- Historic Sites
Last Of The Rebel Raiders
Long after the Civil War was over, the Shenandoah’s die-hard skipper was still sinking Yankee ships
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
On the night of October 8, 1864, a little group of men hurried through log-shrouded streets in Liverpool, England, to board the steamer Laurel, which lay waiting in the harbor. They posed as passengers and pretended to be strangers to one another, but in tact they were officers and men of the Confederate Navy. Some of them had reached Europe oil the blockade-runners that slipped in and out of southern ports. Others had swum away from the Rebel cruiser Alabama when she was pounded to death by a Union warship off the coast of France. Led by Captain James I. Waddell of North Carolina, they were about to embark on one of the most fantastic adventures of the Civil War.
In Waddell’s pocket was a letter of instructions from James D. Bulloch, Confederate secret agent abroad, who had organized the expedition. It directed the Rebels to proceed “into the seas and among the islands frequented by the great American whaling fleet, a source of abundant wealth to our enemies and a nursery for their seamen. It is hoped that you may be able to greatly damage and disperse that fleet. …”
Waddell’s task force would do that and more. Its members were destined to man the last Confederate cruiser, fire the war’s last shot in the ice-jammed waters of the Bering Sea, and carry the Confederate Hag around the world. Months after the great conflict had ended for everyone else, they would still be Hying the Rebel flag.
Now, as the Laurel put out to sea, continued secrecy on the part of Waddell and his fellow “passengers” was necessitated by the fact that the Confederate agent Bulloch, though he had bought her through a British front man who remained the owner of record, still feared detection by United States officials or by those of England, which was wavering in its support of the Confederacy now that the cause seemed doomed. Hence he had seen to it that the Laurel cleared port under false papers, her crew knowing nothing of the plot and even her captain, though informed of the sale, unaware of his destination until he opened sealed orders at sea.
These directed him to proceed to the Madeira Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa; there the Laurel was to be joined by the Sea King , which Bulloch had already arranged to purchase for the Rebel government. Presumably the Sea King was too conspicuous a ship to be bought in the rather direct manner in which he had acquired the Laurel . At any rate, playing his conspiratorial role to the hilt, Bulloch had arranged for the Sea King to clear the port of London tinder similar conditions of secrecy, with one of Waddell’s officers, Lieutenant William C. Whittle, Jr., aboard in mufti. To get around the neutrality laws, which banned the sale or outfitting of belligerent vessels in a British port, Waddell and his men were to complete the purchase of the Sea King in the Madeiras; Waddell would then try to persuade the crews of both ships to join the Confederate cause, and while the Laurel would be assigned to blockade-running, the Sea King—a last, full-rigged East Indiainan equipped to run under sail or steam—would become a Rebel raider.
When the two ships rendezvoused at the Madeiras, Waddell paid £45,000 for the Sea King, officially changed her name to Shenandoah, and assembled both crews for a recruiting speech.
He was a big man, handsome, hot-tempered, stubborn, and proud. He limped a little—the result ol an old dueling wound—but otherwise his carriage was that of a career officer who had trod warship decks for twenty years. He thought seafaring men were born to fight, and he was astonished and angry when only two responded to his first appeal.
If adventure did not lure them, perhaps money would. Waddell sent to his cabin for a bucket of gold sovereigns and stood before them clinking the coins. He progressively raised the salary ante, threw in a handsome enlistment bonus, and held out the hope of booty to come. In the end, bitterly disappointed, he had to settle for nine new recruits. It brought the total to 42 officers and men, about one-third the force required. The Shenandoah was so desperately shorthanded that the crew couldn’t raise the anchor, and the officers had to throw their weight to the winches before the command “Take the ocean” could be obeyed.