The Last Act I

150 years ago today, the last act of the Civil War got underway off Liverpool. Here is Part I of that story.

Day after day, a lonely light shone at the southern end of St. George’s Channel, running between Britain and Ireland.  For many a northbound mariner, this light meant the nearness of destination, especially one of the ports on either side of the Irish Sea.

On a cold and foggy night in early November, 1865, a three-masted ship passed the light and hove to near another light, this one at the Mersey Bar, where the Mersey River meets the open sea. She signaled for a pilot to take her in to Liverpool. As the pilot clambered aboard, he asked the name of the ship. Her captain answered with the name CSS Shenandoah. “I was reading a few days ago of your being in the Arctic Ocean,” exclaimed the surprised pilot. The last Confederate force on the planet had reached port.

Shenandoah took a long and adventurous road to this moment. Launched in 1863 as the Sea King, the Confederate government purchased her for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser. To maintain Britain’s neutrality, the Sea King was purchased by a front and put to sea ostensibly headed on a voyage to India. In Madeira she met another ship, the Laurel, carrying weapons, implements of war, and Confederate officers. On October 19, 1864, the Sea King became CSS Shenandoah.

The ship’s captain, Commander James I. Waddell of North Carolina, received orders to go to the Pacific and hunt Union whalers off Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and in the Bering Sea. After that, his orders offered this cryptic guidance: “Your ship will probably be in want of repairs, and it may be necessary for you to decide what disposition could be advantageously made of her.” With that in mind, Waddell set off on his mission.

Over the next months Shenandoah passed through the South Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and roamed the Indian Ocean and the waters around Australia. She captured or burned nine ships before docking at Melbourne, Australia, on January 25, 1865, for repairs and replenishment, leaving February 19.

In early April she took several prizes in the Caroline Islands and proceeded into the northern latitudes. After weeks of futile searching in the Sea of Okhotsk, Shenandoah arrived in the Bering Sea and found rich pickings among the New England whaling fleet. In six days from June 22 to June 28, she captured 23 Union ships, an average of nearly 4 per day.  This success occurred with little fanfare or gunfire; reported Waddell, “The last gun in defense of the South was fired on the 22d of June, Arctic Ocean.”

During this time Captain Waddell and his crew were not oblivious to developments on land. Newspapers reached them via the ships they encountered, and gave news of the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Jefferson Davis’ proclamation to continue fighting. Waddell decided to attack San Francisco, but on August 2 encountered a British ship who provided definite news of Davis’s capture, General Edmund Kirby Smith’s surrender, and the collapse of the Confederacy. “Having received by the bark Barracouta the sad intelligence of the overthrow of the Confederate government,” recorded the ship’s log, “all attempts to destroy the shipping or property of the United States will cease from this date.” Shenandoah’s executive officer, Lieutenant William Whittle of Norfolk, Virginia, supervised the disarming of the ship.

Shenandoah was now the last sovereign Confederate territory on Earth. Captain Waddell and his crew faced a choice. “I had . . . a responsibility of the highest nature resting upon me in deciding the course we should pursue,” he recalled, “which involved not only our personal honor, but the honor of the flag entrusted to us which had walked the waters fearlessly and in triumph.”

Correctly fearing he and his men would be treated as pirates by U.S. authorities, Waddell decided to go to Liverpool, where he hoped to get a favorable reception. Over the next three months Shenandoah made her way around South America and northward toward the St. George’s Channel, a distance of 17,000 miles. It was not an easy voyage, and the knowledge of Confederate defeat dampened the crew’s spirits further. Shenandoah came within sight of the USS Saranac on October 25, but did not attract attention from the Union ship. A few days from Liverpool, the crew buried two men who succumbed to disease – the Shenandoah’s only losses in a year of service on some of the Earth’s toughest waters.

Tomorrow: Reception of Waddell’s men in the United Kingdom.

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