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US Naval Sloop Cumberland and Confederate Gunboat Florida

USS Cumberland

USS Cumberland  was a full ship-rigged sailing sloop built at the Boston Navy Yard and launched in 1842.  Cumberland began its career with the Mediterranean squadron serving as its flagship from 1843-1845.  Captain S.L. Breese was its first commander and John A. Dahlgren served as an officer.  It was during this cruise that Dahlgren studied and tested new shell guns and later designed a series of naval guns that were the most powerful and reliable of the period.

During the Mexican War, Cumberland served in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 1846, Cumberland's attack on Mexican warships in the Alvardo River was delayed after it grounded on a coral reef and had to be sent back to Boston for repairs.  In 1848, Cumberland returned to the United States carrying, among others, Matthew Calbraith Perry.

Cumberland returned to the Mediterranean twice, the second time serving as the flagship of the squadron from 1852-1855.  During one of these cruises,Cumberland's crew witnessed the European powers preparing for the Crimean War, a war which would make use of steam power, ironclad ships, and prove the superiority of shell over solid shot.  The use of the newer heavy shell guns in naval warfare did not go unnoticed.  To maintain naval superiority, American naval planners called for a Navy based on large corvettes (vessels with one gun deck).  Cumberland's spar deck and quarter galleys were removed, thereby increasing its speed without sacrificing its strength.  These alterations made Cumberland a magnificent corvette and a fast sailor.  It now carried sixteen 32-pound guns, six 8-inch shell guns, and two 1-inch shell pivot guns on its bow and stern.  These changes, done at the Washington Navy Yard, allowed Cumberland more firepower even at its reduced size.  Cumberland had further refinements in 1860 and 1862, leaving its final configuration as 22 9-inch Dahlgren guns, one 10-inch pivot gun, and a rifled 70-pound pivot gun on the stern, its most formidable weapon.  After 1856, the ship was no longer a frigate but a sloop-of-war.

From 1857 to 1859, Cumberland cruised the coast of Africa suppressing the slave trade as flagship of the African squadron.  It spent the period immediately prior to the Civil War cruising the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico as the flagship of the Home Squadron.

Early in 1861, Cumberland, recently back from the Gulf of Mexico, was at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  In one of the greatest mistakes of the war, Union forces made a half-hearted attempt to destroy the yard and retreat to nearby Fort Monroe on 20 April 1861.  The fleeing federals scuttled some ships of the old navy including USS Merrimack.  Three Union ships, including Cumberland, escaped.  Skilled Confederate workers at the shipyard began the task of converting Merrimack's hulk into an ironclad warship, rechristened CSS Virginia.

Cumberland was later assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron stationed in Hampton Roads and proclaimed the blockade in Virginia and North Carolina from its decks.  Cumberland captured vessels carrying cotton, coal, hay, tobacco, and military stores.

In August 1861, the warship participated in the Union assault on Hatteras Inlet, an early and successful combined operation.  However, Cumberland, was beginning to show its age, spending much of the battle under tow and at times had to stand offshore due to threatening weather.  Cumberland had been modernized and altered as much as possible.  Its inferiority to the latest developments in warship-design would only grow.

On 8 March 1862, Cumberland was on station in the James River.  Its captain, William Radford was not on board and Lt. George U. Morris was in command.  That afternoon, Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads to attack the Union blockade.  Virginia headed straight for Cumberland, determining that the federal ship's rifled guns made it the most dangerous adversary of the blockading ships.  The ironclad shrugged off Cumberland's fire and rammed a hole into the sloop.  Lt. Morris later described the attack:

    Virginia stood down toward us.  We opened fire on her; she stood on and struck us under the starboard for channels; she delivered her fire at the same time; the destruction was 3:35 p.m. the water had risen to the main hatchway, and the ship canted to port; we delivered a parting fire, each man trying to save himself by jumping overboard...all the wounded who could walk were ordered out...but those of the wounded who had been carried into the sick bay were so mangled that it was impossible to save them.

Cumberland went down with colors flying.  One-hundred-and-twenty-one of its crew were killed in the battle.


CSS Florida

CSS Florida was the first of the foreign-built ships purchased to raid Union merchant shipping during the Civil War.  While under construction, Florida was named Oreto to avoid provisions of neutrality laws.  This was part of an elaborate deception to make Union agents believe the ship was destined for Italy or Spain.

William C. Miller & Sons of Liverpool, England built Florida based on their gunboat design.  Florida was a three-masted, bark-rigged, wooden-hulled vessel.  In addition to sail power, Florida came equipped with two steam engines installed by the Liverpool engineering firm of Fawcett, Preston & Co. It also had two unusual features that included a double-bladed screw propeller that was retractable when not in use, and collapsible smoke stacks.  For armament, it carried six 6-inch Blakely rifles, two 7-inch Blakely rifles on pivots fore and aft, and one 12-pound howitzer.

Florida left England on 22 March 1862.  To avoid British neutrality law, the ship sailed without any weapons or war material.  Confederate Naval Officer, John Low, took the ship to Nassau, Bahamas, where it was officially commissioned 17 August.  Captain John Newland Maffitt accepted orders to command the commerce raider and assembled a skeleton crew to sail for Cuba.

At this time, the ship's crew was suffering from an attack of yellow fever.  Adding to Florida's problems, rammers, sights, locks, and other equipment necessary to operate its guns were not loaded with the other supplies in the Bahamas.  The ship, unable to work its guns, was left defenseless.  It was in this dangerous situation that, after a brief stop in Cuba, Maffitt boldly sailed into Mobile Bay on 4 September 1862.  The ship, flying the Union jack as a ruse, braved a storm of shot and shell from Union blockaders and arrived to a hero's welcome.  Florida received damage from its exploit, however, and needed repairs.  Once these were completed, Florida escaped to sea on 16 January 1863.

During the next six months, Florida began its mission of economic warfare.  The ship called at neutral ports, eluding ships and taking many prizes. Florida's most valuable capture was the clipper ship Jacob Bell, en route from China to New York.  Its cargo of tea and firecrackers, valued at $2,000,000 was burned.  Florida also captured Lapwing, Clarence and Tacony and Maffit turned the ships into satellite raiders and helped to destroy northern merchant shipping.

By all measures, Florida's first cruise was widely successful.  It captured 24 prizes, seizing one ship every nine days and the satellites captured another 23 ships.

In August of 1863, Florida arrived in Brest, France, in need of refitting.  It lay in the government dock while United States diplomatic agents applied a near continuous stream of protests, threats, and requests for action to the government of Napolean III.  Maffit, in declining health, turned over command to Lt. Charles M. Morris.  Morris had to contend with an untried crew, as serious discipline problems had erupted in France, resulting in the discharge of part of the original crew.

American diplomatic efforts did not sway the French, and Morris put to sea with the newly-equipped and newly-manned ship on 10 February 1864.  Morris sailed near Bermuda before heading for the eastern coastal shipping lanes of the United States.  On 10 July 1862, Florida enjoyed its most successful day as a raider, taking four vessels including Electric Spark, valued at nearly $1,000,000.  Despite these successes, the crew was in need of rest, and after an unsuccessful mutiny, Morris decided to head for the neutral port of Bahia, Brazil in October 1864.

During this second voyage, Florida captured 13 prizes in 240 active days of sea service.  The psychological condition of the crew no doubt influenced Morris's decision to put into Bahia, despite the presence of warship, USS Wachusett.  Morris relied on Wachusett's captain, Napoleon Collins, to honor international neutrality conventions.  When Collins became aware of Florida, he cleared his ship for action and waited.  American consular agents in the port urged Collins to take action, and their aggressive persistence swayed him.  On the night of 7 October, while half of Florida's crew including Morris, were on shore, Wachusett attacked.  Wachusett rammed Florida demanding its surrender.  Florida, with minimal crew and unloaded guns, complied.

Florida's capture set off a diplomatic firestorm, as Brazil strongly protested the violation of her rights as a neutral power.  Brazilian guns fired on theWachusett as it left with Florida, and the U.S. Consulate in Bahia was ransacked.  Brazil, as well as other governments demanded the ship's return.

The American public was jubilant over the capture.  The U.S. Government, at this time under attack all over the world regarding the incident, did not want the troublesome Florida to resume her destructive career.  Florida could neither be returned nor kept.

While anchored off Newport News, Florida was rammed in an accident by the troop ferry Alliance during rough weather on the night of 19 November 1864.  It began to take on water and was moved up the James River to a spot near where USS Cumberland sank during the battle of Hampton Roads.  When an auxiliary pump failed, the ship began to take on more water, eventually sinking 28 November 1862.  An official inquiry blamed the sinking on the failed pump, but statements in later years by Captain Maffit and circumstantial evidence have led some historians to conclude that Florida was deliberately destroyed in an "accident" to remove a diplomatic embarrassment.  Whether by accident or design, Florida's career ended on the muddy bottom of the James River.


Archaeology of Cumberland and Florida

The wrecks of Cumberland and Florida lie side-by-side on the bottom of the James River, in Southeastern Virginia. Much of the archaeological work investigating the shipwrecks addresses both Cumberland and Florida. For this reason it is convenient to discuss both shipwrecks as one site.

Features of the Site

Cumberland and Florida lie in the lower James River, a major tidal estuary that flows into Hampton Roads Harbor and then into the Chesapeake Bay.  Both ships were damaged prior to sinking, Cumberland severely.  Both wrecks were subject to 19th century salvage operations after the Civil War.  The site presents some special difficulties for archaeologists.  They lie off waterfront facilities in Newport News, Virginia, in an area of heavy shipping.  The depth of the water over the wreck sites is approximately 65 feet.  Strong tidal currents are a constant hazard to divers.  During a 1993 survey, archaeologists recorded a maximum visibility of two feet, with average visibility of less than one foot, and as low as two inches.

Archaeological Investigation

In 1980, Clive Cussler, popular novelist best known for his book, Raise the Titanic, pursued a long-standing interest in the two ships.  Cussler, Chairman of the Board of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), researched probably locations for the ships.  Eventually Cussler entered into a cooperative agreement with the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology.  This joint effort failed to locate the wreck sites.

In 1981, NUMA contracted with Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV), a private firm based in Yorktown, VA.  UAJV team members called on the knowledge of local watermen to help locate the ships.  This knowledge, combined with a remote sensing survey, led archaeologists to two significant wrecks.  The recovery of numerous artifacts confirmed that these shipwrecks were most likely Cumberland and Florida.

Artifacts recovered included fasteners, fittings, apothecary vessels, a ship's bell (from Cumberland), canon fuses and other ordnance items.  The artifacts proved the NUMA/UAJV team had indeed found Cumberland and Florida.  Most of the artifacts from this NUMA/UAJV excavation are on exhibit at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, VA.

Archaeological Investigations 1986

In 1986, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum contracted with Tidewater Atlantic Research of Washington, NC, to conduct a magnetic and acoustic remote sensing survey.  This survey produced a preliminary site map that showed that Florida had a high degree of structural preservation.  No artifacts were recovered during this work, which involved diving.  Data from this survey is on file at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, VA.

Looting 1989

Cumberland and Florida have not been free of the dangers threatening every shipwreck, including looting.  In 1989, two local watermen using clamming tongs disturbed the wrecks and attempted to profit from the destruction in cooperation with two antique dealers.  Citizens concerned about this misuse of our nation's heritage alerted the Justice Department and the Navy, and felony convictions ended a successful prosecution of the looters.  Nevertheless, the two Civil War ships were shown to be vulnerable.

Looted artifacts recovered during this case are held in the collection of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.  Neglect, abuse and misguided "conservation" attempts have greatly damaged this collection, prohibiting proper exhibition.

Archaeological Investigations 1993

In May of 1993, the U.S. Navy's Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Atlantic Division, in Norfolk, VA, obtained a Department of Defense Legacy grant to conduct further investigation into the wrecks.  Panamerican Consultants of Tuscaloosa, AL assessed the condition and integrity of the vessels.  Archaeologists noted the impact of commercial shipping on the sites, in particular destruction that appeared to be caused by modern anchors and clamming.  Archaeologists also noted that the wrecks were covered with sediment, and that they may be exposed and then covered up again by the constantly moving sediment, a phenomenon witnessed in other shipwreck sites.  No artifacts were recovered from the 1993 work.


Published: Wed Dec 02 11:47:47 EST 2020