150 Years Ago: Rebel Raider CSS Florida Taken in Brazilian Port
Historical Event: In an illegal action that nearly sparked a shooting war with Brazil, in the early hours of October 7, 1864 a Union warship opened fire upon and then rammed a Confederate raider in a neutral port. With Capt. Charles Morris and most of his crew ashore, the CSS Florida was defenseless when Commander Napoleon Collins of the USS Wachusett defied international law and attacked the raider.
Collins had chased CSS Florida for many months. He caught up and berthed next to her in the Brazilian port of Bahia on October 4. Although U.S. Consul Thomas F. Wilson assured the president of Bahia Province, Joaquim da Silva Gomes, that the Union would respect his nation's neutrality, the president took no chances; he placed the raider under his personal protection – and that of a squadron of sloops, corvettes and other warships under Commander Gervasio Macebo. The governor granted the CSS Florida time to take on coal and provisions and make emergency repairs, but also demanded her guns be unloaded while in port.
Wilson and Collins had no intention of respecting Brazilian neutrality. Together they planned a “cutting-out” expedition to capture the raider – knowing full well that if the CSS Florida left port the slower Union warship would be unlikely to catch her. Even worse, if the USS Wachusett did, she might lose the fight – as most of her guns were short range smoothbores, while the CSS Florida had a battery of long-range rifles. Those would have enabled Capt. Morris to stand off and pound away at the Yankee vessel while keeping out of the range of Collin's heavier but shorter-ranged guns. Wilson and Collins decided to damn international law and go after the raider, in port, while she slept.
Shortly before dawn on October 7, Collins built up steam and bulled his way past a sleeping line of Brazilian warships. As he entered the harbor he opened fire upon, rammed and with pistols blazing, boarded the Rebel raider. The skeleton crew of Confederates aboard were surprised, outnumbered and overwhelmed. Collins put a prize crew aboard, tossed over a hawser and began towing the raider out to sea.
The Brazilians were enraged at this breach of international law – especially after having been assured that Brazilian neutrality would be respected. The harbor fort opened fire. Commander Macebo raised sails and steam and ordered his squadron to fire upon the Union warship as it sped by. Macebo gave chase, but Collins even with his prize in tow, was able to outdistance the Brazilians.
Collins and Wilson were hailed by the press for their boldness, and were privately praised by Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of the Navy Welles. Unfortunately, to ameliorate the Brazilians they had to be made an example of. Wilson was dismissed from the foreign service and Collins was court-martialed, found guilty of violating the territory of a neutral government and similarly dismissed from the Navy.
Collins remained unrepentant, saying he would do it all again “for the public good.” None disputed that he had acted so, for in her two-year career the CSS Florida had sunk 46 ships and captured 14 others, inflicting damages that her victim's owners claimed had cost them over $4 million – ten times the cost of the Rebel raider.
Confederate commerce cruisers like CSS Florida play a key role in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, as one would expect from a game entitled Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.