December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Long after the Civil War was over, the Shenandoah’s die-hard skipper was still sinking Yankee ships
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.
The ship was a mess. Arms, ammunition, and supplies had been hastily transferred from the hold of the Laurel—which had in the meantime departed—and lay now in helter-skelter confusion on the deck. Ship’s Carpenter John O’Shea searched everywhere for gun bolts to secure the cannon; finally they were found, packed in with a barrel of beef. The gun tackles could not be located at all. Somehow, unaccountably, they had been left behind. The cannon had to be lashed down with ropes and thrust through the portholes in a posture of empty menace. The only working armament consisted of two twelve-pound signal guns, and for these there was only one round of live ammunition plus the usual supply of signal blanks.
The Rebels decided to bluff it through. Waddell took the helm himself, to spare his men for more urgent duties, and set a southerly course. He planned to go the long way around, raiding Yankee commerce in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans before striking finally at the Arctic whalers. He hoped thus to outflank the Union Navy, which had driven every other Confederate cruiser from the seas.
Ten days out of the Madeiras, the raider took her first prize. It was the barque Alina , bound from Newport, England, to Buenos Aires with a cargo of railroad iron, and she hove to and surrendered after one shot from a sisrnal eun. It was a eood catch, worth $95,000 by the Rebels’ estimate; more important, the boarding party found gun blocks to fit the Shenandoah’s cannon. The next time the cruiser fired a signal shot she would be able to back it up.
The prize was scuttled. Captain Edward Staples of the Alina and Master’s Mate Cornelius Hunt of the Shenandoah. watched her go down, and for both it was a sight that they could never forget.
“I tell you what, Matey,” said Staples, according to Hunt’s memoir, “I’ve a daughter at home that that craft yonder was named for, and it goes against me cursedly to see her destroyed. I know it is only the fortune of war, and I must take my chances with the rest, but it’s damned hard. I only hope I shall have an opportunity of returning your polite attentions before this muss is over, that’s all.”
Young Hunt didn’t enjoy it either. “Her stern … settled,” he wrote later, “her bows reared high in the air, as if in indignant deprecation of such sacrilegious treatment at the hands of seamen, and with all sail set she went down right bravely. I confess it was some time ere I could fully recover from the unpleasant feelings the sight engendered.”
The Shenandoah’s captain didn’t join, then or later, in such commiseration with the defeated foe. A good hater, he was to write afterward that the Yankees warred on the South “with all the vices and passions of civilized men added to the natural ferocity of the savage. They had no magnanimity or chivalry; they fought on a calculation of profit. This fact never left my mind, and reconciled me to the destruction of property …”
The raider captured two more vessels, the schooner Charter Oak and the barque D. Godfrey, in the next nine days. Both were burned. The Charter Oak’s skipper was philosophical, advising the boarding crew: “For God’s sake, bring the preserved fruit on board.” The Godfrey ’s captain took it hard. “That was a vessel,” he told the Rebels, “which has … faced old Boreas in every part of the world, in the service of her master and after such a career, to be destroyed by men on a calm night, on this tropical sea, is too bad—too bad! There is no sight so awful to a sailor as a ship on fire.”
The cruiser by now was jam-packed with prisoners. Captured officers were paroled to the wardrooms; most of the captured crewmen were clapped in single irons and confined to the topgallant forecastle where they shared cramped cjuarters with live chickens and sheep. Waddell unloaded some of his captives on a passing Danish brig, the Anna Jane . The rest were put on the Kate Prince , a sailing ship out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which the raiders captured and released after extracting a ransom bond of $40,000. But not all: about a dozen men from various of the Shenandoah’s prizes had joined the Rebel crew.
There were charges afterward that some of these men were more impressed than enlisted, and Waddell didn’t bother to deny it in his account of the voyage. “I could rely,” he observed dryly, “on our men using rough persuasion in the dark with those who were undecided. …” But he also noted that “I felt sure that each prize would have in its crew one or more adventurous spirits who would gladly embrace the opportunity …”
Among the adventurous spirits were a good many international floaters who felt no particular allegiance to any flag or cause. The Rebels eventually signed up nearly a hundred mid-voyage recruits, including New England Yankees and even free Negroes along with English, Irish, Australian, French, Swedish, Danish, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Malayan, and Hindu seamen. Waddell, a decidedly race-conscious aristocrat, didn’t approve of this polyglot mixture. He accepted it because he had no other choice.
Flying American or neutral flags to lull the unwary and hoisting their own emblem when they closed in for the kill, the raiders picked off four more Atlantic prizes. One was the Edward, an isolated whaler, and like all ships of its kind it was a seagoing general store. The Shenandoah lay by for two days to stuff its hold with 200 barrels of salt beef and pork, several thousand pounds of biscuits, and huge quantities of rope, sail, and bedding. The biscuits were, said Waddell, “the best I had ever seen.”
Afterward they stopped briefly at Tristan da Cunha, a barren little South Atlantic island inhabited by the descendants of maritime strays and castaways. The raiders took on fresh meat and water there and put the latest batch of prisoners ashore. Hunt described an islander’s bemused reaction:
“And where the devil did you get your prisoners?” queried one of the mystified natives.
“From a whaler not far from here,” responded one of our officers.
“Just so, to be sure; and what became of the whaler?”
“We burned her up.”
“Whew! Is that the way you dispose of what vessels you fall in with?”
“If they belong to the United States; not otherwise.”
“Well, my hearty, you know your own business, but my notion is that these sort of pranks will get you into the devil’s own muss before you are through with it. What your quarrel with the United States is, I don’t know, but I swear I don’t believe they’ll stand this kind of work.”
The Shenandoah caught another prize, the barque Delphine , in the Indian Ocean. This one didn’t have to be chased; she sailed right up to the raider to check navigation readings. Afterward, Lieutenant Francis T. Chew of the cruiser offered his consolation to the Delphine ’s skipper, Captain William Nichols. “Captain,” said Chew, “upon what small actions important results depend. Just think that if at daylight this morning you had changed your course one-fourth of a point, you would have passed out of our reach …”
“That,” snapped Nichols, “shows how damned little you know about it, lor this morning at daylight I just did change my course a quarter of a point, and that’s what fetched me here.”
Nichols had his wile aboard, not an uncommon practice in those days oi long voyages, and she proved the most intractable prisoner the cruiser ever took. Alternately denouncing the Rebels as outlaws and upbraiding her husband for his meek surrender, she remained uiimellowed by enforced association. When they put her ashore a month later, she muttered, “I wish that steamer may be burned.”
The Shenandoah reached Melbourne, Australia, on January 25, 1865, and her sea-weary men cut loose for the only real shore leave they were ever to have. Waddell, however, had no time for revels. His ship needed repairs, and he had trouble getting them as Melbourne’s official attitude stiffened under pressure from the American consul. He fussed, too, over a probably imaginary plot to blow up his ship. He was plagued by desertions, losing eighteen seamen from his still-shorthanded crew, and he was to be embroiled shortly in charges that he was enlisting Australians in violation of British neutrality laws.
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.
The truth could no longer be denied. The Shenandoah was a ship without a country, and had been during all of that pointless, destructive rampage through the whaling grounds. Her men, if caught, might very well be tried as pirates.
Waddell assembled his crew, delivered a rousing oration on the glories and hardships they had shared together, and said he would seek sanctuary at the nearest English port. He handled it so well that few noted an ambiguous phrase in the Captain’s address. They thought he would run for Australia, which seemed quickest and safest, and they realized only later that “the nearest English port” might mean a long, dangerous voyage back to England itself.
Waddell kept his counsel while officers and men bombarded him with petitions and advice. Most of the officers wanted to put in somewhere, anywhere, just so it was soon. Most of the men were willing to go along with the Captain’s judgment. After a while it became apparent that all petitions were a waste of time. Consulting no one, confiding in no one, Waddell set his course south, then east round Cape Horn, then north and east. He was determined to make England.
The ship was seething now with the feuds and jealousies of weary, frustrated, frightened men who had been penned up together for too many months. Junior officers openly disparaged the Captain, and he reacted in stiff-necked fashion, demoting first one officer and then another to the status of “passenger” for the most trivial offense.
Then death struck the ship. The first to go was a Kanaka native, a man known only as Bill, who had joined them from a whaler. “Poor fellow,” wrote the ship’s chief surgeon, “he had been suffering from venereal for a long time and was covered with ulcers.” A little later they lost George Canning, who was suffering from an old, unhealed lung wound.
Sick, tired, and quarreling though they were, the Rebels managed somehow to hold together. Their luck held, too. They saw only one ship in more than 17,000 miles, and Waddell avoided that one by changing course at night. The long strain eased at last on November 5, when they sighted Ireland off the port bow. It was their first landfall in 122 days; they had hit it right on the nose, and Waddell unbent so far as to hand Sailing Master Irvine Bulloch a compliment. “The navigation,” he said, “was very beautiful.”
They anchored that night off Liverpool, the port whence they had sailed thirteen months before. Behind them lay a globe-girdling voyage of almost 60,000 miles in which they had captured 38 American ships and taken 1,053 prisoners without fighting a battle or killing a man. Ahead lay a final, unpleasant duty. On November 6, 1865, Waddell surrendered his ship to the British and ran down his flag for the last time.
The British did not exactly welcome this turn of events. They had connived quite openly in arming Confederate raiders, and now that it was all over they regarded the Shenandoah as a chicken come home to roost. England would have to pay damages later—the owners of the whalers sunk by the Shenandoah after the war had ended were eventually reimbursed from the Alabama Claims monies—but meanwhile a diplomatic way had to be found to dispose of the surrendered Shenandoah ’s crew. England announced that she would arrest any United States or British citizens found aboard, but added that she could not detain a citizen of the former Confederate States.
That decision was relayed to the ship, and the Shenandoah ’s men lined up accordingly to declare their loyalty. In the tongues and accents of a dozen lands they did solemnly swear that they came from Dixie. A British officer accepted these affidavits without battins; an eve, and all hands were turned loose.
Most of the real Southerners knocked around Europe for a few years, then slipped back to their homeland one by one as war’s memories faded and old hatreds began to wane. Waddell himself eventually became a familiar figure at the old-timers’ bench close by the gates of the United States Naval Academy. He was accepted there, but he was never an insider again in the institution that he had once loved and served and then fought against. Beside his name in the records of the United States Navy still stands the single word “Dismissed.” As for the Shenandoah, she remained to the end an oddly romantic ship. She was sold at auction to the Sultan of Zanzibar and perished one stormy night in the Indian Ocean.