A shout-out belongs to Chris Mackowski, who recognized this story’s drama much sooner than I did, and has been asking that I write this series for over a year now—I should have followed his advice much earlier. I grew up in southern Maine, only about a 10-minute drive from Portland, and even with my interest in the Civil War that started at an early age, I did not know about the battle of Portland Harbor, which occurred on June 27, 1863. Perhaps ironically, it was not until I came to Virginia for college, about 600 miles from home, that I learned about the battle that occurred just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my house.
This post, part one of a series, serves as a prologue.
The story of the Battle of Portland Harbor begins on May 6, 1863 and close to 4,000 miles from where it ends. Off the coast of Brazil, near the Cape of Saint Roch, the C.S.S. Florida captured the supply ship Clarence, bound for Baltimore. The Clarence was a brig, weighing 253 tons, with an overall length of 114 feet.
Aboard the Florida, Second Lieutenant Charles Read got an idea. Read, just six days shy of his 23rd birthday, graduated last from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1860 but then, like so many other southerners, resigned his commission upon secession. As the second-in-command on the Florida, Read was looking to make his own impression in the ongoing war. On the same day as the Clarence’s capture, Read wrote to his superior, Commander John Maffitt, also aboard the Florida, “Sir: I propose to take the brig which we have just captured, and, with a crew of twenty men, to proceed to Hampton Roads and cut out a gunboat or steamer of the enemy.”