Rebel on the Seas

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography Courtesy of Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and images The State Archives of North Carolina

A former U.S. Navy officer raids and razes union merchant ships. (Volume 3, Part 6)

John Newland Maffitt

He is born in the middle of the ocean aboard a ship leaving Ireland for America. From the beginning, John Newland Maffitt is destined for a life at sea.

In later years he will call himself, “a son of old Neptune, and … in duty bound to offer his allegiance as such.”

At age 5, he is adopted out of his impoverished family in White Plains, New York, by his Uncle William Maffitt and taken to Ellerslie, William’s estate near Fayetteville.

In February 1832, at age 13, Maffitt secures a midshipman’s commission in the United States Navy.

Maffitt’s early service aboard the frigate USS Constitution — a patriotic icon of the War of 1812 — takes him to the far reaches of the Mediterranean. By 1846 he is assigned to the United States Coast Survey and undertakes the meticulous process of charting the harbors at Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, among others.

He is married with two small children, Eugene and Mary. But his wife dies young, and soon he remarries a widow, Caroline Read, with three children of her own. She bears him two more sons.

On the Cape Fear River, he lives with fellow officer J. Pembroke Jones at Fort Johnson in Smithville, which affords a panoramic view of the channel past Fort Caswell and Smith’s Island. He commands a contingent of surveyors who work from small boats and coordinate with a team ashore, mapping each shoal or bend in the channel by laborious triangulation with landmarks, sounding the depth at regular intervals, and noting tides and currents. His chart of the Lower Cape Fear is a masterpiece of precision. But it keeps him away from big ships.

For that reason, the Naval Retiring Board decides Maffitt should not advance as an active-duty officer and furloughs him. Only a formal hearing, at which an overwhelming number of Maffitt’s fellow officers testify to his abilities and character, gets him reinstated to active service in the U.S. Navy.

In 1857, Maffitt is given command of the brig Dolphin and ordered to the West Indies to intercept pirates and slave ships. Flying false colors, he takes the slaver Echo and her cargo of 300 slaves. His exploits make The New York Times: “The chase was a very exciting one, the Dolphin casting her shot exactly where the captain directed. The man-of-war deceived the slaver by showing British colors. Several shots were fired over her to show what could be done if she did not hang out her flag and heave-to. At last she ran up the American flag, but still persisted in her flight. The moment she did so, the Dolphin hauled down the British ensign, replacing it with the stars and stripes, greatly to the horror of the fugitive.”

Maffitt and his crew receive their share of the sale price of the vessel and prize money of $25 per slave. He becomes renowned for chasing down slavers. While captaining another ship, the Crusader, he overtakes a French bark and liberates another 600 slaves.

The slaves rejoice in their deliverance, Maffitt notes in his private journal: “They climbed up all along the rail, they hung on the shrouds, they clustered like swarming bees in the rigging, while rose from sea to sky the wildest acclamations of delight. They danced, and leaped, and waved their arms in the air, and screamed and yelled in a discordant but pathetic concert.”

His wife, Caroline Maffitt, dies in 1859, leaving him twice a widower in the prime of his life.

When secession strikes, he is living in Washington, D.C., pondering what course he should take. He considers the matter of choosing sides so sensitive that he does not even commit his thoughts to his private journal. In the end, events decide for him: “The Government had now commenced to taboo those suspected of Southern proclivities, and secret arrests were being made,” Maffitt writes on April 29, 1861. “Being informed by a reliable friend that my name was on the list of those who were to be arrested, I concluded that my property had to take care of itself, and I made my arrangements to secretly depart.”

Two days later, he confides to his journal: “I managed through the kindly feeling of a Federal officer to pass over the Long Bridge, which was carefully guarded by a battery and company of artillery. How twas done becomes me not to state even in a private journal but this much I will say, the officer who befriended me did not imagine that hostilities would occur. In a brief time he lost his battery and was captured at Bull Run.”

When war comes to North Carolina, Maffitt knows the fairways and shortcuts of the three main eastern ports of the Confederacy perhaps better than any other man alive. He is 41 years old, a charming Irishman with a thick mane of wavy, dark hair and full whiskers, the dashing air of a sea-going cavalier, and a congenial manner. Although it is customary at the time to appear somber and stern in a photographic portrait, Maffitt’s betrays the ghost of mischief in his eyes.

Limited resources

The Union deploys more than 40 warships, and before war’s end it will have that many patrolling the mouth of the Cape Fear River alone. The shipyards of New England and the Middle Atlantic States soon turn out scores of modern fighting vessels to join the blockade of the 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline.

The Confederacy has no fleet of seagoing warships. Instead it depends on an improvised fleet of river gunboats and, later, ironclad rams, as well as coastal forts and “torpedoes” — containers of gunpowder rigged across channels and detonated by contact or electrical batteries.

The man-power shortage is even more severe. Most of the U.S. Navy’s 7,600 enlisted men remain loyal to the Union. Of its 1,554 regular officers, fewer than 400 side with the rebel cause.

Maffitt is one of those few.

He resigns his naval commission on May 2, 1861, and at first is informed, to his utter astonishment, that the Confederacy has no plans to raise a navy.

For a time he serves as naval aide to Gen. Robert E. Lee, constructing coastal defenses. Soon however Maffitt is commissioned a lieutenant in the new Confederate Navy.

Without capital warships, the Confederacy resorts to the same strategy followed by the fledgling U.S. government during the American Revolution. It employs commerce raiders whose mission is to disrupt the enemy’s shipping, thereby crippling its war effort.

Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Navy secretary, dispatches agents to Liverpool, England, to acquire new or existing ships — fast side-wheel steamers that can be armed. It is an illegal business, so the ships must be purchased as merchantmen and then made lethal in less regulated ports in the Caribbean or South America. Twelve such commerce raiders take to the high seas, hunting U.S. merchant ships.

Maffit records his war strategy in his journal: “When a man of war is sacrificed ’tis a national calamity, not individually felt, but when merchant ships are destroyed on the high seas individuality suffers, and the shoe then pinches in the right direction. All the merchants of New York and Boston who have by their splendid traders become princes in wealth and puffy with patriotic zeal for the subjugation of the South will soon cry with a loud voice, peace, peace; we are becoming ruined and the country be damned.”

Soon Maffitt commands the British-built Florida, a merchant raider propelled by sails and two steam engines, built along the lines of a British gunboat. She is sleek and fast, even her propeller can be folded to increase speed.

Captain Maffitt and his crew of 18 sail the ship unarmed to Nassau, The Bahamas, under a false Italian registry. There he outfits the vessel with a full complement of guns and then sails for Cuba to pick up supplies.

But yellow fever sweeps the crew. With only five sailors fit for duty, his own 16-year-old stepson dead from the disease, and deathly ill himself, Maffitt determines to run the Florida through the blockade and into Mobile, Alabama, seeking refuge in a home port. The date is September 3, 1862. He writes in his journal: “I haven’t got time to die now; there’s too much for me to do.”

Four U.S. Navy warships bar his way, but he steams right toward the harbor with all the speed his boilers can muster. He recounts the dramatic moment: “The loud explosions, roar of shot, crashing spars and rigging, mingling with the moans of the sick and wounded, instead of intimidating, only increased our determination to enter the destined harbor.”

He cons the fast Florida, both side-wheels churning furiously, straight at the USS Oneida. The Union ship dodges out of the way to avoid a collision, and Maffitt slides his vessel past. He then steers for a patch of water squarely between two federal gunboats. They immediately cease fire, in order to avoid sinking each other.

Miraculously, the Florida arrives in port without losing a single crewman.

A gentleman pirate

On another occasion, in Barbados, Maffitt dines with the governor. “He was in citizen’s clothes, and excited considerable interest,” reports The New York Times. “The ladies seemed to fancy this notorious pirate exceedingly.”

He is indeed handsome and heroic in his tailored, gray uniform, a swashbuckling character straight out of a romance novel.

Under cover of a violent storm on January 16, 1863, he runs the blockade outbound, eluding six pursuing warships. His daring escape from harbor earns accolades from U.S. Adm. David Dixon Porter, who later commands the fleet attacking Fort Fisher.

“During the whole war there is not a more exciting adventure than this escape,” Porter says. “ … the gallant manner in which it was conducted excited great admiration. We do not suppose there was ever a case where a man … displayed more energy or bravery.”

Maffitt takes to sea with a vengeance, capturing 24 U.S. merchantmen in the next nine months. Three of the captured vessels he outfits as raiders, and they capture an additional 23 ships. His and the other Confederate raiders, including the Alabama, Tallahassee, and Shenandoah, are so effective at their trade that they destroy the supremacy of the U.S. merchant marine for good. Shippers and insurers around the world now shun Yankee vessels and transport their wares and raw materials in British bottoms.

Maffitt and his fellow officers and their crews (including Maffitt’s own son Eugene aboard the Alabama), sail under commission of the Confederate government, but the U.S. Navy considers them pirates. If captured, they are not to be accorded the status of prisoners of war, but rather hanged outright. The northern press christens Maffitt the Prince of Privateers.

A former slave catcher now becomes a staunch defender of a rebel nation founded on the slave economy. The one-time scourge of Caribbean pirates is now hunted as a pirate himself.

But Maffitt is no cutthroat. On the contrary, his captives often remark of his charm and sense of honor.

“Captain Maffitt received me with great courtesy,” says Capt. John Brown of the brig Estelle. “[He] invited me into his cabin, and said he regretted that it was necessary for him to burn my vessel, that the consequences of this war often fell most heavily upon those who disapproved of it. Captain Maffitt and his officers were every inch the considerate gentlemen and attentive officers. … Generosity and courtesy on the part of enemies should not pass unheeded by.”

At one point, Maffitt surrenders his cabin for use by the wife of the merchant captain of the Jacob Bell, which he is about to burn after relieving the ship of its $1.5 million cargo of silks, spices, and tea. There she is confined for five days, and with the help of the ship’s surgeon, she delivers her baby.

The captain’s discontent

In the spring of 1863, Captain Maffitt is promoted to commander. By August, he anchors the Florida off Brest, France, and waits a full week to be allowed to enter the harbor. Rumors fly ahead of the ship. He is called a sea wolf; his crew, desperate pirates. His ship, laden with captured gold, is adorned with “several corpses hanging from her masts.”

But in fact the Florida is badly in need of a refit. The ship has been at sea for eight months, with only four days in port, never more than 24 hours in any single harbor. “Yes, indeed, sir,” Maffitt tells a reporter for The London Times, “two hundred and forty-five days upon solid junk, without repairs or provisions.”

Like his ship, Maffitt is worn out. He asks to be relieved of command. He writes to a fellow officer, “Am quite unwell, so much so as to be under the necessity of asking for a relief. Yellow fever, and a chronic affliction of the heart, with hard cruising, has used me up, so ere it be too late, I must try to build up again.” He recuperates in Liverpool, England, alarmed at the dire news from Wilmington, where the blockade is slowly strangling Confederate shipping.

Without Maffitt in command, the Florida is soon captured. He recovers his health sufficiently to be named master of the Lillian, and his young purser is James Sprunt, who grew up on the Cape Fear River while Maffitt was charting it for the Navy. Sprunt, the ambitious son of Scottish immigrants, buys molasses; trades for cotton; and soon after war’s end will control one of the most lucrative export firms in the South.

For a time Maffitt is assigned command of the ironclad CSS Albemarle, guarding the approaches to Plymouth on the Roanoke River, but his heart lies always on the open sea. He wants to take the ironclad into battle, but his superiors fear that losing the vessel would open the river to Union gunboats and order him to take no chances. Maffitt chafes at the dull work of defensive patrol, writing that he “cherished the sport of blockade running as others might women or fine bourbon.”

He soon gets his wish of a new command.

On October 3, 1864, Maffitt runs the steel-hulled British steamer Owl through the blockade out of Wilmington. The ship suffers nine hits from the blockading squadron but, in trademark Maffitt fashion, steams straight ahead — her commander and other crewmen wounded by the shell fire.

In April 1865, Maffitt attempts one last run into Wilmington with the Owl, fully loaded with mail and supplies for the Confederacy, but the concentration of Yankee ships proves too much. They drive him off, killing a dozen of his crew. Rather than surrender his ship, he sails to England and hands over the vessel to Confederate agents there. He has taken 70 prizes, worth an estimated $10 million to $15 million.

Alive in words

Eventually Maffitt returns to Wilmington, where he makes his home on a coastal farm called The Moorings, on Masonboro Sound. He spins his early seagoing adventures in the Mediterranean into a stirring novel, Nautilus, or Cruising Under Canvas.

At age 66, he is stricken with Bright’s disease, a painful malady that attacks the kidneys. One day, half-deliriously remembering old voyages and lost shipmates, he remarks to his third wife, Emma, “The ship is ready, the sails are set and the wind is favorable; all we are waiting for is Mr. Lambert to come and ask God’s blessing upon us; then we will heave anchor and away on the billows.”

Within a year, Bright’s does to Captain Maffitt what no Yankee commander could: it defeats him.

Emma commits his adventures to the page, in a heartfelt memorial as enduring as his headstone at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.

In her preface, she writes, “I commit this record of the life of a man whose watchword was ever duty, who shrank from no sacrifice in the fulfillment of what his conscience required of him, and who never made plaint of hardship or loss.”

Selected Sources

The author is indebted to Robert D. Maffitt for supplying materials relating to the career of his great grandfather, John N. Maffitt, and to Gerald Parnell, Special Collections Archivist at UNC Wilmington’s William Madison Randall Library for locating original copies of Captain Maffitt’s novel: Nautilus or Cruising Under Canvas (United States Publishing Co., 1871), and the memoir of his career written by his widow, Emma Martin Maffitt: The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt, in which she quotes extensively from J.N. Maffitt’s private journal (Neale Publishing Co., 1906). Other Published sources include John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (UNC Press, 1963); Dawson Carr, Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade (John F. Blair, 1998); Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope (Savas Publishing Company, 1997) and Historic Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear: An Illustrated History (The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, 2007); Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath (HarperCollins, 1991); John Keegan, The American Civil War: A Military History (Knopf, 2009); Jim McNeil, Masters of the Shoals: Tales of the Cape Fear Pilots Who Ran the Blockade (Perseus/De Capo, 2003); Margaret Mullen McCollough, “John Newland Maffitt, Confederate Buccaneer,” The Genealogical Record 33 (2005, No. 1 & 2); Robert E. Taylor (editor), The Bugle, American Civil War Round Table, Queensland, Australia, Jan/Feb Issue # 35, 2012; As always, the North Carolina Division of Archives and History has been most helpful.

Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His latest book, Down the Wild Cape Fear, was recently published by UNC Press.

To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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