U.S. Civil War Battle – in Brazil?

One of the strangest and least-known battles during the Civil War occurred far away from America, when the U.S. warship Wachusett captured the Confederate warship Florida in the early hours of 7 October 1864 after a brief battle in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil. The aggressive action by U.S. Captain Napoleon Collins, attacking a Confederate ship in a neutral harbor, was against international law.

Illustration: "Cutting out the Florida from Bahia, Brazil by the U.S.S. Wachusett." 19th century phototype print by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia. It depicts the capture of CSS Florida by USS Wachusett at Bahia, Brazil, on 7 October 1864
Illustration: “Cutting out the Florida from Bahia, Brazil by the U.S.S. Wachusett.” 19th century phototype print by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia. It depicts the capture of CSS Florida by USS Wachusett at Bahia, Brazil, on 7 October 1864. Credit: F. Guterkunst, United States Navy; Wikimedia Commons.

The attack displeased Brazilian Emperor Pedro II and caused an international incident. However, when the whole matter was settled the Union had its victory – and war prize – and the Confederacy lost one of its most important raiders, a ship that had captured 37 Union vessels.

The 9-gun Florida arrived in Bahia on October 4 that year, and the next day received permission from the Emperor for a two-day stay in the harbor for repairs, coal, and to replenish supplies. The Brazilians anchored a gunboat near the Florida for its protection.

Photo: CSS Florida
Photo: CSS Florida. Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center; Wikimedia Commons.

The crew of the Florida and its captain, Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris, felt completely safe in the neutral port even though they knew the 10-gun Wachusett was lurking nearby. So secure felt they, in fact, that Morris and half his crew were ashore on leave – with the other half sleeping off their hangovers after just returning from their earlier shore leave – when the Wachusett made its attack at 3:00 on the morning of October 7.

The battle, though brief, was not without gunfire or casualties. The two sides exchanged musket and pistol fire, and the Wachusett fired off some of its cannons before ramming the Florida. With their depleted crew the Confederates had no choice but to surrender. The Wachusett towed the Florida out to sea and headed north, eluding the chasing Brazilian gunship.

Photo: USS Wachusett, 1867
Photo: USS Wachusett, 1867. Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center; Wikimedia Commons.

Back in the U.S., the Navy put on a show and court-martialed Collins over the “Bahia Incident” to appease the Brazilians, but he was not punished and in fact was promoted to the rank of captain in 1866. Brazil was outraged and demanded that the Florida be turned over as compensation, but she was sunk under mysterious circumstances – while under the care of the U.S. Navy – before the Brazilians could get her.

The following five newspaper articles describe the battle in Bahia Harbor and the diplomatic questions raised by the incident. These articles do not get all the details quite right, but it is easy to see the differing perspective of the Northern and Southern press.

An article about the "Bahia Incident" -- a U.S. Civil War battle that took place in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, in 1864, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper article 10 November 1864
New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 10 November 1864, page 2

Here is a transcription of this Northern newspaper article:

The Rebel Pirate Florida Captured

The United States steamer, Kearsarge, Capt. Winslow, arrived at Boston on Monday, from St. Thomas, 31st ult. She brought eight of the crew and the surgeon of the pirate steamer Florida, captured by the United States steamer, Wachusett, in the bay of St. Salvador, Brazil, 7th ult. Fifty-eight of the crew and twelve officers of the pirate were captured, without the loss of a man. The Wachusett, with the Florida, was to leave St. Thomas on the 2d.

Later and fuller particulars state that the Florida was surprised in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, at 3 o’clock in the morning – that Capt. Collins of the Wachusett aimed to strike the Florida amidships which would have instantly sunk her, but his vessel veered and he hit her on the quarter. Unprepared as they were, the officer in command of the Florida had no alternative but surrender. In the excitement of the occasion, some pistols were discharged, and two guns accidentally fired from the Wachusett. They may have struck somewhere in the city, as the Brazilian Admiral came alongside and ordered them to desist firing. Three men of the Wachusett were slightly wounded, probably accidentally, as the prisoners from the Florida declare that not a shot was fired by them.

They also say that Capt. Morris, their commander, was on board the Florida when the Wachusett attacked her, and that he jumped into a dingy laying [sic] alongside, and escaped to the shore, which was only two hundred yards off.

Half an hour after the capture of the Florida, the Wachusett started out to see with her. When the day broke Capt. Collins saw a side-wheel steamer towing a Brazilian man-of-war out of Bahia, but he put on all sail and a full head of steam and was out of sight and the chance of interruption.

An article about the "Bahia Incident" -- a U.S. Civil War battle that took place in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, in 1864, Daily Ohio Statesman newspaper article 11 November 1864
Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 11 November 1864, page 2

Here is a transcription of this Northern newspaper article:

The Florida – Capture of the Rebel Privateer Florida by the Gunboat Wachusett – Circumstances Attending Her Capture

The Kearsarge, which sunk the Alabama off the French coast, arrived at Boston late on Monday night. She has as passengers W. W. Williams, Assistant Paymaster of the United States gunboat Wachusett, bearer of dispatches of the circumstances attending the capture of the rebel privateer Florida, in the port of Bahia, Brazil.

She also brings as prisoners of war the chief engineer and boatswain of the Alabama, and the surgeon and sixteen of the men of the Florida.

…The following is a brief account of the circumstances of the capture of the privateer:

The Florida arrived at Bahia, Bay of San Salvador, on the night of the 7th ult. Captain Collins having held a consultation with his officers, determined to sink the Florida in port. Accordingly at about 3 o’clock the cables were slipped, and the Wachusett steered for the Florida, hitting her on the quarter, without doing her great injury.

Captain Collins now called out to those on board the pirate to surrender or he would sink her. This demand was replied to by the first lieutenant that “under the circumstances he surrendered.” A hawser was now made fast, the chain slipped, and the Florida towed to sea. In the melee several pistol shots were fired, and accidentally, two guns from the Wachusett.

Captain Morris and half the Florida’s crew were ashore on liberty. No lives were lost. The Florida was taken completely by surprise, seventy of her men it was known being on shore, and the others just returned from liberty were asleep and half intoxicated.

The blow given the Florida by the Wachusett carried away the mizzenmast and mainyard, which fell on the awning, preventing anyone from getting up from below.

So unconscious was the officer of the deck of the intention of the Wachusett’s Captain that he sang out, “You will run into us if you don’t take care,” at the same time calling for a light.

Twelve officers and fifty-eight of the crew of the Florida were captured.

An article about the "Bahia Incident" -- a U.S. Civil War battle that took place in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, in 1864, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 11 November 1864
Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 11 November 1864, page 3

Here is a transcription of this Northern newspaper article:

A Diplomatic Question

Everybody would of course be glad to hear of the destruction of the Confederate cruiser Florida, which Captain Collins, of the United States vessel Wachusett, captured in the port of Bahia – a port of Brazil – on the night of the 27th September [sic]. But may not Captain Collins’s laudable zeal in the performance of his duty have gone ahead of a sound discretion in this transaction? It is not admissible for a belligerent to commit an act of hostility in a neutral port, and although we presume that the disrespect offered to the sovereignty of Brazil in one of her ports will lead to some complaint, yet, as our Government may very truly disavow any disposition to authorize any discourtesy towards a Power between which and ourselves relations so friendly and so cordial exist, there is not likely to grow out of the brilliant professional achievement of Captain Collins, although irregular in an international point of view, any misunderstanding between the two Governments. Captain Winslow, it will be remembered, was careful to have his triumphant conflict with the Alabama outside of the sovereign jurisdiction of France, although within sight of her shores.

A newspaper in the Confederate capital, not surprisingly, viewed the Bahia Incident in a very different way. These two articles were published by the Daily Richmond Examiner (Richmond, Virginia). The first article was printed on 11 November 1864, when they were first getting word of the capture of the Florida, and the second article – more indignant and sarcastic than the first – three days later.

An article about the "Bahia Incident" -- a U.S. Civil War battle that took place in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, in 1864, Richmond Examiner newspaper article 11 November 1864
Richmond Examiner (Richmond, Virginia), 11 November 1864, page 2

Here is a transcription of this Southern newspaper article:

The Capture of the Florida

The announcement in the Yankee journals of the capture of the Confederate cruiser Florida, in San Salvador Bay “without the loss of a man” on their side, renders it not improbable that the capture was effected by a breach of international law. A large portion of the Bay is neutral water to the vessels of the belligerents, and it may very well have happened that the commander of the Wachusett finding the Florida at anchor in the Bay, not prepared for or expecting an attack in neutral water, availed himself of the opportunity to play a Yankee trick, and acquire some cheap renown, trusting to [U.S. Secretary of State] Seward to make it “all right” with the Emperor of Brazil. In no other way can we account for the bloodless achievement so boastfully heralded in the Yankee papers. It is not reasonable to suppose that the crew of the Florida – the marines and gunners – could have failed to do some execution in an open and fair engagement. It is useless, however, to speculate on the subject. We will know, ere long, whether the Florida was captured “in” or outside of San Salvador Bay.

An article about the "Bahia Incident" -- a U.S. Civil War battle that took place in the harbor of Bahia, Brazil, in 1864, Richmond Examiner newspaper article 14 November 1864
Richmond Examiner (Richmond, Virginia), 14 November 1864, page 3

Here is a transcription of this Southern newspaper article:

The most popular hero in the Yankee country at this moment, not excepting Sheridan, is Captain Collins, of the ship-of-war Wachusett. He has surprised and captured the Florida, Confederate steamship, while she was lying quietly in a neutral port, while “seventy of her men were known to be on shore, and the others just returned from liberty were asleep and half-intoxicated.” Collins, who had just arrived in port, held a consultation with his officers; and showed them how easy would be such a peculiarly Yankee exploit – to run suddenly into the unsuspecting Florida, take possession of her and run out to sea with her, leaving the Emperour [sic] of Brazil to protest at his leisure. It was true that the Florida was under the protection of the neutrality of Brazil, and her commander had no more thought of danger than if he had been in Southampton or in Cherbourg. But here was the very beauty of the case, in Yankee eyes: Brazil is not England; neither is it France; and the feat would be so easy, so bloodless, so complete, with a touch of fraud too, and insolent disregard of the rights of a weak nation, which would make the performance so peculiarly and exquisitely dear to the Yankee heart – that, in short, the officers in council could not resist the temptation. When the Alabama was in the harbor of Cherbourg, the Captain of the Kearsarge knew he dared not molest her there; so he resolved, having first ascertained that he had heavier metal, and taken care to arm his ship with chain mail, to await her outside. Collins, of the Wachusett, probably thought he could not encounter the Florida on fair terms; he saw his chance of striking her a coward blow by surprise, and seized it like a bold Yankee tar, as he is.

There is no part, no feature, of this whole proceeding which does not enhance its value and virtue, as a whole, in the eyes of Collins’ countrymen. It is a very complete and characteristic Yankee trick, made only the more delightful by the spectacle of the insulted Emperor of Brazil left indignantly remonstrating on the shore. Indeed to heighten the charm of the whole affair, the New York papers print at full length the Emperor’s proclamation of neutrality made on occasion of this very war, and defining the privileges of belligerent vessels while in his harbors. Good worthy man! Small account a Yankee makes of his little proclamations! The New York Herald remarks, with a kind of grin: “If in the multitude of nice legal points in relation to neutrality, we shall be found to have violated one, why, by and by, when the war is over, and the Florida is no longer of any account, we will make suitable reparation to Brazil.” There is nothing, in fact, which could add a higher relish to this feat of naval warfare than the outcry it is sure to raise all over the world about the audacious insolence of the Yankees and their contemptuous trampling upon the neutral rights of Brazil. The Yankee nation expects to be accused of all this, and will be charmed to own the soft impeachment. This suits them exactly; for it is only your strong, first rate, conquering, bullying nations that can venture on such acts; and besides, if English ministers make any noise about it they can cite English example as a justification, and it is all the justification they need, or will look for. They already begin to reckon up the doings of British naval commanders in a similar style – how one of them captured the United States frigate “Essex” in the harbor of Valparaiso; and another attacked the “General Armstrong” in the harbor of Fayal. It is true that on those occasions there was no surprise, no cowardly triumph over a handful of sleeping men in the absence of the crew; but the analogy is at least perfect in the disregard of neutral rights; and the neutral nations thus insulted by England (Chili and Portugal) were not her match; no more than Brazil is [a] match of the United States. Here is the grand point; the noble feature in the affair which proves the Yankee nation to be worthy of its Anglo-Saxon ancestors. They both respect the rights of the strong, and trample upon those of the weak. We may be very sure that Mr. Seward is already preparing his list of English cases and precedents, to (not excuse, for he scorns excuses, but) authorize this capture of the Florida, as well as any other atrocity his people may choose to commit by land or sea. If Sheridan left the Valley of Virginia a smoking desert of ashes – as the English papers complain with much virtuous indignation – Mr. Seward can say, “do you forget, how a few years ago – in 1842 – your generals did the very same thing in the Valley of Cabool, burning the crops and dwellings, and even cutting down the fruit trees? And as for respecting the rights of neutrals, wipe out of your own history the two transactions of Copenhagen, and the many times that your bullying fleet has occupied the Tagus’ mouth in defiance of Portugal, and pointed its guns over the Piraeus, in scorn of the Greeks, before you begin sanctimoniously to rebuke us.”

Brazil will, of course, remonstrate; but unless she can interest in her cause the great maritime nations, her remonstrance will be wholly in vain. There has lately been a coolness between the Emperor and the English Government, and diplomatic relations were suspended. For that, and for other reasons, the protest from England, if any, will probably be rather cold and perfunctory, and easily answered by Mr. Seward. France and Brazil are on very friendly terms; yet there are considerations which may cause France also to be very cautious in stirring the matter too roughly. On the whole, we need not expect any serious trouble to grow out of it; the good ship Florida is lost; and our cruisers will have learned the lesson that they had better for the future avoid all ports except those of England and France and their various colonies.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve in the Civil War? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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