John Newland Maffitt was born at sea on February 22, 1819, onboard a ship bound for New York City, his parents having emigrated from Ireland. The Reverend John Newland Maffitt and his wife Ann Carnicke, settled with their infant son in Connecticut but when John was about five years old he was adopted by his uncle, Dr. William Maffitt and moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina.
In 1857, John was placed in command of the 'USS Dolphin' and tasked to capture any pirates and slavers in the West Indies. On August 21, 1858, ‘Dolphin’ captured the slaver ‘Echo’ with three hundred and eighteen Africans on board and sent her into Charleston. These liberated slaves were later sent back to Africa. Two years later, Maffitt became commander of the 'USS Crusader', continuing with his assignment to suppress slavers in the West Indies until February 7, 1861.
In May 1861, with the coming of the Civil War, John Maffitt resigned his U.S. Navy commission and became a First Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. He served as naval aide to General Robert E. Lee while preparations for the defense of Savannah were in progress. In early 1862, Maffitt was ordered to take the civilian steamer 'Cecile' and run the blockade with supplies for the Confederacy.
On August 17, 1862 John Maffitt became the first commanding officer of the 'CSS Florida', taking her through a difficult fitting-out period during which most of the ship's company was stricken with yellow fever. While docked in Cuba, Commander John Maffitt himself contracted the disease. Despite his condition, he was determined to sail the ‘Florida’ from Cardenas, Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. Finding the way into Mobile Bay blocked by Union warships, ‘Florida’ braved a hail of fire from the blockaders and raced through to anchor beneath the guns of Fort Morgan. The bombardment from the blockaders was severe and caused considerable damage to his ship. Maffitt was unable to return to sea for more than three months and to further prevent his escape, the Union Navy increased the blockading force near Mobile.
Having taken stores and gun accessories the ship lacked, along with added crew members, John Maffitt waited for a violent storm to give cover, before setting out on January 16, 1863. Skillfully, he managed to lose six pursuing blockaders. After coaling at Nassau, the ‘CSS Florida’ (photo) spent six months off the north and south American coast and in the West Indies, making only necessary calls at neutral ports. All this while she was raiding merchantmen and eluding the large Federal squadron pursuing her. It was during this period that John acquired the nickname ‘Prince of Privateers’ (a somewhat inaccurate appelation, since he was a serving naval officer). Maffitt was promoted to Captain in May 31, 1864 ‘for gallant and meritorious conduct in command of the steam sloop Florida.’ Ill health and the lingering effects of yellow fever forced him to relinquish command of the Florida at Brest in France on February 12, 1864.
Leaving CSS Florida at Brest, Maffitt travelled to Scandinavia to rest before returning to Liverpool in order to board a vessel that would help him return to the Confederacy. Not yet over his illness and suffering heart problems as a side effect of the yellow fever, Confederate Agent, James D. Bulloch advised him to spend some time recuperating at the Royal Hotel in Waterloo, close to the home of Bulloch.
In the summer of 1864, recovered and returning to the Confederate States, Maffitt was given command of the ironclad ram, 'CSS Albemarle'. Under his captaincy, the ‘Albemarle’ dominated the Roanoke River along with the approaches to Plymouth, North Carolina throughout that summer. In September, he overtook command of the blockade runner, 'CSS Owl' and on October 3rd 1864, escaped to sea from Wilmington arriving in Bermuda on October 24th with a large and valuable cargo of cotton. Maffit made several more successful runs through the Union blockade in the ‘Owl’ before the war ended. By coincidence, Maffitt's son Eugene, was a midshipman on the Confederate States cruiser 'Alabama' serving under Raphael Semmes at the time she was sunk by the 'USS Kearsarge'. He, Semmes and many other crew of the 'Alabama' were picked up by the British yacht Deerhound.
John Newland Maffitt died in Wilmington on May 15, 1886, leaving an unfinished manuscript about piracy in the West Indies. His collected papers are kept in the library of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C.