Last Of The Rebel Raiders

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Melbourne police tried to search the cruiser, were refused permission, and came back with military reinforcements to press the issue. Waddell stood them off by threatening to “fight my ship”; then a little later took the heat off by quietly unloading several Australians who were aboard. But when the cruiser sailed again on February 18, her crew discovered to their surprise that 42 “stowaways” had later slipped aboard. For the first time on the voyage Waddell had men enough to handle every gun.

The raiders sailed northward through the Pacific for six dreary weeks without spotting a Yankee sail, then took four whalers at a single stroke. The ships were caught at anchor off Ascension Island (now called Ponape) in the Carolines. Meanwhile, Generals Grant and Lee were meeting at Appomattox.

The Shenandoah ’s men, of course, knew nothing of the South’s collapse. Waddell pushed on, impatient to reach the whaling grounds. He reached that objective on May 21 when the cruiser nosed into the ice-laden Sea of Okhotsk, off the coast of Siberia.

A few days later they captured the Abigail , a whaler well stocked with whiskey, and the Rebels went on a roaring drunk. Otherwise, the Okhotsk cruise was not much fun, and after three weeks of it, the raiders decided to try the Bering Sea.

From among the prisoners off the Abigail they gained a new recruit in one Thomas Manning, who had been the whaler’s second mate. Hunt described him as “a Baltirnorean by birth, anything by profession and a reprobate by nature.” He was also a most useful turncoat because he knew the waters, and he was willing to guide the Shenandoah to the whalers’ hunting grounds. With his help and a change in luck, the raiders took 24 vessels in a single week.

The list included five ships on June 22, one each on the twenty-third and twenty-fifth, six on the twenty-sixth, and eleven in a final orgy on the twenty-eighth. The ice-clogged sea lanes proved an ally now, preventing escape as the Shenandoah tracked her victims down. At one point in the eerie proceedings, three blazing ships lay behind the raiders, five more huddled helplessly ahead, and twelve longboats full of prisoners were strung out tow-fashion in the cruiser’s wake.

Captain Ebenezer Nye and First Mate George Smith of the Abigail took advantage of the general confusion to escape in a longboat. Risking death in the icy sea, they rowed and sailed 187 miles to warn other vessels at Cape Bering. Another tough old skipper, Captain Young of the Favorite, tried to defend his ship with a harpoon gun and had to be carried bodily from his deck. But most of the whalers were too stunned to offer more than shocked protests.

A mate on the William Thompson spoke for all of them when he greeted a Rebel boarding officer with “My God, man, don’t you know the war has ended?”

“Did Grant surrender?” asked young Orris Browne of the Shenandoah.

“No. The Army of Virginia surrendered. The war is over.”

“Sir,” replied Browne, “the war will not be over until the South is free.”

The raiders stuck to that view even when one whaling captain produced a tattered old newspaper as proof of Lee’s surrender. Waddell pointed to another item in the same paper—a report of the short-lived Danville proclamation in which Jefferson Davis vowed to fight on—and ordered the vessel destroyed with the rest.

Four whalers were bonded to provide a parking place for prisoners. One of them, the barque James Maury, furnished a macabre touch. Her captain had died en route to the Bering, leaving a wife and two children aboard. Not wishing to bury her husband at sea, but not wishing to put back in mid-voyage either, the practical widow had pickled her departed in a barrel of whiskey. Waddell gave special orders to spare the vessel.

As the Bering raid ended, the Rebels left eight ships burning at once—”a picture,” said Waddell, “of indescribable grandeur”—and sailed north to scout the Arctic Ocean. When they got into heavy ice jams and failed to find anything there, Waddell turned back to run down the Pacific coast of North America.

He was flirting now with a bold new idea. He had learned that San Francisco was defended by one ironclad, whose skipper he knew to be a careless, lazy fellow rather disinclined to fight. If he sailed in boldly, he might ram and seize the ironclad and capture the city. He was still toying with the idea when, on August 2, the raiders met a British barque and hailed her for news of the war.

“What war?” asked the English captain.