SUBMITTED BY: Robert Maffitt; Edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter and Kobe M. Brown
At Wilmington, there were many Southern merchant ships that ran the Northern blockade during the Civil War. One of the most successful Captains was John Newland Maffitt, who was known for regularly getting through the blockading ships to the Cape Fear River, bringing much-needed military supplies to this city.
Maffitt learned his seamanship at an early age and worked on many of the ships in the United States Navy and gained much experience. One of his assignments took him to Pensacola, Florida where he met a lovely lady who 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.
John and Mary were the parents of an extraordinary daughter, Mary Florence “Florie” Maffitt. Though history does not teach us much about her, this story discloses some of her life experiences and discusses the possibility that she was a blockade-runner like her father.
Florie was born in Mobile, Alabama in February 1841, and the news of his daughter’s birth reached her father when he arrived in Pensacola, Florida. Maffitt sent for his wife and Florie to come to him while he was on a three-month leave before proceeding to his next assignment. Florie’s brother, Eugene Anderson Maffitt, was born on November 28, 1844. John and Mary Maffitt separated shortly after Eugene was born.
Florie was educated in Georgetown, Maryland. She often went to visit her father when he came into port: She was known to be close to her father, despite not getting to see him often. On August 3, 1852, when Florie was 11 years old, her father married Caroline Laurens Read, a South Carolinian whose late husband had also been an officer in the navy. John and Caroline were married at St. Paul’s Church in Charleston, and afterward, Caroline took care of Florie and her brother while their father was at sea. Her stepmother taught Florie to dress and act like a lady and how to conduct herself properly at Washington D.C. gatherings.
In October 1858, Capt. John Maffitt purchased a home at 1214 K Street in Washington, DC, an upper-class neighborhood even by today’s standards. It was furnished with many heirlooms, such as family portraits, beds, furniture, and even a piano. It was also an area that had many shops and fine cafes that Florie loved to visit. But despite having a wonderful new home, sadness filled her heart as well as her father’s heart, when her stepmother, Caroline, passed away after suffering an illness that winter.
After her father was off at sea again, Florie moved to Ellerslie Estate, the home of her great-uncle, Dr. William 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 halfway between Fayetteville and present-day Fort Bragg. Being close to family once again, Florie was then surrounded by lovely, pleasant fields, far from big cities. She enjoyed her stay in the countryside, but Florie made many trips to Wilmington and Fayetteville to visit her father when he came to port or to shop at the fine places those cities offered.
Whenever the opportunity arose, Florie went on voyages with her father. As a result, Florie learned the skills of seamanship under his watchful eye while he surveyed the many waterways and inlets from Cape Cod to Mobile and back. The experiences she had on those trips also taught her critical thinking skills and how to manage responsibilities and challenges that arose. Florie was known to be charming and intelligent. Captain Maffitt taught her well, and some people wondered whether Florie managed or gave orders on a blockade running ship. Her presence aboard vessels and her abilities forced men to accept her and probably challenged some men’s views of what a woman should or should not do. But one thing she did receive was respect on all accounts, from men or women, North or South, and in foreign countries.
When the war began in 1861, Capt. Maffitt resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy and headed South to join the fledgling Confederate Navy. He was eventually assigned to the blockade running ships that brought supplies to Southern cities like Wilmington, Charleston, and Mobile. As Maffitt had served in the coastal survey earlier, this was a logical assignment for him since he knew how to avoid the sandbars and the low points of cities’ harbors. He took command of many ships during the war, like the Florida, Lilian, and the Owl.
Was Florie a ship’s captain or a blockade runner?
It is known that Florie was capable aboard a ship, educated, and was unafraid of responsibility and conflict. However, no evidence has been found to confirm that she definitely captained a blockade runner herself. It has been determined that James Sprunt referred to her as a “chip off the old block,” meaning that she was like her father. In Blockade Runners of the Confederacy, Hamilton Cochran states that Captain Maffitt’s daughter, Florie, returned from Bermuda and oversaw one of her father’s blockade-running ships carrying gold.
On April 11, 1862, Capt. George Walker took command of the CSS Nassau, a blockade runner that traveled between Wilmington and the Bahamas. As it was quite common to carry passengers while breaking through the blockade, Mr. and Mrs. De Leon and two ladies, one of whom was Florie, were aboard when the vessel left the Bahamas to return to Wilmington. Off the coast of Wilmington, A Northern ship was close behind and in pursuit, and because of Captain George Walker’s bad management, his ship fell into the hands of the Federal cruiser. However, before the Nassau was captured, Florie stated that she was going to stay on deck and urged the captain not to surrender the ship to the Yankees at all costs. 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 reportedly went to tears when the ship was captured, saying to the captain that she knew her father would rather have her be blown up than to surrender the ship to Yankees.
That event has sometimes been used to suggest that Florie was a captain and blockade runner. However, a passage her father wrote in his journal dispels the notion that Florie was actually the captain of her own vessel. Capt. Maffitt wrote: “The steamer Nassau fell into the hands of Capt. George Walker. Mrs.— and my daughter Florie, having taken passage for home in her, were captured, through bad management and taken to New York, where they were treated with great courtesy, and in a few days were passed through the lines for home” (The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt, 240).
The man who captured Florie’s heart was Joshua Wright. The Wrights were a well-known Wilmington family who helped shape the future of the city as one of the best seaports on the East Coast for shipping goods. On February 17, 1864, Florie and Joshua marred at St. John’s Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and they had six children: James Allen, John Maffitt, Joshua Grainger, Thomas Henry, Mary Allen, and Caroline Lauren Wright. Florie and her husband often traveled to their estate in Cork County, Ireland, after the war, and visited with the Maffitt family members who still resided there.
Florie 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 the war. After the war and fearing that they were considered pirates by the United States government, Captain John 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 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 many for swimming, boating, and fishing. Even the Carolina Yacht Club (still in operation today) provided recreation for socials and events. There, he gathered his children, and they helped run the estate and met the many visitors that came, including the Wrights. 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.
On September 28,1883, Florie passed away suddenly after suffering an illness. Capt. Maffitt was presumably grief-stricken. In her book, Emma wrote about Florie: “I wish I could paint for you the life of unselfish devotion of this brave woman.”
Florie Maffitt is an important part of Wilmington’s unique history, although we do not know her full life story. We do know from the foregoing that she was a brave woman and a fine example to other women, as well as the loving daughter of a man who loved her deeply and taught her the secrets of the sea.
[Editor’s Note: This is an expanded story of one on the website entitled “John N. Maffitt, 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy.”]