- Maffitt, May 1861–September 1862An excerpt from Two Captains from Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War
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Bland Simpson’s Two Captains from Carolina tells the story of Moses Grandy (ca. 1791–ca. 1850) and John Newland Maffitt Jr. (1819–1886), two accomplished nineteenth-century mariners from North Carolina. The story of these captains—one African American, one Irish American—is a vivid tale of race and maritime culture in the antebellum and Civil War–era South. In this excerpt, North Carolina has seceded from the Union and distinguished naval officer Maffitt enlists in the Confederate navy, going on to become a legendary blockade-runner and raider.
Maffitt, May 1861–September 1862
May 7, 1861
By nightfall on May 2, Maffitt, carrying only a small valise, his compass, and his spyglass, stopped, talked quietly and spoke a few calm words with a fellow officer on the District side of the Potomac River (“Let us hope there’ll be no war,” he said), then crossed the Long Bridge over to Alexandria, Virginia. For four days he endured thick smoke and cinders playing down onto the train cars, in through their windows and doors, as they went crawling from Alexandria to Richmond, Danville, and Greensboro to Columbia, Augusta, and Atlanta, the cars drawing ever southward to Montgomery, Alabama.
There John Newland Maffitt presented himself to President Jefferson Davis, offering his services to the South’s navy. And then, even as it was transpiring, his short visit with the Confederacy’s new leader suddenly struck him like something from a dream. “Our friends in the North,” said the President, “advise us that there will be no war.”
Maffitt was aghast at the ignorance in the room. The men with whom he was meeting, Jefferson Davis and Stephen Mallory—Mallory, of all men he should least like to see, creator of the old Retirement Board that had sought to cashier Maffitt, Mallory now a secessionist and at Davis’s elbow, his secretary of the Navy—seemed in no way to grasp just what he was telling them: No war? I have come to you directly from Washington City, where the caissons are rolling, where a great army has been gathering, where Lincoln is planning for war. Whether you are or not. And what do you have for a navy? Two tugboats from South Carolina, frail riverboats in Louisiana that you could knock to pieces with a pistol shot? A nation with three thousand miles of shoreline cannot do without a real navy. Not in peacetime, let alone in a war.
They appreciated his coming (did they really? Maffitt sorely wondered, noting closely how nervous and suspicious of him Mallory acted). They would find a place for him. [End Page 73]
In just a few minutes’ time he saw these men as worse than mad, possessed of an invincible ignorance, compounded by vanity and pride. A military man with exquisite training and judgment could not stand to be long in their presence, and so Maffitt, bristling, left quickly.
To his hotel room he strode, walking so briskly, so fueled by pure ire that he was nearly at a run. He packed his trunk, his emotions in riot of anguish, preparing to leave: he would head for Mobile and from there, as best and as soon as he could, sail to England and go to work there and sit out whatever came to pass. He would have no more truck with Davis and Mallory.
Yet there had been friends in the Montgomery room where Maffitt met Davis, men who dared not let him get away—Robert Toombs, Georgia’s former U.S. senator, now Davis’s Confederate secretary of state, was one of them, Georgian Ben Hill, too, and they had followed close behind Maffitt to the hotel and now stood pounding on his chamber door, till Maffitt admitted them and somberly listened to Toombs’s direct...