The Final Gun

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dwight Hughes

Captain James I. Waddell. Naval History and Heritage Command.
Captain James I. Waddell. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The CSS Shenandoah steamed northward through the Bering Sea in Arctic twilight. Shortly after midnight on June 22, 1865, the horizon was smudged by smoke from a whaler’s tryworks, and by morning, the New Bedford whalers Euphrates and William Thompson hove into view. Euphrates made a feeble attempt to flee but was quickly caught. Crews were removed and both ships went up in flames.

From Thompson’s Captain F. C. Smith, Shenandoah’s officers learned of the April 14 assassination of President Lincoln and the attempt on Secretary of State Seward. “I am certain that it was not done by anyone from our side,” wrote First Lieutenant William Whittle, a Virginian, but he feared that Confederates would be blamed anyway.[1]

Newspapers from San Francisco via Hawaii provided additional discouragement. Whittle had anticipated the loss of Charleston and Savannah, and even the evacuation of Richmond once Wilmington was gone, but not Lee’s reported surrender at Appomattox on April 9. “All this last I put down as false. . . . I do not believe one single word.”[2]

In his personal journal, Ship’s Surgeon Dr. Charles Lining of South Carolina wrote, “I was knocked flat aback. Can I believe it? And after the official letters which are published as being written by Grant & Lee, can I help believing it?”[3]

Midshipman John Mason, another Virginian and grand-nephew of founder George Mason, concluded that there must be some truth to it: “I am very uneasy about Mother, Aunt E. & the girls, as well as Tom, who no doubt has been in all these battles.”[4]

One might think from reading these newspapers, continued Whittle, that the Confederate States were subjugated, but considering the enemy’s propensities for falsehood, he would place no confidence in them. Still, the news was very bad. “My heart is heavy! heavy!! heavy!!!” God alone knew what would become of his darling sisters if, with no means of support in a country devastated by invasion, their dear old state should be given up to cruel and relentless foes. “God help us I pray. Oh! God protect us.”[5]

Passing herself off as a Russian or American man-of-war, Shenandoah struck back with a vengeance. In the next week, she would take a total of twenty-four prizes—an unprecedented accomplishment that a few months before would have been greeted with jubilation in the South and despair in the North.

The unfamiliar boom of cannon echoed across frigid waters; a wholly unexpected flag appeared; boats scuttled like beetles; whale carcasses floated loose; sails flapped (when there was wind) in frantic attempts at escape through ice and fog, or into the three-mile territorial waters of neutral Russia where capture was forbidden by international law.

Under steam and sail, the rebels devoured victims individually or in groups and rushed on to the next. They ordered some to follow as they chased others. Giant pillars of black smoke smudged the crystal air. Towers of flame glowed through fog or illuminated midnight dusk. Four of the oldest and slowest were bonded[*] and sent off to San Francisco crammed with almost eight hundred prisoners of war. There were no casualties. A number of captured sailors joined the Confederates.

Shenandoah burning whaleships off Cape Thaddeus, Siberia, June 23, 1865. Left to right: Susan Abigail, Euphrates, Shenandoah, Jireh Swift, William Thompson, Sophia Thornton, and Milo with prisoners aboard. John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic  (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986)
Shenandoah burning whaleships off Cape Thaddeus, Siberia, June 23, 1865. Left to right: Susan Abigail, Euphrates, Shenandoah, Jireh Swift, William Thompson, Sophia Thornton, and Milo with prisoners aboard. John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986)

The remaining sixty or so American whalers scattered like pigeons seeking protection in harbors, bays, and sounds, or behind ice, islands, or capes, some for several weeks. The North Pacific whaling fleet and its season were devastated.

After destroying Euphrates and William Thompson, Shenandoah crossed the 180th meridian, logging a second Thursday, June 22, and culled three Yankees from a group of nine whalers that included a Frenchman and a couple of Hawaiians.[†]

Shenandoah’s Captain James Waddell, a North Carolinian, conversed in his cabin with Captain Jonathan C. Hawes of the captured whaler Milo. Hawes said he had heard of the cruiser being near Australia and was astonished to find her here, initially assuming she was a Russian vessel sent to make preparations for laying telegraph cable under the straits.

They agreed that the war was deplorable while Waddell assured his prisoner that the issue was not personal. Hawes said the war was over but could not produce documentary evidence. He described Waddell as, “pleasant spoken, and polite and gentlemanly in his demeanor.” With Hawes’s wife and daughter on board, Waddell bonded Milo and loaded two hundred prisoners.[6]

Captains of whaleships burned on June 21-22, 1865. John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic  (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986)
Captains of whaleships burned on June 21-22, 1865. John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986)

Anxious to be off after other prizes, Waddell instructed the boarding party on another capture, Sophia Thornton, to return immediately after they cut down her masts so she couldn’t run. The whalemen were ordered to set fire to their own ship and row over to Milo with whatever provisions they could carry.

Master’s Mate Cornelius Hunt observed the disabled vessel with her masts dragging alongside and the boats pulling away as bright tongues of fire shot skyward. When necessity compels a sailor to torch the ship he has learned to love, Hunt recalled, “he has good grounds for complaints against the fates.”[7]

Captain Tucker of Sophia Thornton asked to retain some of his $90 cash to see him through at San Francisco. “No sir,” replied Waddell, “your people have beggared me and my family and taken away all our property, and I can’t see any reason for accommodating you.”[8]

The aptly named Jireh Swift—reportedly the fastest whaler in the fleet—tried to get within Russian territorial waters along the Siberian coast, but was caught short after a three-hour chase in light breezes. When Lieutenant Sydney Smith Lee, nephew of R.E. Lee, boarded, he found captain and crew with their personal effects packed and ready to leave; the bark was in flames twenty minutes later. Mason thought they should have captured at least three more of the enemy as they scattered into and around drift ice.

Captain Williams of Jireh Swift told Waddell that he did not believe the war was over but that the South would yield eventually. He also said the South should have sent a cruiser to the Arctic two years before; the destruction of the New England whaling fleet, “would have more seriously affected the Northern mind than a dozen battles in Virginia.”[9]

To Waddell, this remark revealed, “the genuine philosophy and morality of his countrymen.” They waged war only for money, he complained. High tariffs taxed the people while politicians fed on fat contracts and government expenditures, and manufacturers realized fortunes. Newspapers related gory battles, increased circulation, and enriched their proprietors. The government stimulated business by issuing paper and creating a debt that the South would eventually pay. “[The war] was only to be stopped on the mercenary principle of showing that it would no longer pay to keep it up.”[10]

The weather continued to worry Lieutenant Whittle. When it was clear enough to see any distance, they steamed on but had to stop frequently for fear of ice. Light fogs with calm or light breezes were to their advantage; impenetrable fogs quite the reverse. They brought out foghorns and blew lustily in the hope that potential victims would respond but had no success. Several potential prizes were lost in the murk.

On June 23, the brigantine Susan Abigail was taken. She was a trader straight from San Francisco with an immense quantity of liquor, gunpowder, and guns to trade for native fur and ivory. Captain Redfield expressed uncertainty about the outcome of the war but said he was having a good season and did not want his ship burned, which Dr. Lining considered the best reason for doing so.

Newspapers up to April 17 stated that the Southern government had fled Richmond and that Lee had surrendered, but others reported that Lee had joined General Johnston in North Carolina for an indecisive battle against General Sherman.

Two Susan Abigail men joined Shenandoah, telling Whittle that they put little confidence in the dire news and that very little of it was to be believed. The men said that riots were erupting all through the North and the public mind there was, “most feverish.”

The papers carried a dramatic proclamation by President Jefferson Davis, issued in early April from the temporary capital at Danville, VA, announcing that the war would be carried on with renewed vigor and exhorting his people to bear up heroically. This futile promulgation received little circulation and was widely ignored by those who did see it, but half a world away and months later, Shenandoah rebels took it to heart.

Also on June 23 in Oklahoma Indian Territory, Cherokee chief and Confederate general Stand Watie surrendered the last rebel ground forces—his battalion of Cherokee, Seminole, and Osage warriors. Of the occasion, Jefferson Davis recalled in his memoirs: “the Confederate flag no longer floated on land, but one gallant sailor still unfurled [it] on the Pacific.”[11]

It was a beautiful Sunday, 25 June, 1865, when the ship General Williams of New London was captured while cutting in a whale near a large ice floe. “Her Captain was a miserable old whine of a Yankee,” wrote Midshipman Mason, “& cried like a child when we told him his ship was to be burnt.”[12]

A few Eskimo boats came alongside Shenandoah from St. Lawrence Island to trade furs and walrus tusks. Lieutenant Whittle thought the natives were a miserable looking race of light copper color and straight black hair, but well formed, muscular, and dressed from head to foot in the thickest skins. They lived on fish and whale blubber, “and are known to be no more choice in their diet than are buzzards.”[13]

Dr. Lining considered them fat and healthy looking, the women much fairer than the men, “but whew, how they did smell!” Large chunks of raw whale blubber from which they feasted were tied to and floated alongside the boats. He bought a dog skin for two plugs of tobacco.[14]

In the Bering Straits, the CSS Shenandoah continued wholesale destruction of American whalers. Eleven weeks after Appomattox in a conflict replete with irony, the Confederate banner would reach its northernmost advance just below the Arctic Circle.

The Shenandoah navigating through ice.
The Shenandoah navigating through ice.

Not far off, some Yankees had been warned by a French whaler. Captain Edward Penniman of the bark Minerva had his boats in the water off looking for whales in light airs. In a panic to get the boats’ attention, he hauled an old cannon up from below decks and lashed it down on the gangway. When fired, the thing leaped up in the air and smashed down, gouging a gaping hole in the deck and blowing out glass in the cabin skylight. “Everybody was scared out of their wits,” wrote Penniman, especially Mrs. Penniman who had just gone below to breakfast.[15]

Captain E. R. Ashley of Governor Troup also was alerted, but did not believe the warning: “It is a damned French trick to get north of us and best us in whaling.” The next day, however, Ashley saw ships burning in the northeast; he hightailed it too.[16]

The sun did not set until nearly eleven o’clock on June 25, 1865, and stayed just below the horizon, giving the clouds a twilight crimson hue. Shenandoah captured three more: William C. Nye, Nimrod, and Catherine. James Clark of Nimrod had previously commanded Ocean Rover, which the CSS Alabama had captured in the North Atlantic in September 1862. According to Waddell one of the mates said to his captain, “You are more fortunate in picking up Confederate cruisers than whales. I will never go with you again, for if there is a cruiser out you will find her.”[17]

The sun appeared again at 1 a.m. at a point west of north by the magnetic compass;[‡] dawn was clear and pleasant in near calm as the night’s prizes burned. Prisoners and belongings were dumped into their own boats and towed in a line behind Shenandoah while she pursued others in sight. Before noon, June 26th, General Pike, Isabella, and Gypsey were caught. Waddell bonded General Pike and loaded three hundred prisoners.

Another whaler, Benjamin Cummings, reportedly had smallpox on board and was let go. Just after midnight, Shenandoah set the last capture alight and proceeded as far as fog would allow. Within forty-eight hours, they had destroyed and ransomed property estimated at $233,500.

As dawn brightened on Wednesday, June 28, banks of fog rolled leisurely across tranquil waters turning sunlight from brilliant to misty opaque and back. Shenandoah approached the narrowest part of the Bering Strait and at 6:30 a.m., sighted rocky tabletops of the two Diomede Islands north-northeast about twelve miles, smack in the middle of the fifty-eight-mile-wide waterway.

Summits along the Russian coast appeared off the port bow. The easternmost cape of Siberia (Cape Dezhnev) was a high, bold, desolate headland, devoid of vegetation except in a few sheltered areas showing stunted shrubbery. Alaska’s western tip (Cape Prince of Wales) rose to starboard. Ice floated all in between. The islands and the ice seemed to connect Asia and America, wrote Dr. Lining, “so we could see two continents at the same time, what very few have seen.”[18]

On this day, the rebel navy would fire the last gun (a signal gun) of the Civil War and achieve—if not quite victory—at least one of its greatest accomplishments for a country that no longer existed. “What a day’s work we have had today,” Lieutenant Whittle would record that evening.[19]

Ahead and to windward lay ten sets of masts in a cluster below the cape, apparently anchored or unmoving; another lone sail was sighted to the south. With the upwind vessels trapped against the cape by light airs, Captain Waddell turned southward under steam and caught the bark Waverly of New Bedford, removed prisoners, and set her alight. Then heading first west around the ice, he turned north and approached the stationary flotilla, alternately revealed and obscured in the murk.

“The Shenandoah came plowing the Arctic waters under the American flag with a fine pressure of steam on,” recalled the captain. Every vessel hoisted the Stars and Stripes. One of them was lying over on her side with the ensign upside down at half-mast, a universal call for help. Brunswick had been stove by ice the night before, already a loss. The other whalers were anchored nearby providing assistance and purchasing equipment, stores, and whale oil from her.[20]

All five Shenandoah boats were called away manned by armed sailors. As required by international law to avoid charges of piracy, the signal gun barked and the Confederate banner replaced Stars and Stripes. Boarded in succession were the ships Hillman, James Maury, Nassau, Brunswick, and Isaac Howland and barks Martha (Second) and Congress—all of New Bedford—along with the ship Nile of New London and barks Favorite of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and Covington of Warren, Rhode Island.

Yankees rushed about their decks in confusion and consternation, scrambling to recover anchors and sheeting home sails, all to the amusement of the rebels. Several slipped their cables and attempted to flee in the mist.

Imbibing liberally, some officers swore sympathy for the South while others spoke incoherently of cruisers, fires, and insurance. “A drunken and brutal class of men I found the whaling captains and mates of New England,” recalled Captain Waddell. “What an excitement!” wrote Lieutenant Francis Chew.[21]

Officers from the CSS Shenandoah
Officers from the CSS Shenandoah

When a boat in command of Warrant Officer Alcott came alongside Nile, Captain George Destin threatened to shoot him. “Shoot & be damned,” Alcott replied as he climbed the side. Destin gave up and began to cry.[22]

Thomas G. Young, Favorite’s master and nearing seventy, armed his crew with muskets, climbed on top of the deckhouse, pointed a whale bomb gun at Lieutenant Scales’ boat, and swore he would fire if approached. Waddell eased Shenandoah up with cannon run out. The whalemen immediately began lowering boats and scrambling into them while Captain Young walked up and down the poop. When ordered to haul down his flag, he shouted: “I’ll see you damned first. Come & haul it down yourself.”[23]

A loud order on Shenandoah to prepare to fire brought forth from Young, “Shoot away & you better aim at me!” He was plainly drunk or crazy. Lieutenant Whittle snatched a loaded rifle from a marine, jumped into the boat, climbed on board Favorite, and leveled the cocked weapon at the recalcitrant Yankee. He gave up with a growl: “You are darned lucky not to be shot, for if my officers & men had stuck by me I would have shot you sure!”[24]

On boarding James Maury, it was discovered that the master was dead, preserved below decks in a whiskey barrel; his grieving widow was on board with two children. Waddell sent a message to the unhappy woman: no harm would come to her or the ship. Men of the South never made war on helpless women and children, the captain told her. Despite numerous examples to the contrary by the enemy, he, “preferred the nobler instincts of human nature.”

James Maury was bonded for $37,000 and loaded with 222 prisoners. The remaining 190 captives were sent to the oldest and slowest vessel, the Nile ($41,600 bond). Both James Maury and Nile prepared to depart for San Francisco.[25]

With the flaming Waverly still in sight to the south, the rest went up at once. Explosions of gunpowder and other combustibles resembled distant artillery, recalled Waddell, as liquid flame pursued inflammable substance down the sides to the water. “The heavens were illuminated with the red glare, presenting a picture of indescribable grandeur, while the water was covered with black smoke commingling with fiery sparks.”[26]

Lieutenant Whittle: “It is a gloomy sight to see the magnificent and valuable works of man so summarily destroyed…. This will cause an excitement. I trust it will do our hearts good by encouraging our noble people.” Lieutenant Chew: “A burning ship at sea is a grand sight, but what is it when ten occupy the picture?”[27]

Midshipman Mason considered it a good day’s effort: “I am tired to death after today’s work having boarded & burnt three ships. . . . I am happy to say that I have all night in & expect to enjoy it to the utmost.”[28]

The next day, they cautiously approached and perhaps crossed the Arctic Circle, but were surrounded by ice and spotted no more American whalers. “I suppose Yankeedom will be astonished at our coming away [up] here after them,” noted Whittle.[29]

Captain Waddell concluded that it was time to take Shenandoah out of these cramped waters. He would claim to have been concerned about ice and about the possibility of being trapped by an enemy man-of-war. However, news of their presence in the Arctic could not have reached the American coast, and it was known that the few Union warships in the Eastern Pacific guarded San Francisco and supply lines to the Panama railroad.

But perhaps the accumulated bad news made him nervous about continuing without confirmation of their status. At 10:30 a.m., June 29, 1865, the prow of Shenandoah turned southward. “Our stay in the Arctic was short indeed,” wrote Lieutenant Chew, “yet it has seen our flag.”[30]

Mr. Hughes is currently working on an upcoming book on the C.S.S. Shenandoah

[*] A bond was an agreement that the vessel’s owners would pay the value of ship and cargo to the capturing belligerent in lieu of destruction. Had the Confederacy achieved independence, the bond would have been legal international debt.

[†] The International Date Line was not created until well after 1865, but sailors gained or lost a day as they crossed the antemeridian, the 180th, opposite the prime meridian in Greenwich.

[‡] The earth’s magnetic pole does not correspond to the geographic pole. This far north, the discrepancy is particularly wide, so the sun actually rose in the (magnetic) west.

[1] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 166-171.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 22 June 1865.

[4] John T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 22 June 1865.

[5] Whittle, Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, 166.

[6] San Francisco Bulletin, 7 July 1865.

[7] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 181.

[8] James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:826-827.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Nation, 2 vols. (reprint, New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958), 2:700.

[12] Mason, Journal, 25 June 1865.

[13] Whittle, Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, 168.

[14] Lining, Journal, 25 June 1865.

[15] John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986), 116–17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Waddell, “Extracts,” 823.

[18] Lining, Journal, 28 June, 1865.

[19] Whittle, Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, 170.

[20] Waddell, “Extracts,” 828.

[21] Ibid., 828-829; Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 28 June 1865.

[22] Lining, Journal, 28 June, 1865.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Waddell, “Extracts,” 829.

[26] Ibid., 829-30.

[27] Whittle, Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, 170-171; Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 28 June 1865.

[28] Mason, Journal, 28 June 1865.

[29] Whittle, Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, 171.

[30] Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 29 June 1865.

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