John N. Maffitt, 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy

by | Jan 27, 2016 | Confederate affiliation, New Hanover

John N. Maffitt was born at sea on February 22, 1819. The location was Atlantic Ocean longitude 40W, latitude 50N. This exact position is referenced by Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories, “How the Whale Got his Throat.” The stage is now set for young Maffitt’s role as a fearless and gifted captain of the high seas. His parents, Rev. Mr. Maffitt and wife Ann Carnicke, emigrated from Ireland to New York and settled in Connecticut. When John was about 5 years old, his uncle Dr. William Maffitt visited his brother. Finding the family in a a financial straightened position, he begged to adopt their son John. Dr. Maffitt brought his nephew to Fayetteville, NC where Dr. Maffitt resided. Some years passed in his happy boyhood home. His uncle was determined to send him to school in White Plains, NY to facilitate his education. The young lad traveled to New York via the old-time stagecoach with his ticket attached to his jacket. He remained at this school under Professor Swinburn until the age of 13. Friends of his father were able to obtain a Midshipman commission in the US Navy dated February 25, 1832. This was to be the beginning of his lifetime vocation. His assignment was on the Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) for a three and a half year cruise. Luckily, he was appointed as an Aide to Commodore Elliott which gave him many outstanding advantages and opportunities. By 1843, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant while serving with the superintendent of the US Coast Survey, Professor Alexander D. Bache who was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. Much of their coastal survey work was completed in the harbors of Nantucket, MA, Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, Wilmington, NC, and the Cape Fear River. A channel in Charleston Harbor still bears the name of Maffitt Channel. This knowledge and experience would serve him very well as a Confederate blockade runner. “He was always considered one of the best officers and most high-toned gentlemen of the old service. For some years he was connected with the coast survey, and Professor Bache, the head of the department, declared that if Maffitt was taken from him he could not supply his place in all the navy.” He added: ‘He is not only a thorough seaman and game to the backbone, but a man of superior intellect, a humorist of rare excellence, and one of the most delightful companions. There is no position in his profession which Maffitt is not capable of filling with honor and distinction.'” [source unknown] With the onset of the War Between the States, Maffitt resigned his US commission to become 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. He became an aide to General Robert E. Lee in preparing coastal defenses for Savannah, GA. His outstanding war record is very well-known to history. During the earlier days of the war he commanded the famous Confederate privateers the Florida and the Albemarle, rendering a most valuable service to the Confederacy. His expertise as a blockade runner was outstanding. He commanded the Owl and other vessels to bring in much needed supplies and munitions for the Confederate war effort. After the war and the resumption of peace, Maffitt’s home in Wilmington and $75,000 were confiscated by the US Government. He decided he would live in exile and applied for a command in the English merchant service. He was subsequently given command of a fine steamer, the Widgeon, running between Liverpool and Rio de Janeiro. Maffitt remained in this position for 18 months until he received an urgent request from the family to return to Wilmington. Using the money he earned in the British merchant marines, he purchased 212 acres bordering on Wrightsville Beach. The family cleared 51 acres to build a seven-room house and started a truck farm raising fruits, vegetables, flowers, and peanuts. He named the farm and home the “Moorings.” Residents of this area still refer to it as the Moorings. Life was pleasant at the Moorings, in summer especially, filled with guests boating, bathing, sailing, fishing, and the annual Carolina Yacht Club Regatta. By the early 1880s, Maffitt suffered a series of losses that brought on physical and mental anguish. He lost a thumb in an accident that wrenched it off by the roots. The wound caused him great pain and suffering and greatly reduced his writing ability. His friends nominated him to President Grover Cleveland for a position in the Customs House in Wilmington. However, President Cleveland refused to confirm the nomination; this was a great shock to Maffitt, who by now was suffering from Bright’s Disease (now known as nephritis). Maffitt was unable to supervise the farm and adequately provide for his family. He declined rapidly, spending 3 months in the state mental hospital in Raleigh. On Saturday afternoon, May 15, 1886, at the age of 67, Maffitt passed away in Wilmington. The funeral was held at 4:30 p.m. at St. James Church. He is buried at Oakdale Cemetery, Lot 25, owned by Emma Maffitt. As Maffitt would have put it, life had “slipped the mortal cable.” Maffitt’s great grandson Robert Maffitt is a member of the Brunswick Civil War Round Table. Col. Jack “Black Jack” Travis

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