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[291]

The contending forces abroad

The names of Mason and Slidell were linked throughout the war with the diplomatic efforts made in behalf of the Confederacy at the courts of England and France. The most concrete evidence of these efforts were the vessels that were built in English and French shipyards and, eluding the “vigilance” of the two Governments, passed into the hands of the Confederates to strike telling blows at American commerce, then next to the largest on the seas. Actively opposed to Mason and Slidell was John Bigelow, consul at Paris for the Federal Government during the war. His efforts to circumvent the construction of Confederate cruisers were untiring and in great measure successful in keeping in check the foreign tendency to encourage the division of the United States. At the very outset of this diplomatic struggle the Federal Government narrowly escaped becoming involved in war with England when Captain Charles Wilkes, in the “San Jacinto,” seized Mason and Slidell aboard the British steamer “Trent,” Nov. 8, 1861. Had not the captain of the “Trent” forgotten to throw his vessel on the hands of Captain Wilkes as a prize, hostilities could scarcely have been prevented. While Mason and Slidell were paving the way with diplomacy, a commission of Confederate naval officers, with headquarters in London, were striving energetically to arrange for the purchase and building of vessels to be used as blockade-runners or privateers. Particularly active among these officers was Captain James Newland Maffit, C. S. N., and he was given command of the first cruiser built with Confederate funds that safely put to sea. In the “Oreto,” Captain Maffit proceeded to Nassau; after she had been released by the British authorities there, her armament was again put aboard her and she began her career as the “Florida.” She had been out but five days when yellow fever broke out on board. It reduced the working force to one fireman and four deck-hands. Maffit, himself stricken, ran into Cardenas, but was soon ordered by the Cuban authorities to bring his ship to Havana. Maffit determined to escape. On Sept. 4, 1862, he took the “Florida” boldly through the blockading squadron into Mobile Bay. The vessel was refitted, and on the night of Jan. 15, 1863, Captain Maffit ran out with her and got safely to sea. He continued to command the cruiser on her adventurous voyages until the latter part of 1864, when his health was so broken that he was relieved. In January, 1865, he took the blockade-runner “Owl” out from Wilmington and over the bar near Fort Caswell, the very night that the forts surrendered to the Federal fleet. Maffit arrived at Bermuda in time to stop the sailing of five blockade-runners.

A. P. Mason

John Slidell

John Bigelow

Capt. James N. Maffit, C. S. N.


 

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