Thursday, February 3, 2011

History: Rebels Down Under

In the spring of 1865 Confederate States Ship Shenandoah, a frigate of war in service to her “country” in the Pacific, pulled into the harbor of Williamstown, Victoria in South Western Australia. The sight of the ship itself was enough to cause a stir but when it was discovered that she was a Confederate warship looking to dock for repairs, tongues really began to wag. Technically, Britain, whose colony Australia was, was neutral with regard to the American Civil War which meant that a Confederate ship docking for repairs – and nothing else including provisions or men – was acceptable. But there were many local Confederate sympathizers, particularly in the nearby township of Ballarat, who saw this as a chance to aid a ship full of freedom fighters even if that meant stepping outside the technicalities of international law.

Shenandoah was in the Pacific for one reason only, to sink, burn or take as prize any Union whaling ship she came across. Much like David Porter’s Essex, on the same mission against the British during the War of 1812, she was remarkably successful. According to contemporary pundits it was Shenandoah, Captained by James Waddell, that had single handedly seen to it that whale oil cost three times as much at the end of the war as it had at its beginning. The pundits were probably right given that Waddell and his crew captured upwards of 40 ships and took over 1,000 men prisoner. One point of honor later in life, for Waddell and his officer, was that none of the prisoners were ever killed or harmed. Records show that all were paroled back to New England prior to Shenandoah’s surrender.

The ship stayed in Williamstown port for 24 days, getting not only the repairs she needed but supplies and 42 hands from among local sailors and adventure seekers. The ship became an attraction, with people coming from outlying towns and farms to see her at dockside. The crew was treated to special prices at local saloons and dance halls which extended beyond a glass or two of whiskey. The officers were feted as well; in particular an extravagant dinner was held in their honor at the Melbourne Club and those Confederate sympathizers at Ballarat threw a fancy dress ball for them as well.

Seemingly a lone voice in the crowd, the U.S. Ambassador to Melbourne fumed and ranted, calling Shenandoah a freebooter and her crew pirates. The Embassy even formally threatening the British with a demand for reparations for violating the neutrality agreement (the U.S. was in fact paid 1.5 million dollars in reparations by Britain after the war for just such violations).

Pirates or no Union outrage didn’t stop the party, but Shenandoah sailing away did. Things got back to normal in the port of Williamstown. It was probably well after Shenandoah finally surrendered at Liverpool, England in November – making Waddell the last Confederate commander to do so – that anyone heard more of her. Even later still, though, a few of the men that sailed off illegally to adventure on the high seas began to return home. One of these was William Kenyon, a supernumerary, who later became a publican at Port Melbourne and was buried in that city’s cemetery.

A short exhibit focusing on Shenandoah's Australian visit put together by the Williamstown Maritime Association and entitled “The Rebels Down Under” starts today at Seaworks at Williamstown. Local historians will be on had as well as Sam Craghead from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia where Shenandoah’s flag, ship’s logs and articles as well as journals and drawings made by the crew are on display. The exhibit runs only through Sunday and includes artifacts, models and talks and discussion groups this weekend. More information can be found at and

Being of both southern descent and mixed race, I have a lot of personal conflict around the Civil War. That said, a sailor is a sailor whether navy man or pirate, and an angry sea will never discriminate. Plus, an interesting tidbit of maritime history is always worth looking into, don’t you think?

Header: Destruction of Whale Ships by CSS Shenandoah by B. Russell


Charles L. Wallace said...

"An angry sea will never discriminate".... what a great line!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Looks like a pretty interesting exhibit. Too bad it's only for such a short time (and so far away)...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thankee! It rings true, doesn't it.

And Timmy!, maybe someday we can get to the museum in Virgina and see it all "first hand".