(August 8, 2017) On May 6, 1863, the same day that Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union Army retreated northward over the Rappahannock River following defeat at Chancellorsville, Va., Second Lt. Charles Read of the Confederate commerce raider Florida began one of the most astonishing adventures of the war.
His journey began thousands of miles to the south, in Brazilian waters. Earlier that morning the Florida captured the Baltimore-bound brig the Clarence. At Read’s request, the Florida’s captain, John Maffitt, gave the Mississippi-born lieutenant approval to take command of the Clarence with 20 volunteers and a small howitzer. Two weeks before his 23rd birthday, the Annapolis graduate converted the brig into a miniature Confederate raider disguised as a harmless sailing vessel.
His plan was audacious: Read figured that her genuine registry papers could get the Clarence past the blockade and into Hampton Roads, Va., which was typically crowded with Union supply vessels. Once inside, his crew might capture an unsuspecting gunboat and do what damage they could in the target-rich harbor before escaping into the Atlantic.