Information about the building and deployment of CSS Florida from the book Lelia by Chris Michael (with permission) - see here .
Thomas Miller had been with his father William in the office off Sefton Street of their Liverpool shipbuilding company in June 1861 when they received an attractive proposition. Their neighbours, the old established engineering company of Fawcett and Preston, had agreed to provide the engines for a new ship and offered the Millers the subcontract for the hull and fittings. This was to be the start of something quite remarkable, taking them into a world of intrigue, innovative ship design, expansion and eventually disaster.
Liverpool had a well earned reputation for innovation. The port, on the east bank of the Mersey estuary, developed from a tidal creek that offered some shelter. To overcome the limitations caused by the big tidal range (of up to 10 metres) and the vulnerability of ships anchored in the Mersey off Liverpool to a northwesterly gale, an enclosed dock accessed by a lock gate was built in 1715. This was one of the first tidal docks built anywhere and the security this gave led to a rapid growth of the port.
Liverpool recognised the importance of steam power early, the first steamship appeared in 1815 and was a Clyde-built vessel. Two years later, the first steamship was built at Liverpool, a Mersey ferry with engines from the works of Fawcett & Preston. Connection with the rest of northwest England was initially by barges (called Mersey flats) sailing to the upper Mersey. Canals were constructed inland from the tidal Mersey and, in 1830, the first important railway to be built anywhere in the world was the railway linking Liverpool and Manchester. Liverpool was well placed to utilise steam power, being close to the Lancashire coalfield.
By the 1860's the Docks were extensive and well designed, ranging from Toxteth Dock in the south to Canada Dock to the north. The centre of Liverpool was the Landing Stage, located then as now. There were no "Three Graces" then , the area inland of the Landing Stage was mainly occupied by several small docks. The most impressive building on the waterfront would have been the Albert Dock warehouse , built in 1846. The Town Hall was much as it is now, at the end of Castle Street. St. George's Hall at that time was an impressive building in Derby Square, since demolished and replaced later by the neo-classical building near Lime Street. Another important building, also now demolished, was the Custom House in Canning Place.
The area of Liverpool around Rodney Street, Upper Parliament Street and Abercromby Square was then, as now, filled with impressive Georgian-style houses. Charles Prioleau, head of the Liverpool operations of shipping brokers Fraser Trentholm & Co., lived at 19 Abercromby Square, where the staircase still bears decoration showing a Southern US influence. William C. Miller lived at 107 Upper Parliament Street, while his son, Thomas, lived nearby at 98 Windsor Street. There were also large areas, as now, of more modest housing.
Liverpool was not just an import/export town. There were a large number of shipyards and engineering works in Liverpool. In March 1864 33 ships, totalling over 25000 tons, were under construction. As well as the Liverpool side of the Mersey, the Birkenhead side (west side) also had docks and shipyards. Because of the rapid growth of Liverpool, many of the dockers, shipyard workers and seamen came from other parts of Britain and Ireland. It was a very cosmopolitan city.
William Cowley Miller was a native of Plymouth, who worked as a shipwright in the Naval Dock. He and his family, then including three children (sons William and Thomas and daughter Margaret) moved in 1836 to the booming town of Liverpool where he was employed as foreman at a shipbuilding yard. He prospered and, within a few years, he set up a business jointly with Thomas Miller Mackay. They built wooden sailing ships including, in the early 1850's, some famous trans-oceanic passenger vessels for the Black Ball line. By this time William C. Miller's family had increased with three more children, sons Henry and Edwin and daughter Catherine. Thomas Mackay took more of an interest in shipowning and, after a few years, William C. Miller commenced business as Miller & Sons, a family shipyard. William C. Miller was highly regarded as a shipbuilder. Following his advice to the government in drawing up the bill to regulate tonnage measurements, he had been appointed to oversee the application of tonnage measurements to all ships built on the Mersey. He was elected councillor for South Toxteth in 1863. His son Thomas Lodwick, born in 1835, took a leading role in the business, and was being groomed by his father to be his successor. Thomas married Mary Keverigan, the daughter of a timber merchant, and had two sons, Thomas and Edward. Two more of William C. Miller's sons, Henry and Edwin, were active in the family business.
The shipyard of Messrs. William C. Miller and Sons had its entrance from Sefton St. near Brunswick and Toxteth docks, to the south of the centre of Liverpool, which, at that time, was at the edge of the urban area. There were slipways directly into the Mersey, graving docks (dry docks) at the end of Brunswick dock and the small Toxteth dock near Harrington town quay was used as a fitting out area. They described themselves as shipbuilders in wood and iron. Fawcett & Co. had their engineering works nearby in York Street. Their rivals, Jones Quiggin & Co., had their shipyard near to that of Millers, but further south. A sketch and an engraving show ships being launched from these slipways.
Fawcett and Preston, known on Merseyside as "Fossets", had its origins in the Phoenix iron foundry set up in Liverpool in 1758. One of their earliest products was three-legged iron kettles and pots, many of which were exported from Liverpool. The cliché of cannibals cooking the missionary in an iron pot was most probably fiction, but Fawcett's supplied the pot! Gradually Fawcett's built up a lucrative business. An important part was supplying engines, machinery, cannon and rifles to America. When the Civil War began, the Southern states of the Confederacy had no significant heavy industry, so they looked to their traditional supplier. The Confederate naval commander James Bulloch was sent to England in 1861 to acquire naval vessels for the confederacy to counter the Union naval force blockading Southern ports and also to retaliate by acting as commerce raiders attacking Union ships worldwide. He approached Fawcett's and they agreed to act as main contractors for one vessel. The Oreto, as she was known at first, was to be built without any equipment of war aboard and with no obvious link to the Confederacy. In this way Bulloch kept within English law, which required England to be neutral in the Civil War, and did not allow any direct provision of war material to either side. Fawcett's offered the subcontract to Miller's to build the hull and fit out the boat, with Fawcett's providing the engines and some machinery. The guns to arm her would also be provided by Fawcett's, but in a clandestine way.
William C. Miller was the member of the Liverpool Council for South Toxteth and was a supporter of the Liberal Party. He was not sympathetic to the Confederate cause, politically, but regarded the contract to build a ship as purely a business proposition. Millers accepted the proposal from Fawcett's to build the hull of the Oreto.
William had experience of naval ship construction and he based the design of the Oreto on that of a British dispatch gunboat. By this date wooden construction was becoming obsolete, in favour of iron, in British shipyards, but, since no effective anti-fouling existed for iron hulls, they had to be cleaned in dry dock regularly. Wood, however, could be copper sheathed which gave lasting protection. The Oreto had a wooden hull, so she would be independent of dry docks, and was a 3-masted topsail schooner. After making some small changes to the design, James Bulloch was satisfied that she would be a very able performer in her chosen rôle. She was strongly built to carry heavy loads on deck (such as guns) and could provide berths for a large crew. Fawcett's provided horizontal direct-acting steam engines driving an iron screw which could be raised out of the water so that she would sail better without the drag of a propeller. She was completed in 1862. Union spies in Liverpool had noted what was happening and they reported that the Oreto was built in such a way as to be very suitable for conversion into a gun boat. Despite Union suspicions, a customs inspection showed she had no war material on board.
Bulloch had arranged that the Oreto was officially owned by a local agent of an Italian firm and she was registered as British with a properly certified British master and crew. The Millers knew an ideal person to act as her master for the delivery. This was Captain James Alexander Duguid, a native of Torpoint, who had moved to Liverpool, marrying William C. Miller's daughter Margaret in 1851, the year that he obtained his master's certificate. Under his command, the Oreto could not be legally detained. Just to make sure, the Oreto left Liverpool on 22 March 1862 for a trial run with ladies aboard. They were then put aboard a tender to go ashore and Bulloch's agent John Low announced that the Oreto was continuing to sea and that her destination was not Palermo in Italy, but Nassau in the Bahamas. Low reported very favourably on her performance at sea, in particular her solid build and her speed under sail and under steam power.
At Nassau, she was again delayed by Union claims but eventually was cleared and put to sea under the command of Capt. Duguid with Confederate officers aboard, listed as passengers. The guns, equipment and stores constructed by Fawcett's and needed for her conversion to a gunboat had been brought separately from Liverpool by the steamer Bahama. The Oreto could not be armed in a neutral port, so these items were then put aboard the schooner Prince Albert which sailed out to sea to meet up with the Oreto. The transfer took place at sea near a remote island, Green Cay, and was very hard work for the crew under the hot sun. But finally, in early August 1862, the CSS Florida (as she was now called) was commissioned under the command of Lieutenant John Maffitt. The seamen on Florida were offered the chance to remain on board, sharing the risks and the prize money, or to return to Nassau aboard the Prince Albert. Most accepted the challenge. One of her junior officers was midshipman George Terry Sinclair(jr), third son of Arthur Sinclair.
Her career started badly. The crew was struck down with yellow fever with both John Maffitt and Terry Sinclair among those affected. The equipment taken on board lacked important items, so that her guns could not be operated effectively. She called at Cuba briefly to pick up supplies and some more crew. With few healthy crew aboard, Maffitt decided to run the blockade into Mobile. He, himself, was ill and could hardly stand. To be sure of finding the channel, he approached in daylight, flying the British ensign. The USS Oneida and Winona were blockading and ordered the approaching ship to stop. Maffitt then hoisted the Confederate flag and ran between the blockading ships. The crew of Florida were too weak from yellow fever to deploy their own guns and they had to suffer heavy gunfire for 20 minutes until they got under the covering fire of Fort Morgan. The ship was riddled with shells and shrapnel but only one man was killed.
It took several months to repair the damage and her commander then waited until there was an offshore gale to give them the best chance to escape. On the night of 15 January 1863, Florida set out. There were now eleven blockading ships and, by star light, she managed to steam quietly past several until her smoke was blown across the deck of a blockader which flashed a bright light to alert the others. Aboard Florida, men were aloft ready to deploy sails and the order was given to set all sail. With full sail set rapidly and her engines at full power, she had a good start on the blockaders. The only USN vessel fast enough to keep up with her was the gunboat USS R.R. Cuyler. Florida was able to achieve a speed of 13.6 knots with the strong following wind. After a day-long chase, she was able to outrun the R.R. Cuyler. This performance was a testimony to her design by Millers.
The intention was not to take on the US Navy (which hugely outnumbered the Confederate Navy) but to prey upon Union merchant vessels. Having escaped from Mobile, CSS Florida roamed the Atlantic capturing Union ships. She sailed under a British flag, until close to her target when she raised the Confederate flag. Since the Confederate ports were blockaded, any Union ships she captured could not be sent there and so were burned or bonded (forced to pay a fine, but allowed to proceed). The clipper Jacob Bell with a cargo valued at $1.5 million was the most valuable capture. The crew benefited from a share of any prize money. One constraint was that she was only allowed to take on board limited supplies in neutral ports, and she did not visit any home ports, although she was able to obtain some provisions and coal from ships she captured. On one occasion a Union gunboat came close to her but, by lowering her funnels, she was able to modify her appearance and escape a confrontation. After an enforced period in port at Brest in France to refit the ship, the Florida returned to the offensive and captured in total 38 Union ships. On 10 July 1864, she captured the Electric Spark off Delaware. While transferring the money safe in a small boat at night from the Electric Spark, the boat was swamped and sank. Midshipman William B. Sinclair(jr), who was in charge of the boat, grabbed an oar, but when a sailor shouted that he could not swim, he unselfishly gave him the oar. Though William could swim he did not survive. He had joined the Florida in early 1864 while still in his teens and was the son of Arthur Sinclair's brother, William Beverley Sinclair, who held the rank of surgeon in the CS Navy.
One of the most exciting episodes occured when Lieutenant Charles Read suggested in mid 1863 that he be allowed to take command of the brig Clarence which had just been captured by the Florida and operate her as an additional armed cruiser. His plan was to enter the Union base at Chesapeake Bay using her genuine papers and registry and then cause mayhem. He fitted her with wooden dummy guns and added gun ports, even though they only had one 6 pounder aboard. He captured several valuable Union merchantmen and, on board one, he learnt that only ships with cargoes for the Federal Government were allowed to proceed to the base in Hampton Roads. It was time to change plan. Read, ever adventurous, sought a faster ship than the sluggish Clarence. He sighted the Tacony and was only able to get close to her by the deception of flying a distress signal. He now moved his operations and gun to the Tacony. He then burned the Clarence which created a most impressive aroma - she had a cargo of coffee beans. His predation continued. By now a Union fleet of warships were searching for the non-existent Clarence, and Read on the Tacony was even stopped once or twice by Union warships and asked if he had seen the Clarence. To keep up the deception, he then moved his operation to a small schooner, the Archer. Since he was out of ammunition, he took her into harbour at Portland, Maine, where, at night, he captured the USN cutter Caleb Cushing as her crew were asleep and sailed out in her. Before he could capture another ship and cover his tracks, a hastily assembled flotilla of Union armed ships approached. His luck now evaporated and he was out-gunned and forced to set her on fire and surrender. He had captured 22 vessels by his initiative using only a small band of men and one large gun. He had tied up a huge fleet of Union warships - looking for a ship that no longer existed. He was later exchanged with Union prisoners of war and promoted to the rank of Commander.
The Florida and the armed raiders she created (such as the Clarence/ Tacony) captured over 60 Union merchant ships between them. The Florida is less well known than another Mersey-built commerce raider, the Alabama (then known as Enrica), built by Lairds. She had been ordered by Bulloch a few weeks after the Oreto/ Florida but commenced her attacks on Union shipping in August 1862, so she started operations before the Florida. She also captured over 60 Union merchant ships. Although it was a great satisfaction to the Confederate navy that they were compensating for the Union navy attacks on unarmed blockade runners, the main financial impact of the Confederate armed cruisers was to increase the insurance rates for US merchant vessels, so benefiting Britain since British vessels were not attacked.
The publicity surrounding these two Confederate Navy vessels, Florida and Alabama, built on Merseyside, meant it was going to be difficult for the Miller shipyard to build warships for eventual use by the Confederacy. As well as building ships for the domestic trade (for example the steam tug Emperor), Millers were again asked to build a ship as a subcontract from Fawcett's. She was intended to be a gift to the Confederate government from Fraser, Trentholm & Company, cotton brokers and ship-owners whose Liverpool agent was Charles Prioleau. The small wooden vessel Alexandra was very strongly built with a steam engine to power her propeller and a three-masted barquentine rig. At 145 feet long, she was smaller than the Florida which was 191 feet long. She was described by Millers as suitable for use as a yacht or mailboat, though she was very suitable for conversion into a gunboat. She was launched on 7 March 1863 by Mrs William Miller, named Alexandra after the Princess who married the Prince of Wales on 10 March, and was then fitted out in Toxteth Dock.
Although Miller's shipyard was surrounded by a high wall and entry was controlled, it was common knowledge that the Alexandra had links to the Confederacy, since a report in the newspapers on 16 March stated 'a gunboat built by Messrs W C Miller & Sons at Liverpool for the Confederates was launched last week'. Before she could sail, the Union consul, Thomas Dudley, in Liverpool used Union agents to support this allegation and he placed their evidence before the British government. The Alexandra was arrested on 5 April 1863. The Union spies were motivated by payment and were a rather disreputable bunch of men. Much of their evidence was hearsay and not legally significant. Sometimes they were just plain wrong. One of the spies was John Da Costa who described himself as a shipowner and shipping agent, although he was actually a partner in a tug, the SS Emperor being built by Millers alongside the Alexandra. His evidence was that he had heard Thomas Miller state that Alexandra was intended as a Confederate gunboat and that he had seen Captain Tessier, who had worked for Fraser Trentholm for many years, discussing the construction of her. Another man gave evidence that several people present at her launch, Charles Prioleau, Captain Tessier and some clerks, all had close links with Fraser Trenholm. Another spy, George Temple Chapman, had presented himself at Fraser Trentholm's Liverpool office and had volunteered to aid the Confederate cause. He had a conversation with Charles Prioleau, and a brief meeting with James Bulloch, but he was unable to trap them into any rash disclosure. The third main source of evidence came from Clarence Randolf Yonge who had been a trusted Confederate naval officer: the paymaster on the Alabama. His reliability as a witness was questioned, since he had deserted and entrapped a widow for her money, subsequently abandoning her and her children. He gave evidence about the funding of the Alabama.
The evidence presented was that Alexandra was very suitable for conversion to a warship (which was true) and that she would be converted into a Confederate warship (which was not proven). After a year-long series of court proceedings, in May 1864 she was eventually cleared on condition that she was clearly fitted out as a merchant vessel. Named Mary, Captain Edward Montgomery Collier took her from Liverpool on 17 July and arrived off St. George's Harbour in Bermuda on 30 August. Yellow fever was rife there at that time, so he returned to Halifax. She returned to Bermuda on 14 November 1864 and then left for Nassau, arriving on 29 November. Here she took on coal. Union spies reported seeing guns on board, so she was again the subject of court proceedings. One gun (built by Fawcett & Preston) was found among the goods stowed aboard, but she was released on 30 May 1865, too late for her to play any rôle in the Civil War. The Union diplomatic service had lost the court cases but they had scored a victory: they had eliminated the contribution of the Alexandra.
The legal proceedings over the Alexandra clarified the possibilities for Confederate agents to acquire vessels suitable for conversion to warships. Bulloch had contracted with Lairds in Birkenhead for two ironclads (known as the Laird rams) and George Sinclair (Arthur Sinclair's brother) had arranged for an ironclad, the Pampero( Texas), to be built at Glasgow. As these plans came to light, the vessels were detained on British Government instructions and played no rôle in the Civil War.
Since the Miller family shipyard had built two ships which were intended as Confederate warships, the Union spies kept a very close watch over them. There was another type of ship much in demand - the blockade runner - and that was to be their next involvement with the American Civil war.