that his new, white sails showed up well in the dark, giving the pursuing gunboat an easy target to track, the wily officer in grey ordered all sails in and stopped engines. The ship drifted off with the wind and heavy seas in the dark and became “invisible” to the pursuing Cuyler, who continued after what they thought was the raider. After confirming that he eluded his pursuer, Maffitt headed south. The morning of 17 January dawned sunny and clear. Lookouts in the tops reported “Nothing in sight but sky and water.” The Florida had once again slipped the blockade and embarrassed the US Navy.

The “Official Records” of the Navies are an immense treasure trove of facts and information on actions of the Union and Confederate navies during the CW. That said, they can be pretty dry and not exactly compelling reading. However, if you look carefully, occasionally a real gem pops up: in one of his reports to Commodore Hitchcock after the “Florida incident,” Cdr. George F. Emmons of the Cuyler noted laconically “From fancying myself near promotion in the morning, I gradually dwindled down to a court of enquiry at dark, when I lost sight of the enemy.” How much better can it be said??

Many thanks to Gordon for providing a link to “The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt” on Googlebooks. Published by Maffit's widow, it includes extensive excerpts from his letters, reports, and diary from throughout his career, and was a wealth of information for this post.

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