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prohibiting Slavery throughout the United States. Nobody has done more for it, practically, than Mr. Ashley.
Accept my thanks for the invitation with which you have honored me, and believe me, dear Sir,
CHARLES SUMNER. TO THE COMMITTEE.
CASE OF THE FLORIDA :
ILLUSTRATED BY PRECEDENTS OF BRITISH SEIZURES
IN NEUTRAL WATERS.
ARTICLES IN THE Boston Daily ADVERTISER, NOVEMBER 29, 1864,
AND JANUARY 17, 1865.
The case of the Florida attracted attention at the time, and aroused the British press. Especially to meet the criticism of the latter the first of the following articles was written. Though published in a newspaper anonymously, its authorship was recognized and acknowledged, and it was reprinted in a pamphlet by the Young Men's Republican Union of New York.
The Florida was a Rebel war-steamer, built in England, which had done damage to our commerce. After capturing and burning the bark Mondamon off Pernambuco, it arrived at Bahia Bay, October 5, 1864, where the United States steamer Wachusett, with Captain Napoleon Collins as commander, was then lying. The Florida at first anchored in the offing, but, at the invitation of the Brazilian admiral, came inside in the midst of the Brazilian fleet, and close under the guns of the principal fort. At about three o'clock on the morning of October 7th, the Wachusett slipped her cables, and, with full head of steam, bore down upon the Rebel war-vessel, one half of whose officers and crew, including Captain Morris, were on shore, and the remainder, having just returned, were in no condition to repel an assault. The officer of the deck, supposing the collision which he saw imminent merely accidental, cried out, “You will run into us, if you don't look out." The design of Captain Collins was to strike the Florida amidships, crush in her side, and send her at once to the bottom ; but this was not accomplished; the Wachusett struck only the stern, carrying away the mizzenmast and main-yard, so that the Rebel vessel was not seriously injured, but the broken spars fell across the awning over the hatchway, and thus prevented her crew from getting on deck. In the confusion that
ensued several pistol-shots were fired from both vessels, at random and without effect. Two of the Wachusett's guns were discharged, — by accident, according to one report, or, as another had it, by order of a lieutenant. The shots did not strike the Florida. Captain Collins cried out immediately, “Surrender, or I will blow you out of the water!” The lieutenant in charge of the Florida replied, “Under the circumstances I surrender.” In an instant the vessel was boarded by men from the Wachusett, who made her fast by a hawser to their own vessel, which at once turned her course seaward, moving at the top of her speed and towing the Florida in her wake.
The Wachusett was challenged from the Brazilian fleet, but there was no reply. The Florida, when commanded to stop, answered that she was towed by the vessel in front. Shortly afterward the heavy guns of the fort opened fire. Three shots passed harmlessly above the pennant of the Wachusett, striking the water beyond. Two vessels of the Brazilian fleet gave chase, but soon abandoned it, and the Florida was brought to Hampton Roads, where it was anchored.
Meanwhile the case passed into diplomacy. Mr. Seward addressed a note, under date of November 11th, to Mr. Webb, the minister of the United States at Rio Janeiro, directing him to say that the Government of the United States was not indisposed to examine the subject upon its merits carefully, and to consider whatever questions might arise out of it in a becoming and friendly spirit, if that spirit was adopted by his Imperial Majesty's Government. The Brazilian representative at Washington, in a note dated December 12th, expressed the belief that the Government of the United States would give the explanations and reparation which, in conformity with international laws, are due to a power that maintains friendly and pacific relations with it. Mr. Seward, in his reply, dated December 26th, disallowed the assumption that the Rebels were "a lawful naval belligerent,” and asserted, that, being still “ destitute of naval forces, ports, and courts,” the ascription of that character to them by Brazil “is an act of intervention in derogation of the Law of Nations, and unfriendly and wrongful, as it is manifestly injurious, to the United States.” He also disallowed the assumption that the Florida belonged to the Rebels, and maintained, the contrary, that that vessel, like the Alabama, was a pirate, belonging to no nation or lawful belligerent.” He added, that it did not belong to captains of ships-of-war of the United States, acting without authority, to assert the rights and redress the wrongs of the country. The captured crew, being unlawfully brought into the national custody, could not be lawfully subjected here to the punishment they deserved, and were therefore set at liberty. Then follows this statement with
regard to the vessel : “The Florida was brought into American waters, and was anchored under naval surveillance and protection at Hampton Roads. While awaiting the representation of the Brazilian Government, on the 28th of November, she sunk, owing to a leak which could not be seasonably stopped. The leak was at first represented to have been caused, or at least increased, by a collision with a war transport.” After stating that there were courts of inquiry on the subject, he concluded : “In the mean time it is assumed that the loss of the Florida was a consequence of some unforeseen accident, which cast no responsibility upon the United States."1 Nothing further occurred in this case.
The Advertiser, in a leader on this article, after alluding to the author as “a gentleman whose position and pursuits have led him to give great attention to questions of International Law," says :
“We ask attention to his view of the precedents, therefore, and to the connection which he establishes between them and the present case, as being both interesting and instructive, and as deserving no small weight in settling our views upon this important subject. He makes it clear, that, whatever Brazil may feel herself called upon to say in the matter, it does not lie in the mouth of England, either by her press or her ministry, to intermeddle by lecturing the United States..... The most embarrassing feature in the Florida case, however, has been removed within a few hours by the fortuitous collision of an army transport with this steamer, in the crowded roadstead at Fortress Monroe.”
Adniral Porter's despatch reports this incident.
“ FORTRESS MONROE, November 28, 1864. " Hox. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Nary: –
"I have just received a telegram from the commander of the prize steamer Florida, informing me that she had sunk in nine fathoms of water. She had been run into by an army steamer, and badly damaged. I have not heard the particulars. I will inform the Department, when I receive the written report.
“David D. PORTER, Rear-Admiral.”
F we may judge from recent English newspapers,
there is to be another cry against us, on account of the Florida, not unlike that on account of the Trent. One paper says the seizure was “most flagrantly law
1 Appleton's Annual Cyclopædia, 1864, art., Diplomatic Correspondence, pp. 364 - 366.
less"; another, that “the precedent will establish a claim to the right to pursue and destroy every such vessel, whatever may be the port in which she may seek shelter or supplies ”; another, that "the outrage cannot be perniitted to pass unnoticed by other powers ”; and still another, that events such as these will speedily force European nations to interfere in the American difficulty for their own security.” Such are specimens of British criticism, before the facts in the case have been ascertained in any authentic form, and before our Government has had opportunity to declare itself on the subject.
The same swiftness occurred in the matter of the Trent. The parallel will be complete, if Earl Russell sends us a letter of complaint.
As in that remarkable instance, there is the same indifference to historic precedents. I do not refer to cases decided in prize courts, where the question is of strict law, which must prevail, -as where Sir William Scott decreed restitution of a vessel captured by a British privateer stationed among the mud islands at the mouth of the Mississippi, and within the neutral territory of the United States. I refer to another class of precedents, not to be found in judicial decisions, but in the history of Great Britain. And as, in the instance of the Trent, it appeared that this power had for several generations, under a pretended claim, entered on board foreign ships and forcibly dragged away persons from the protection of their flag, thus doing on a large scale what was done by Commodore Wilkes on a very small scale, — so it appears that this same power, whose newspapers are now.swift to condemn the act of Captain Collins, has for many generations been in