SUBMITTED BY: Robert Maffitt?
[Editor’s Note: This is an expanded story of one on the website entitled “John N. Maffitt, 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy.”]
At Wilmington, there were many Southern merchant ships that ran the Northern blockade during the Civil War. One of the most successful and famous Captains was John Newland Maffitt. He was by far the best at getting through the blockading ships to the Cape Fear River, bringing much-needed military supplies to this city. He learned his seamanship at an early age, eventually becoming a skilled sailor on the Old Ironside’s, now docked in Boston.
He then worked on many of the ships in the United States Navy, learning skills of procedure and command. After a number duty assignments, he was ordered on April 20, 1842 to report to the U.S. Coast Survey (now known as NOAA and then part of the U.S. Navy and Treasury Department) for work as a hydrographic surveyor for the waterways and inlets of the coast. This new assignment was very rewarding for Maffitt, one that he served on for 15 years, and one which would play a great part later on in his life. One of his assignments took him to Pensacola, Florida where met a lovely lady that had a mind of her own and beauty that would stop men in their tracks. She grew up and lived in Mobile, Alabama, and her name was Mary Florence Murrell. After a courtship, they married on November 17, 1840. During the last two years before the Civil War erupted, Maffitt was assigned to stop slave ships that were trying to enter the Southern coast of the United States. This assignment discharged well, but when the war began in 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy and headed South to join the fledgling Confederate Navy. After a long wait and working with General Robert E. Lee at his side, he was assigned to the blockade running ships that would bring supplies to Southern cities like Wilmington, Charleston and Mobile. As Maffitt had served in the coastal survey, this would be an logical assignment for him as he knew how to avoid the sandbars and low points of the harbors of cities. But it would be Wilmington, North Carolina that he loved the most. He had lived here at an early age and enjoyed this city most, though he was assigned to or visited many other ports of call during his naval career.
His talents and skills were well known to friends such as General Robert E. Lee, Raphael Semmes of the C.S.S Alabama, and President Jefferson Davis, and his knowledge of inlets and help in building up the navy of the young Confederacy would be indispensable to the South’s efforts to win the war. Among the many ships he took command of were the Florida, Lilian and the Owl. It was with the privateer Florida that Maffitt brought fame to the South, and fear to the North, as the latter wondered if their merchant goods would ever reach them from China or England. The Florida, under Maffitt’s command captured some 22 ships in a year and a half. The Jacob Bell was the most famous capture of the Civil War, with Maffitt taking over $2.5 million dollars off that ship. Maffitt attained a total purse of $5,944,000 while in command of the Florida, making it easy to see that he was the scourge of Yankee merchantmen.
John Newland and Mary Florence Maffitt were the parents of an extraordinary daughter. Though history does not teach us much about her, this illuminating story reconstructs her life and fame at her father’s side.
Her name was Florie Maffitt, but she was far better known as Mary Florence Maffitt. But where did it start for this “daredevil” of a woman, as she was known all over. Florie was born in Mobile, Alabama in February 1841, and the good news of his daughter’s birth finally reached her father when he arrived in Pensacola, Florida. John Newland Maffitt sent for his wife and Florie to come to him while he was on a three-month leave before his proceeding to his next assignment. Florie was later joined by a brother, Eugene Anderson in November of 1844, born in Baltimore, Maryland.
Life was pleasant and wonderful in Washington where Florie attended school. She was educated in a small town known as Georgetown, Maryland (now part of Washington, DC), and the schooling she received was considered upper middle class. Florie often went to visit her father when he came into port—she was his life and was very close to her father. Florie understandably did not get to see her father often as he was usually at sea, and unfortunately, her mother and father separated after Eugene was born. Whenever the opportunity arose, Florie would sail and learned the skills of seamanship under the watchful eye of her father while he surveyed the many waterways and inlets from Cape Cod to Mobile and back. Her father loved to have her close by. The many places Florie visited brought her much enjoyment, and she met many people who would play an important part in her life. Most importantly from her father, she would learn the life skills of how to think, how to handle problems, and how to be cunning in getting things done. She learned to be charming, yet have an intelligent gleam in her eye that let people know she was in control of her life, and the future that lay ahead.
On August 3, 1852, when Florie was 11 years old, her father married Caroline Laurens Read, a South Carolinian, whose late husband was also an officer in the navy. They were married in St. Paul’s Church in Charleston, and Caroline then took on the care of Florie and her brother while their father was at sea. Her stepmother would teach Florie how to dress and act in front of people, and conduct herself at Washington gatherings—a city where even today you better have your skills, charms and education in order to make it there.
In October 1858, after living on the James River near Richmond, Capt. John Maffitt purchased a home at 1214 K Street in Washington, DC, an upper class neighborhood even by today standards. It was furnished with many heirlooms such as family portraits, beds, the best furniture, and even a piano. It was also an area of many shops and fine cafes that Florie loved to visit, and it was close to the White House and the Capital. But despite the joy of being near her father and a wonderful new home, sadness filled her heart as well as her father’s—Florie’s life took a dip downward. Her stepmother passed away after suffering an illness that winter. Her life now was lonely, and her father was off to sea, again, sailing this time on the USS Crusader.
Florie’s father moved her to Ellerslie Estate, the home of Dr. William Maffitt, brother of the senior John Maffitt near Fayetteville, North Carolina. The estate got its name from the Maffitt ancestral home in Dublin, Ireland, and Ellerslie stood on a high elevation near the head of Blount’s Creek, about half way between Fayetteville and present-day Fort Bragg. In a new home and being close to family once again, Florie’s life saw a renewed energy and she was now surrounded by lovely, pleasant fields, far from the big cities. She enjoyed her stay in the countryside, but Florie would make many trips to Wilmington or Fayetteville to visit her father when he came in port, or to shop at the fine places that Wilmington had to offer to such a young lady. Then came war, and though her father’s new assignments in the Confederate Navy took him away once again, she was with him on many occasions.
The skills of seamanship Florie had learned from her father. Captain Maffitt taught her well as many sea captains, high officials (and women as well) wondered whether Florie could, and did (as reports indicate), handle or gave orders on a blockade running ship, or successfully maneuver one through the blockade that guarded our port in Wilmington. She apparently did force many men to respect her abilities, and challenge men’s views of what a woman should or shouldn’t do, during the hard times of the Civil War, and especially in a city of blockade running captain’s. But one thing she did receive was respect on all accounts, from men or women, North or South, and in foreign counties.
Did Florie captain a blockade runner?
Many clues said she was. James Sprunt, and others had mentioned when they met her that she was a “chip off the old block.“ In Hamilton Cochran’s “Blockade Runners of the Confederacy,” the author states that Captain Maffitt’s daughter Florie was returning from Bermuda and was in charge of one of her father’s blockade running ships carrying gold. Florie also insisted on remaining on deck “during the vessel’s bombardment by a Federal cruiser,” indicating that she was giving orders on the ship.
But the best indication of her command abilities came when Capt. Maffitt on April 11, 1862, took charge of the CSS Nassau, a blockade runner in Wilmington heading for Nassau, in the Bahamas. As it was quite common to carry passengers while breaking through the blockade, on one run May 2, 1862, we do know that Mr. and Mrs. De Leon and two ladies were aboard. One of those ladies was Florie Maffitt. James Sprunt (father of Laurence Sprunt who owns the Orton Plantation) was also on board for this run. After arriving in Nassau, Captain Maffitt got word that he would be in charge of the Oreto blockade-runner and the Federal ships were fast closing in on Nassau. The Oreto would become the famous Florida that would take on the Jacob Bell and shut down nearly all shipping to the North in late 1862 to 1863.
After a few days in Nassau, Captain Maffitt thought best that Florie should return home on the Nassau to Wilmington. She often visited Nassau to see her father or to shop. She came aboard and soon the CSS Nassau left for Wilmington. A Northern ship was close behind and in pursuit, but because of Captain George Walker’s bad management and lack of blockade running experience, his ship fell into the hands of a Federal cruiser off Wilmington. But before the Nassau was captured, Florie gave orders that she was going to stay on deck and urged the captain not to surrender this ship to the Yankees at all cost. She was warned that she was dangerously exposed to enemy fire and was taken down to a stateroom where she viewed the action through the window. She went to tears when the ship was captured saying to the captain that she knew her father would rather have her be blown up instead surrendering the ship to Yankees. No doubt she had her father’s nerves and guts. The captain had to remind Florie of the dangers from the cargo of gunpowder and his duty to her father that she came to no harm heading back to Wilmington. But once ship was captured, she was taken off and sent to New York City. Once she was arrived, the Northern officers knew whose daughter she was.
Captain Maffitt had many friends still serving in the US Navy that liked him for his humor, friendship and easygoing manner; friendships formed in the pre-war days. It was due to these friendships that Florie could move freely through the North, knowing very well that people knew her father’s sterling reputation. Florie traveled first to City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia from New York City, then arriving in Petersburg to talk with Southern troops guarding Richmond from northern invasion, encouraging them that supplies would be forthcoming from her father. Florie later wrote about the troops in Petersburg: “Once on the Confederate side, you can imagine our joy, the rough uniforms of our soldiers seemed sacred.”
One day just before the Civil War ended, Florie met the man who captured her heart—his name was Joshua Wright. The Wrights were a well-known Wilmington family and as we know, Wrightsville Beach as well. The Wrights would also shape, along with the Maffitts, the future of Wilmington as one of the best seaports on the East Coast for shipping goods. On February 17, 1864, Florie and Joshua would marry in St. John’s Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and they would eventually have six children: James Allen, John Maffitt, Joshua Grainger, Thomas Henry, Mary Allen and Caroline Lauren. Florie and her husband would often travel to their estate in Cork County, Ireland after the war, and visit with the Maffitt family that still resided there. She also traveled to the Middle East, meeting kings and queens who knew of Captain Maffitt’s reputation on the high seas, and his work with the British merchant navy after the close of war.
After the war, and fearing that they were considered pirates by the United States government now under radical control, Captain Maffitt and his son Eugene lived in Liverpool. Maffitt then worked for the British Merchant Navy, knowing the US government could not touch him or force him to return. He was allowed to return to the United States in 1867 and settled down with his family in Wilmington.
With the money he earned from his war exploits and sailing British merchant ships, he bought a 212-acre farm six miles outside Wilmington, near Wrightsville Beach, and named it “The Moorings.” Florie’s father had fifty-one cleared acres, a seven-room house, a separate kitchen and other outbuildings with five springs going through the property. There was a railroad that ran through the property, enhancing its value as a truck farm. The property raised fruits, vegetables, flowers, and peanuts. Social gatherings were of many for swimming, boating and fishing. Even the Carolina Yacht Club (still in operation today) provided recreation for socials, fun times and events. Here he would gather his children where they helped run the estate, and meet the many visitors that often came, including the Wrights,’ for social gatherings. Florie was now happily with her father and brother Eugene.
One day, a lady visitor to “The Moorings” caught Captain Maffitt’s eye. She was the sister of Eugene’s wife, and her name was Emma Martin. On November 23, 1870, they married at the home of her parents, now known as the Huggins-Martin house near 4th and Market St. in Wilmington. Now he could relax and enjoy his family around him with his new wife. There was much love between them.
But when it seemed life could not get any better, Captain John Newland Maffitt’s enjoyment of life came to a crushing end. During the early 1880’s, Captain Maffitt suffered a series of family losses that combined to bring him physical and mental anguish. First in 1881, he lost a thumb in an accident. Then on September 28,1883, his Florie had passed away after suffering through a sudden illness, then succumbing to organic heart trouble. The devotion to her and the love he gave to his Florie overwhelmed him—she was so much part of his life and Maffitt was grief-stricken. Emma wrote in her book about Florie: “I wish I could paint for you the life of unselfish devotion of this brave woman.” While attending to Florie on her deathbed, Captain Maffitt was taken with a severe hemorrhage of blood from the nose. It was a sad day that this woman with her courage, education and skills should pass away. To add to Captain Maffitt’s grief, on January 12, 1886, Eugene would pass away after weeks of illness.
Florie Maffitt is an important part of Wilmington’s unique history, though we do not know her full history and life story. We do know from the foregoing that she was a brave woman and a fine example of courage to other women, as well as a loving daughter of a famous man who loved her deeply, and taught her the secrets of the sea. With her learning and courage, Florie changed lives and challenged conventional thinking. In her father’s twilight years (and unknowingly hers), she comforted him with her presence at The Moorings and brought pleasure to those visiting this wonderful place to live, Wilmington, North Carolina.