Rebels Down Under

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

Part One in a Series.

Shenandoah in Hobson's Bay, February 1865 (State Library of Victoria, Melbourne)
Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, February 1865 (State Library of Victoria, Melbourne)

One hundred fifty years ago this month, the CSS Shenandoah steamed into Hobson’s Bay, Melbourne, Australia with flag flying. Vessels large and small saluted by dipping their ensigns; cheers were given and cheerfully returned. Like a great bird coming to roost, she dropped anchor and folded her wings for the first time in four months. As word spread, swarms of boats under steam, sail, and oar descended from every direction while sightseers streamed along the shore to view their first (and only) Confederate visitor. People of Melbourne were fascinated by, if not entirely informed about, the far-away conflict. Newspapers had reported a ship named Sea King departing London and becoming a new Rebel raider, along with Confederate disinformation that the former captain of the infamous CSS Alabama, Raphael Semmes, was in command with a hundred of his old crew.

Shenandoah was besieged by tourists traveling as far as three hundred miles, evoking a carnival atmosphere. An estimated ten thousand boarded in one day. Most citizens (including a large expatriate American community) split into contentious political camps with civic and business leaders and government officials enthusiastically taking sides—the war down under. Shenandoah’s officers were entertained as heroes by one faction, but denounced as pirates and nearly lost their ship to the other, while the governor and bureaucracy muddled and vacillated.

In elaborate Victorian prose, editors and correspondents expressed opposing views, echoes of similar discussions in England and Europe. Debate swelled on the streets, in public meetings, private clubs, law courts, and legislative chambers. These southerners were as far from homeland battlefields as it is possible to be, but the war was a global affair—economically, politically, and almost militarily—affecting millions of lives across the waters.

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

The former Sea King was a sleek and beautiful British tea clipper—a close sister to the famous Cutty Sark—with a steam engine. On October 19, 1864, Captain James Waddell, a North Carolinian, purchased, armed, and commissioned her near the Island of Madeira. Shenandoah had taken seven Yankee vessels on the trip down the Atlantic. After leaving Melbourne would take thirty more—most of them in the Bering Straits weeks after Appomattox—and then sail on around the globe flying the last Confederate banner.

The people of Melbourne, like their British counterparts and foreigners generally, did not comprehend the complexities of the war, but in an age tinged with romantic notions of honor and valor, they related to the cruisers. Alabama and her sisters had been tangible manifestations of the Confederacy; their exploits brought the contest to them in the language of ocean commerce and ocean conflict, which they understood very well. Having no particular stake in the success of the Union or understanding of its concepts, many looked on these Confederates as valiant heroes fighting great odds. Captain Semmes was an international celebrity at least as much as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee. Despite vehement protests from the United States, the cruisers had been welcomed warmly in colonial ports such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and Gibraltar.

Alabama caused a stir in Cape Town in August 1863 with parties and balls in her honor. Later, just the rumors of her appearance off Hobson’s Bay created a flurry of excitement in Melbourne. But Alabama now rested silently on the bottom of the English Channel after her fiery clash with the USS Kearsarge the previous June. Much of her glamour transferred to Shenandoah, which is precisely what the Confederates intended. Any such visitor was big news; this was bigger than most.

It been barely thirty years since pioneers, livestock ranchers, and traders had founded the first permanent settlement at Melbourne. The 1850’s gold rush brought floods of Europeans, Jews, Chinese, and Americans to the city. By 1860, the population was 123,000. Many fine buildings and institutions were built on gold profits as trade flourished. In terms of civic dynamism, pride, and frontier outlook, the people had much in common with citizens of Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, and San Francisco.[i]

The monthly mail steamer brought correspondence from England along with dramatic newspaper stories of the war—stories that were months old, incomplete, inaccurate, biased, contradictory, and confusing. For the first two years of the war, they reported almost exclusively Confederate victories. The British became convinced early in the conflict and maintained the thinking until very late that the North could not prevail and the United States would split.

Australians inherited the viewpoints of their homeland colored by great distance and by the peculiar perspective of the most isolated and thoroughly British outpost of the empire. Even in February 1865, no one in the antipodes could know what was really happening or predict the outcome.

One correspondent to the Melbourne Herald thought the hullabaloo over Shenandoah was a bit silly. Because of the warm sun, or strong beer and brandy, or just because they were lazy, locals were beginning to emulate their emotional American cousins. He liked Americans; he admired “their earnestness, their originality, their quaint humour.” However, he concluded, they were under no obligation to imitate American ways of life or speech. “To give way to any public manifestation of feeling on this subject would be very improper, and very un-English.”[ii]

But this was a distinctly minority viewpoint. There was little public debate of central issues—union, secession, states’ rights, slavery. Opposition focused on local concerns: repugnance for commerce raiding, vulnerability for umbilical cords of trade with Europe and America, land reform and tariffs. The Civil War generated economic uncertainty even here with widely fluctuating commodity prices and availability affecting huge quantities of imports from the United States.

The Melbourne Age produced a rambling editorial condemning the Rebel ship in language worthy of the most ardent Yankee: “We cannot regard the Shenandoah as other than a marauding craft, and her officers and crew than as a gang of respectable pirates. The vessel cannot claim to rank as a ship of war, nor ought the commissions of her officers entitle them to a place with gentlemen holding similar rank in the navies of recognized powers.”[iii]

“She is Sea King under a false name and false colors”, continued the article, as defenseless as her victims against a well-directed shot from a true warship. She owed her armament to a violation of international law. Her crew are not Americans but English, Irish, Scots, and Germans coerced to join from captured ships. She was in Melbourne to obtain from some resident Americans information to destroy the property of other Americans, and to recruit crewmen in further violation of neutrality.

The vessel does not fight honorably in her country’s defense but destroys unarmed antagonists for plunder. “We shall presently hear of the corn-laden ships from California…having been burnt or sunk, to the loss, probably, of local capitalists, and, certainly, of the bread consuming public…. Who knows whether this vessel will confine her operations to ships sailing under the American flag? Our gold ships are very tempting….”

A “Neutral Englishman” expressed shame and humiliation that Shenandoah was an English vessel, armed, equipped, and manned by British subjects. These southerners could not advance the interests of the Confederacy, he argued, even if they destroyed every Federal vessel on the seas. Instead, their work would affect the poorer classes of the colony more than the Northern States. Why did she not protect the blockade runners, obtaining glory where it is to be found? Is it right that, by stretching a loophole in international law, such a system of buccaneering is countenanced? “If so, where is it to stop?”[iv]

[i] James Grant and Geoffrey Serle, eds., The Melbourne Scene, 1803-1956 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957), 3-5, 11, 77.

[ii] Melbourne Herald, 4 February 1865.

[iii] Melbourne Age, 27 January 1865. This and following two paragraphs.

[iv] Melbourne Age, 30 January 1865.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!