Tuesday, February 26, 2013

CSS Florida Catches the Big One

When CSS Florida successfully made her break from Mobile, she headed towards Havana, where she captured one small vessel in the process.  After refueling in port, Florida headed back out to sea and captured two more vessels before steering east to Nassau, Bahamas.

Upon leaving Nassau, Captain John Maffitt's intentions were to take the war directly to Yankee merchants in New England waters.  This was a risky proposition at best, as the U.S. Navy established routine patrols in the Grand Banks after Alabama's Gulf Stream raids. There was also the risk of steaming right into the heavy traffic areas of Cape Hatteras and the Virginia Capes.  Maffitt understood the only way the southern guerre de course strategy would work was if the northern merchant class saw their property destroyed up close.  

As Florida approached Cape Hatteras, the cruiser encountered a major storm.  Maffitt attempted to tough it out, but eventually ordered a retreat back south towards the West Indies.  His decision paid off in a big way. After fooling what he believed to be the large steam warship USS Vanderbilt, a watch spotted a large sailing vessel on the morning of 12 February.   The cruiser sighted, chased, and overtook the New York-based ship off the coast of Puerto Rico. Owned by Abiel Abbow Low and Brothers, Jacob Bell was one of four well-designed clipper ships Low used to import black tea (and occasionally opium) directly from the Chinese port of Foochoo. 

Maffitt reported that Jacob Bell had over 17,000 cases of tea in her hold, valued at over $1.5 million (1863 dollars). Along with six boxes of coffee, Maffitt kept fifteen cases and had the rest burned.  He forwarded the captured tea and coffee to Richmond aboard the blockade runner Robert E. Lee.  Maffitt expressly requested that the tea and coffee be distributed to soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. There are two excellent account of the captures.  One is from Maffitt's official report.  The other is from Jacob Bell's vantage point in the book, written by the wife of ambassador to China.  She was coming home from China when Florida stopped her ship.  Needless to say, she and Maffitt had words.  However, by the time Maffitt found a neutral ship to off load his "guests," Mrs. Williams and Maffitt left on good terms. 

Artifacts from this capture can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

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