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Who is Captain Maffitt?

Ben Steelman

The namesake of Wilmington’s private Cape Fear River ferry and tour boat, John Newland Maffitt (1819-1886) was a Confederate Navy captain and blockade runner, hailed as “the Sea Devil of the Confederacy” and “Prince of the Privateers.”

Born at sea (fittingly) on Feb. 22, 1819, Maffitt was the son of a prominent Methodist minister from Ireland, who was immigrating with his wife to New York. The family settled in Connecticut, but when he was 5, they resettled in Fayetteville, where the boy grew up.

Maffitt entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman at the age of 13; during a 29-year career he served aboard the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), cruised the Mediterranean and became acting master of the frigate Macedonian in 1841. He was assigned to the U.S. Coast Survey in 1842 and promoted to lieutenant in 1843. For 15 years, he would do charts and hydrographic surveys of a number of ports — including, significantly to his later career, Wilmington, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah. A channel in Charleston’s harbor still bears his name.

In 1857, he was put in command of the brig Dolphin and assigned to patrol the West Indies for pirates and slavers. In 1858, under his command, the Dolphin captured the slaver Echo, liberating 318 Africans aboard. In 1859, he took command of USS Crusader, also on West Indies patrol.

In May 1861, Maffitt resigned his U.S. commission and headed South, where he was made a first lieutenant in the new Confederate Navy. As such, he served as naval aide to Robert E. Lee, who was preparing defenses for the port of Savannah at the time. In early 1862, he was assigned to command the civilian blockade runner Cecile.

On Aug. 17, 1862, he took commander of the steam sloop CSS Florida. Battling yellow fever among his crew (and suffering from the disease himself), Maffitt managed to sail the Florida from Cardenas, Cuba to Mobile, Ala., running a gantlet of fire from Union blockaders. The Florida was bottled in Mobile for three months. Then, despite a reinforceed Union blockade, he steamed out under cover of a violent storm on Jan. 16, 1863, proceeding on a six-month cruise of North and South America and the West Indies, taking prizes and repeatedly eluding Union warships. In May 1863, he was promoted to commander “for gallant and meritorious conduct.”

Ill health, and lingering effects of yellow fever, forced him to relinquish command of the Florida on Feb. 12, 1864, at Brest, France. He had a highly successful run, sinking or capturing more than 70 U.S. merchant ships, with an estimated value of $10 million to $15 million — a record among Confederate raiders exceeded only by the CSS Alabama under Raphael Semmes.

After reaching the Confederacy in the summer of 1864, Maffitt was put in command of the ironclad ram CSS Alabama on North Carolina’s Roanoke River, in which he successfully harassed Union forces. In September, he was put in command of the blockade runner Owl. On Oct. 3, the Owl made a successful escape from Wilmington under Union fire, despite Maffitt’s being wounded in the process. Maffitt made several successful runs on the Owl, arriving for the last time just as Fort Fisher fell.

Refusing to surrender, Maffitt steamed the Owl to Liverpool, England, where he turned the ship over to agents of its British owners. He passed British naval examinations and spent two years commanding the merchant steamer Widgeon on runs between Liverpool and South America.

Returning to the United States in 1868, Maffitt settled on a small farm near Wilmington. He returned briefly to action in 1870, commanding a warship for Cuban revolutionaries.

In 1871, Maffitt published a novel, “Nautilus, or Life Under Canvas,” based on his days as a young officer. A manuscript about piracy in the West Indies was left unfinished at his death on Maay 15, 1886, in Wilmington. He is buried at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery.

Maffitt’s papers are in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent biography is “High Seas Confederate: The Life and Times of John Newland Maffitt” by Royce Shingleton (University of South Carolina Press, 1995). His third wife, Emma Martin Maffitt, published “The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt” in 1906; this was republished in 2008 by BiblioLife.

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