A Distant Confederate Christmas

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

Confederate Raider: CSS Shenandoah. Oil on canvas by Patrick O'Brien. Commissioned by the author.
Confederate Raider: CSS Shenandoah. Oil on canvas by Patrick O’Brien. Commissioned by the author.

The CSS Shenandoah, the most remote and loneliest outpost of the beleaguered Confederacy, surged around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean about equidistant between Madagascar to the north and Antarctica. These Southerners were months out of touch, with only their orders, prayers, and thoughts of loved ones to comfort them. Five thousand miles of cold, storm-swept and empty waters lay between them and Melbourne.

The former Sea King, a British tea clipper, had been purchased, armed, and commissioned on 19 October 1864 near the island of Madeira, four hundred miles west of Casablanca. Captain James I. Waddell, a North Carolinian, commanded the new Rebel raider. His orders were to continue the depredations on Union commerce so effectively advanced by the CSS Alabama, now resting silently on the bottom of the English Channel after her fiery clash in June with the USS Kearsarge. Shenandoah already had taken six Yankee merchants and one whaler on the trip down the Atlantic.

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

On 18 December, Waddell achieved his southernmost latitude at 43° 29’ south—in the “roaring forties”—and was on the lookout for icebergs. Air and water temperature were sampled every two hours. So far, the way was unobstructed. “I was anxious to see those immense bodies of ice,” noted a young Missourian, Lieutenant Francis Chew, in his personal journal, “but I did not bargain for a close proximity to them.”[1]

Lieutenant Francis Chew. Museum of the Confedaracy, Richmond VA.
Lieutenant Francis Chew. Museum of the Confedaracy, Richmond VA.

Midshipman John Mason of Virginia continued studying for the lieutenant’s exam while standing regular watches, working out the daily position for his training log, and teaching French to mess mates. Mason was a great nephew of Founding Father George Mason and cousin to James Mason, the Confederate commissioner in England and victim of the Trent Affair. This would be his second Christmas away from home. Mason wrote in his journal that the ship was “in a most discouraging condition” and despite the mid-summer season in this part of the world, it was very cold in open ocean. Mason, however was “comparatively speaking perfectly happy…. I suppose we will find delightful weather in Australia.”[2]

Sunrise of 23 December was one of the most magnificent sights Mason had ever seen, but the old proverb—a red sun at night is a sailors’ delight, a red sun in the morning is a sailors warning—held true. The sky quickly darkened and by noon no glimpse of the sun was available for taking sights and figuring position.

That night First Lieutenant William Whittle, also from Virginia, stood a miserable watch with the inexperienced Lieutenant Chew. It was blowing hard, raining in torrents and the sleet was cold as hail. When facing into it, the wind stopped his breath and stung like nettles. Such a night, “makes the poor mariner regret the day on which his destinies were linked with the sea. Oh how much would I not give now to be on shore, with our dear country at peace, and a certain little angel sitting by me as my wife. I would certainly be the happiest man in the world.”[3]

Conditions worsened through Christmas Eve day as the wind shifted to the west and another of those roaring forties gales blasted up behind it. The sail was progressively reduced to storm canvas. It was a night, thought Whittle, when cherished hearts in distant homes were wondering where they, the absent spirits, were, and his own dear Pattie must be thinking of him. “Most sincerely do I on the eve of the birth of Christ, invoke God’s blessing and protection on my dear, dear country and all my dear ones. God bless them all.” Whittle ordered up preventer braces on the starboard side and an extra ration of grog to warm the crew, stood another night watch with Chew and retired early.[4]

To South Carolinian and Ship’s Surgeon Dr. Charles Lining, it was worse than stormy Cape Horn. “Turned much colder at night & [temperature] went down to 42° which, books say, indicate an approach to ice burgs.” He sat up until midnight wishing a Merry Christmas to all. They drank to sweethearts and wives and to a return of many Christmases. On deck, the four-hour watch seemed interminable for Chew, but finally ended. “Tired as I was, the motion of the ship was so great I could not sleep. It was only a doze.”[5]

“Christmas at sea & Christmas on Sunday, a great beginning did we have,” recorded Dr. Lining. The officer of the deck entered in the log: “From 4 to 8 a.m. fresh gales from the southwest; very heavy sea running; shipped several seas; 5:20 wind increasing, close reefed main topsail; 5:30 battened down hatches.” Roiling walls of water swooped in from the starboard quarter, pushing the ship heavily to port, and then another from that side slammed them back again. The stern lifted and tilted skywards in a sickening corkscrew motion with the rudder high on the crest, even clearing it altogether, momentarily losing leverage. The thrusting deck buckled a man’s knees, making him feel twice his weight while the forecastle buried itself in foam.[6]

The waves surged forward, inundating the waist from one or both sides, men wallowing about clutching at lifelines. Then the stern plunged deep into the trough. Occupants and objects floated as gravity lost its force; the bowsprit soared to the clouds. In the valley between wet ramparts, horizons disappeared; the moan of the wind lessened and lower sails slackened, only to be awakened with a thunder of thrashing canvas as she surged upward again on the next wave. The sequence repeated wave after wave.

At about 6:00 a.m., a big wave again submerged the spar deck. Whittle hollered for all hands and knocked out the aft gun port on the lee side. The flood rolled aft, stove in the engine room skylight, showered the engines, burst open the door to and inundated the wardroom, slopped into the staterooms and drenched everything.

Lining leapt from his bunk, placed his valise on a chair and joined brother officers in the wardroom standing on furniture—shoeless, wet, and cold. Lieutenant Lee (nephew of R. E. Lee) tried to block the water from his cabin with a mat, but gracefully resigned the task and returned to bed, while Chew jumped between his trunk and his bed in helpless energy trying to “stare the water out of his room.” Lieutenant Grimball’s room was taken possession of by boots, basin, slop tub, etc. floating around. He jumped up and commenced to shove the tide away from the door. “The water was terribly cold when I first put my feet into it but they soon became used to it.”[7]

The wardroom finally was cleared with the help of stewards. The doctor bailed his stateroom with two pairs of stockings and then returned to his bunk in a useless attempt to get warm. However, he noted, “I never saw such good humour manifest. No cursing, all laughing and joking about our misfortunes….” He hoped friends and relations at home were as happy as they on Shenandoah albeit a bit more comfortable.[8]

Coming off watch at midnight, Mason had gone below, awakened the idlers to wish them a Merry Christmas and turned in, only to be disturbed at six o’clock by the noise of men hauling on the braces. When the big wave struck, the ship was forced up into the wind and, “commenced to roll like je ne sais quoi.” His hammock almost hit the overhead beams as water cascaded around the hatch cover setting everything adrift—chairs, books, tables, sofas, sextants, “swimming about in the most admirable confusion.” Mason tried to ride it out above the torrent snug in his hammock when to his disgust, Whittle’s cry for all hands echoed from above. “I must confess I thought things were getting rather bilious,” concluded the midshipman.[9]

The danger seemed to pass as Mason dressed himself, lashed up the hammock to keep it dry, secured his books, and scrambled on deck where men were at the pumps as wet as rats. The ship was put before the wind and scudded with the sea, rolling and pitching. Mason would go all day in wet boots and feet with no time to wash his face or clean his teeth, but he did manage to get a warm breakfast, which put him in better spirits. He spent the morning restoring order to his belongings, was able to shoot an altitude of the sun at noon despite the motion, and then stood the afternoon watch with Lieutenant Lee.

From aft on the quarterdeck, Mason watched the seas roar up and surge forward with crests higher than the foreyard. William West, captain of the maintop, was standing on the main hatch when one of these big waves from starboard snatched him up and flung him bodily over the port rail well clear of the ship, followed by an equally huge one on that side that caught him and disgorged him back on deck. No attempt at recovery could have been made. (Chew worried how he would feel as officer of the watch having to decide whether to witness a man perish or risk the lives of a boat crew.) “Now I grant that all this is a most magnificent thing to behold,” confessed Mason, “I should enjoy it a thousand times more were it not for the discomfort & dangers which are indispensable parts of a gale of wind; it is indeed wonderful how such a frail thing can stand such rough treatment.”[10]

Nevertheless, wrote Lining, and despite it having been sixty-seven days since they last dropped anchor, the wardroom cook and steward prepared a first rate Christmas dinner including goose, fresh pork, corned beef, fresh potatoes, mince pies etc. “We drank at dinner the health of the absent ones etc. & had a happy time….” Cannon shot were heated in the crew’s galley and carried to the wardroom to provide warmth, while Lining kept candles going in his cabin all day. (Their little stove was too dangerous in the rolling ship.)[11]

Lieutenant Scales ate and drank until red in the face, stood watch, and came down at 8:00 p.m. with a cramp in his stomach. And so passed Christmas of ‘64 at sea, noted the doctor. He wondered how friends in Europe were spending the day, longing to see them. “May God bless them!” He wished some of this plenty, which he saw wasting around him every day, could be shared with loved ones. “Ah! Me! What an awful thing this war is, & how terribly those at home have suffered. May it soon cease!”[12]

Chew was reminded of last Christmas, picturing himself again on the boulevards of his beloved Paris, looking at the sights, thinking of night scenes with a thousand gas lights and bright windows, but, “I would look up from this picture and everything was damp, dark, and gloomy, my ears were accosted by the row of the tempest without, the hissing of the angry waves against the ship’s sides.”[13]

Master’s Mate Hunt considered it the most miserable festival he ever celebrated as thoughts reverted to home, to family gathering at Christmas dinner, to the old church with its decorations, and to evening spent in fun and frolic. “In the place of pendant evergreens my eyes rested upon the smoky, swaying lamps, still dimly burning in the ward room, and instead of receiving the time-honored salutations from family friends, and bright-faced girls, whose lips give so sweet an intonation to the old phrase, I heard it from rough-bearded men, sunburned and swarthy, and in place of preparing for a gay holiday, I donned my sou’weaster and moodily made my way to the deck to stand a four hours’ watch…. My solemn advice to the world at large is, never to go off the Cape of Good Hope in a cruiser to enjoy Christmas.”[14]

Following the afternoon watch, Mason and Lee shared a late Christmas dinner—good mince pies and plum pudding with tolerable sherry. They kept plates in hand to prevent contents from being deposited in their laps. But the old ship got off pretty well with only a little water in the magazine. The crew had a good Christmas dinner, starring the largest pig in the pen—120 pounds—and kept up their sprits remarkably well. “For there is nothing in the world like a good warm feed to put a man in a good humor. As I had the mid watch I went to my hammock (wet) at eight o’clock.” Mason would console himself on watch eating more mince pies of which the steward had a bountiful supply.[15]

Toward evening, a sail was sighted off the port quarter steering east; there would be no chance of capture in such conditions. First Lieutenant Whittle also thought the dinner a fine one but did not enjoy it much as they drank success to loved ones and the noble cause. Shenandoah finally ran out of the gale into more genial climate north of 40° S. The wind moderated and was then nearly south, bringing occasional squalls of fine rain and more cross seas. Waves breaking against the sides loosened the caulking and sent fine spray through open seams into the berth deck; the decks leaked dreadfully and all bedding was more or less wet. Concluded Captain Waddell: “A wet watch is uncomfortable enough but to nod in a chair or be forced to turn into a wet bed is even more so.”[16]

The CSS Shenandoah would continue her circumnavigation of the globe with stops in Melbourne and at the island of Pohnpei. In the Bering Straits, 22 to 28 June 1865, she captured twenty-four Yankee whalers, burned twenty of them, and released the others with prisoners. The last gun in defense of the South was fired from her deck ten weeks after Appomattox. On 2 August off the California coast, they received incontrovertible word of the war’s termination from a British merchant ship. Captain Waddell sailed the unhappy ship around Cape Horn to Liverpool and abandoned her to the British. The last Confederate banner was hauled down without ceremony about 10 a.m., 6 November, 1865.

From left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.
From left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.

[1] 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), 18 December 1864.

[2] James T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 21-23 December 1864.

[3] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 24 December 1864; Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 24 December 1864.

[6] Lining, Journal, 25 December 1864.

[7] Ibid.; Grimball to Father, 23 December 1864, John Berkley Grimball Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[8] Lining, Journal, 25 December 1864.

[9] Mason, Journal, 25 December 1864.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lining, Journal, 25 December 1864.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 25 December 1864.

[14] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 72.

[15] Mason, Journal, 27 December 1864.

[16] 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, 3:807.

Dwight Hughes graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 with a major in History and Government and served twenty years as a surface warfare officer in ships ranging from destroyer to aircraft carrier and with river forces in Vietnam. He taught Naval ROTC at the University of Rochester while earning an MA in Political Science, East Asian studies. Awards include a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service and Purple Heart. He also holds an MS in Information Systems Management from the University of Southern California. For fifteen years, Dwight managed software development projects under contract for the United States Geological Survey relating to electronic mapping. His new career builds on a lifetime fascination with and study of Civil War naval history. Dwight has collected over 350 volumes of Civil War naval history, first editions, and scarce publications representing a professional naval library of that era. He presented papers at National Maritime Heritage Conferences (Baltimore 2010, Norfolk, VA, 2014), and at U.S. Naval Academy Naval History Symposia (2011, 2013). Dwight’s book, A Confederate Biography, The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah, from which this paper has been derived, will be published by the Naval Institute Press in the fall of 2015.

4 Responses to A Distant Confederate Christmas

  1. What a lovely piece! As ECW works to continue to define its place in a post-sesquicentennial world, this really makes a statement. I hope to see more posts dealing with alternatives to land battles. If “Civil War Memory” is the next big thing, we need to make sure we include the navies and marines of both sides this time around. Well done, good sir, and welcome aboard.

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