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Capture of the Confederate steamer Florida, by the U. S. Steamer Wachusett.


Report of Lieutenant T. K. Porter.

[The following report we copy from Captain Bulloch's ‘Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe’ where it is published for the first time.

The gallant and accomplished officer who commanded the Florida at the time, and who wrote the report was Lieutenant Thomas K. Porter, who commanded ‘Porter's Battery’ at Fort Donelson with such skill and courage, who was a brother of the soldier-statesman, [40] ex-Governor James D. Porter, of Tennessee, and whose death was deeply lamented by a wide circle of friends and admirers.]

Sir,—In obedience to orders I submit the following report of the capture of the Confederate States steamer Florida at Bahia, Brazil, on the 7th of October, 1864, by the United States steamer Wachusett, the treatment of the officers and crew while prisoners; and the manner of our release. But before commencing I beg to call your attention to the fact that before entering the harbor our shot were withdrawn from the guns; that after our being requested by the Brazilian naval commander to anchor in-shore of his squadron we let our steam go down and hauled fires.

At about 3 A. M. on the morning of the 7th October, the officer of the deck, Acting-Master T. T. Hunter, sent the Quartermaster down to call me, and tell me that the Wachusett was under weigh and standing towards us. I immediately jumped on deck, when I saw the Wachusett about twenty yards off, standing for our starboard quarter. A moment after she struck us abreast the mizen-mast, broke it into three pieces, crushed in the bulwarks, knocked the quarter-boat in on deck, jammed the wheel, carried away the main yard and started the beams for about thirty feet forward. At the same time she fired about two hundred shots from her small arms, and two from her great guns. She then backed off about one hundred yards, and demanded our surrender. I replied to the demand that I would let them know in a few moments. The reply from the Wachsett was to surrender immediately, or they would blow us out of the water. As more than half our crew were ashore, and those on board had just returned from liberty, I believed that she could run us down before we could get our guns loaded. But as I did not like to surrender the vessel without knowing what some of the other officers thought of it, I consulted Lieutenant Stone, the second officer in rank; and finding that he agreed with me that we could not contend against her with any hopes of success, I informed the commander of the Wachusett that under the circumstances I would surrender the vessel. I then went on board, and delivered to Commander Collins the ship's ensign and my sword. He immediately sent a prize-crew on board the Florida, and towed her out of the harbor. During the day he transferred about [41] two-thirds of those captured to the Wachusett. He then paroled the officers, and put the men in double irons. As there were so few men compared to the Wachusett's crew, and those divided between the two ships, I tried to get Captain Collins to allow the irons to be taken off of all, or a part of them, during the day, but he refused to do so. Beyond keeping the men in double irons for nearly two months, there were but two cases of severity towards them that were reported to me. Henry Norman (cox.) was ironed to a stanchion with his hands behind him for having the key of a pair of the Florida's irons in his pocket. He, as well as all the other men on the Wachusett, was ironed with the irons belonging to her (the Wachusett). John Brogan (fireman) was kept in the sweat-box. Dr. Emory reported to me that he was sick and could not stand such treatment. I asked Captain Collins to tell me why he was so treated. His reply was that Brogan was seen talking, and that when his master-at-arms came up he stopped. He also said that Brogan had, the day the Florida was captured cursed one of his engineers, who tried to get him to show him something about our engines. He said, though, that he had ordered his release two days before, and thought he had been taken out. This was about three weeks after our capture. Brogan informed me afterwards that he had been confined there for several days, and eighteen nights. A few days before going into St. Thomas, I went to Captain Collins and told him that on a previous occasion he had informed me that he was going to put our men ashore at Pernambuco, and that as we would be in port a few days, I would like to know if he still intended to put them ashore, at the same time telling him that I thought the Florida would be given up by his Government, and that I thought any honorable man would try to return the ship and crew as nearly in the condition in which he found her as he could. His reply was, ‘I have not thought of it—I have not thought of it to-day.’ After further conversation I left him, believing that he would not try to break up the crew. But before leaving St. Thomas our men were informed that all of them who wished to go ashore could do so, and that Master George D. Bryan and one other officer would meet them to look out for them. They asked what was to become of their money, which had been taken from them, and were told that Mr. Bryan would take it ashore for them. A number of them thought this was a trick to get rid of them, and would not go, but eighteen were foolish enough to believe it, and had their irons taken off on the berth-deck, and were put in a boat from the bow port, and allowed to go ashore. The first Mr. Bryan heard of his part of the affair was [42] when we left the Wachusett and had an opportunity of talking to the other men. After the men had time to get ashore, the commander of the Wachusett called away his boats, and sent an armed force after the boat in which our men had left. So anxious was he to get them ashore, that he sent them when the quarantine flag was flying at his fore in consequence of having the small-pox on board. The United States steamer Keasarge left St. Thomas while we were there, and Dr. Charlton and the eighteen men on the Florida were transferred to her. When we arrived at Fortress Monroe, we were sent up to Point Lookout Prison, and there the officers were separated from the. men, and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. But in three or four days we were sent back to the Wachusett at Fortress Monroe to go to Fort Warren, Boston. On our return to Fortress Monroe, I heard that the Florida's money-chest had been opened, and I went to Captain Collins and reminded him that soon after we were captured, I informed him that there were three hundred and twenty dollars in it which belonged to the wardroom mess, which I had given to the paymaster the evening before we were captured, to keep till the caterer, Lieutenant Stone, should return from shore. He told me that he had mentioned it to Rear-Admiral Porter, but that the Admiral refused to give it to us. We saw the Florida before we left. She had lost her jibboom by a steam-tug running into her. A Lieutenant-Commander told me that if the United States Government determined to give her up, the officers of the navy would destroy her. Several other of our officers were told the same. Whilst in Fort Warren we heard these threats were carried out.

From Hampton Roads we were carried in the Wachusett to Boston, but before we were sent to Fort Warren, Lieutenant-Commander Beardsly went to the men and informed them that he was sent by Captain Collins to tell them that if they would take the oath of allegiance to the United States Government they would be released. He, meeting with no success, was succeeded by the master-at-arms of the vessel, and a sergeant from the Fort, who told them that all the men but five of those who had come from St. Thomas on the Keasarge had taken the oath. I do not know by whose orders this was told them; but we found on arriving at the fort that it had no more truth in it than the report they gave the men at St. Thomas, that Mr. Bryan was to meet them on shore. I am happy to say that but one of the crew deserted his flag, and he did it the day we were captured. When we arrived at Fort Warren, the men were all put in one room, and the eleven officers were put into one with thirty-two other prisoners. [43] These rooms were casemates, and were fifty feet long and about eighteen feet wide. At sunset we were locked up in these casemates, and released after sunrise, and allowed to promenade the extent of five such rooms. At 8 A. M. we were marched around to the cookhouse, and were all given one loaf of bread each, weighing fourteen ounces. After twelve we were marched around again, and were given our dinner, which consisted of about eight ounces of cooked meat, with half a pint of thin soup, three days, and two potatoes, some beans or hominy the other days. This was all we received each day. Many of the prisoners by economizing found this enough to appease their hunger, but a great many others were hungry all the time. If we had been allowed to buy sugar and coffee, and bread and cheese, a great many would have been able to do so, and divide with some of their friends who had no means, but we were allowed to buy nothing to eat without a certificate from the Post Surgeon that we were sick. There is an arrangement between our government and that of the United States, that prisoners-of-war may be allowed to receive boxes of provisions and clothing from their friends at home, but the United States Government now interprets this to mean that all boxes must come by a flag of truce. As half of the Confederate prisoners have their homes within what is now the United States military lines, this agreement works almost entirely for the Federals and against us. Half of the Florida's officers were in this situation, and they were compelled to decline the offers of their friends. On the 24th December all the Florida's officers except Dr. Charlton and fourteen other prisoners were locked up in a casemate, and kept in close confinement both day and night. We were not allowed to go out under any circumstances, except that for the first four days we were marched under a heavy guard to the cookhouse twice a day. After that our dinner was brought to us, and two of us were marched around to get the bread for all of those confined. This was for discussing a plan to capture the fort, which one of the prison spies, who pretends to be a Lieutenant-Colonel in our army, and a Lieutenant in the English army, revealed to the authorities. We were kept in close confinement until the 19th of January, when Lieutenant Woodman, of the United States army, sent for me, and told me that he had an order from the Secretary of the Navy to release the officers and crew of the Florida from Fort Warren, and that as such was the case he would release all of us from close confinement. He showed me the order from the Secretary of the Navy, which was that we would be released on condition that we signed a parole to leave the United [44] States within ten days. I asked him if we would be given the money and our swords, and other articles captured on the Florida, which had not been sunk with her. He said that he knew nothing about them, but if I wished to write to Mr. Welles, he would send the communication. I then gave him a copy of the following note, which he assured me was sent the same day:


To the Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy
Fort Warren, January 19th, 1863.
Sir,—I have just been informed by the commanding officer of this fort that the officers and crew of the Confederate States steamer Florida will be released on condition of leaving the United States within ten days. We will accept a parole to leave at any time when we are put on board any steamer going to Europe, but we would prefer to go to Richmond, We would call your attention to the fact that there were somewhere about thirteen thousand dollars in gold on the Florida when she was captured, which was taken out of her by order of Rear-Admiral Porter. And to leave the United States it will be necessary to have that to take us out, unless the United States Government send us away as they brought us in. If you will give us our money we would prefer remaining here till a steamer leaves here for Europe, or we would ask for a guard till we are put on one in New York, as so many of us being together might be the cause of an unnecessary disturbance, of which we would be the sufferers.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

Thomas K. Porter, First-Lieutenant, Confederate States Navy.

Mr. Welles made no reply to this. After waiting a week and finding that the United States Government neither intended to pay our passage away, nor to give us the money belonging to our government, and not even our private money, I sent Lieutenant Stone to Boston with directions to procure a passage in the British and North American steamer Canada, or if he failed in that, to get us out of the United States in any manner possible. He succeeded in getting passage for all of us on the Canada, by my giving a draft to be paid at Liverpool. And on the 1st of February we signed the following parole: ‘We, [45] the undersigned officers and crew of the steamer Florida, in consideration of being released from confinement in Fort Warren, do jointly and severally pledge our sacred word of honor that we will leave the United States within ten days from date of release, and that while in the United States we will commit no hostile act,’ and I left the fort for the steamer Canada. It may be of importance to state that we were officially informed by Major Gibson, commanding the post part of the time we were there, that we could hold no communication with the Brazilian authorities.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

Thomas K. Porter, First-Lieutenant, Confederate States Navy.

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