Monday, April 18, 2011

History: A Confederate Ship in the Arctic

A few weeks back we talked about the hardened warrior Confederate Sailing Ship Shenandoah and her foray into Melbourne, Australia. She and her crew were all the rage Down Under, taking on supplies and men even though – technically – Britain was supposed to be neutral with regard to America’s Civil War. The truly funny thing about that is that Shenandoah was built in Britain and illicitly handed over to the Confederate Navy off the coast of Africa in 1864. That’s not exactly neutrality. So the uproar that went along with her stop in Melbourne was a little disingenuous, to put it mildly.


Shenandoah was provisioning for the long trip to icy Arctic waters when she dallied a while in Australia. “Dally” might be the operative word. It was the custom of naval officers at the time to give a button from their uniform to a lady they had “spent time with ashore”. Melbourne legend has it that the officers of Shenandoah left that city with their uniforms held together by string. Clearly a good time was had by all but the mission ahead was one of hard work, attention to duty, and cold. Doubtless those Southern gentlemen wished they had their buttons back when they arrived off the coast of Alaska in 1865.

The warship was on a mission to shut down the Union whaling fleet in the Arctic, and she was tremendously successful. Her Captain, James Waddell, systematically sank, burned or took as prize any enemy whaler he came upon costing the Union close to $20 million dollars in lost whale oil, baleen, ships and men. To his credit, Waddell took as prisoner and ultimately released every man and boy aboard the enemy ships. No lives were lost on either side in any engagement. He and his men were so charming, in fact, that some of the whalers defected to the Confederate cause and joined Shenandoah’s crew.

The problem with Shenandoah’s Arctic success was that most of it occurred after the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. Even when confronted with newspapers proclaiming the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, Waddell refused to believe that his cause was done. Convincing himself that Confederate troops must be continuing to fight, he came up with a plan to raid the Gold Rush city of San Francisco. He headed south with all sail packed on and was only a week away from San Francisco harbor when Shenandoah was haled by a British ship, possibly a whaler in her own right, who confirmed the news Waddell had tried to ignore. The Confederate States were no more and her leaders, including Jefferson Davis, were behind bars. Worse still, Waddell and his men were now outlaws being hunted by the Union Navy and already sentenced to hang.

Waddell set a course for the Horn and, while at sea, painted and rerigged his ship to make her less recognizable. He avoided the well used sea lanes and, amazingly, sailed into Liverpool Harbor in England on November 5, 1865. Waddell surrendered Shenandoah to the British Navy. He and his men were welcomed, not as prisoners of war, but as guests. The U.S. kicked and stomped and shook its fist but Britain refused to extradite men to be hanged. Eventually most of the crew, and all of the officers, of Shenandoah returned to the states (although many of the Australian crew members went back to Melbourne).

Captain Waddell died in 1886 and, perhaps surprisingly, was remembered as a naval hero. So much so, in fact, that a destroyer built in Seattle in 1962 was christened USS Waddell.

The exploits of CSS Shenandoah, which lasted just over a year, are one of the many fascinating stories from America’s Civil War that most of us are never told. If you’ve a curiosity about Captain Waddell and his ship-of-war, look for the book The Last Shot: The Incredible Story of CSS Shenandoah and the True Conclusion of the Civil War by Juneau author Lynn Schooler. Here, once again, the truth of history is so much better than any fiction.

Header: Contemporary photograph of CSS Shenandoah among the Arctic ice

4 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Good post. I believe I read somewhere that after she was surrendered, the British sold Shenandoah to a barbary coast Sultan and the ship sank in a storm a few years later. I could be wrong about that though, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! That is correct. She went to the Dey of Zanzibar and wrecked in a storm as you note.

Mitch said...

Excellent post!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Mitch and thankee! It's a great tale and one we're finally hearing something about particularly up here in the Great Land.