World on Fire

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dwight Hughes. This post is based on a forthcoming book on the CSS Shenandoah.

In the cool dusk of Sunday, 2 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln sat with Rear Admiral David Porter on the upper deck of the USS Malvern at the massive supply depot of City Point, Virginia, listening to the distant boom of artillery and rattle of musketry. “Can’t the Navy do something at this particular moment to make history?” asked the president. “The Navy is doing its best just now,” replied Porter, “holding the enemy’s four [three] heavy ironclads in utter uselessness. If those vessels could reach City Point they would commit great havoc….” Under command of Admiral Raphael Semmes, former captain of the infamous CSS Alabama, the iron monsters Virginia No. 2, Fredericksburg, and Richmond defended the James River and Confederate capitol.[1]

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

At about the same time—Monday morning, 3 April at the paradisiacal Pacific island of Pohnpei—James Waddell, Captain of the CSS Shenandoah and a North Carolinian, ordered the American whalers Pearl, Hector, and Edward Cary destroyed. (Half way around her globe-straddling cruise, Shenandoah had arrived on April fool’s day, astonishing the Yankee vessels lying quietly in the harbor.)But first, the natives were turned loose. Every removable plank, spar, and bulkhead were taken ashore for flooring while sails were stripped from yards and cut to pieces for tents and canoes. Midshipman James Mason of Virginia was amused at one poor fellow who clambered up on the royal yard and in his haste cut away the lift, which cockbilled (tilted) the yard leaving him, “swinging about between wind and water much to his astonishment & discomfiture.” As the vessels floated higher, copper sheets were peeled from their bottoms to be used for pointing spears and arrows, for breastplates and shields, and to be traded with neighboring tribes.[2]

C.S.S. Shenandoah
C.S.S. Shenandoah

“All day long they swarmed over the vessels like driver ants upon a dead carcass,” recalled Master’s Mate Hunt. Canoes passed to and fro, laden with bread, tobacco, bits of iron, harpoons and whaling lines, and all sorts of odds and ends, “until they were fairly surfeited with plundering.” Waddell: “The canoes surrounding them were handled more beautifully and skillfully than I had ever seen man handle boats.” Rather than rigging tackle to hoist out casks of flour, meat, sugar, and molasses, the natives broke them open in the hold, losing half and making a horrible mess.[3]

Once the bones were picked clean, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee, Jr. (nephew of R.E. Lee) and his boat crew boarded Pearl, slipped her anchors, ran her up on a shoal in front of the chief’s residence, and set her aflame—after two tries. Everything was soaked from incessant rain and no whale oil was onboard. By evening she was burning beautifully, lighting the entire harbor despite enveloping darkness. One could read on deck at the distance of a mile, noted Lieutenant Francis Chew.[4]

Pohnpei in Western Eyes, c.a. 1830
Pohnpei in Western Eyes, c.a. 1830

It was now early morning in Richmond as defenses crumbled in front of Grant’s rapidly advancing troops. Secretary of the Navy Mallory ordered the river squadron destroyed, directing its officers and men to join Lee’s army retreating toward Danville in the wake of President Davis and cabinet. Semmes set the ironclads alight and adrift on the river. At about 3:00 a.m., he recalled, “An explosion, like the shock of an earthquake, took place, and the air was filled with missiles…. The spectacle was grand beyond description.” Magazines erupted, flinging loaded shells with fuses of different lengths high in the air, which burst by twos and threes and by the dozen. “The explosion shook the homes in Richmond, and must have wakened the echoes of the night for forty miles around.”[5]

Along the river banks, fleeing Confederates fired magazines and cotton and tobacco warehouses. Exploding projectiles dropped over the town, setting fire to a wide swath of the business district. “Morning broke on a scene never to be forgotten,” wrote one observer. “The smoke and glare of fire mingled with the golden beams of the rising sun. The great warehouse on the Basin was wrapped in flames ; the fire was reaching to whole blocks of buildings ; and as the sun rose majestically above the horizon, it burnished the fringe of smoke with lurid and golden glory. Curious crows watched the fire. Its roar sounded in the ears; it leaped from street to street; pillagers were busy at their vocation, and in the hot breath of the fire were figures as of demons contending for prey.”[6]

Yankee cavalry burst into the city while a boat appeared on the James carrying Admiral Porter, President Lincoln, his son Tad, and three aids. It was a mild spring day; birds sang in the orchards on either bank; trees were in bloom. As the party was rowed up river, they observed a wide curtain of smoke ahead. President and company landed with a dozen marines and walked through the town to the capitol. A delighted Lincoln was surrounded by hundreds of former slaves—men, women, and children—some weeping for joy, others crying “Glory! Glory.”[7]

In the Pacific, Lieutenant Chew ignited piles of broken-up furniture in Hector’s cabins and saloon. The fires caught and spread quickly fore and aft, issuing great volumes of smoke. He remained below longer than was prudent before making an exit to the upper deck, and began heaving empty tar barrels and oil down the hatches. Flames burst from hatch openings as he leaped into the boat. Nearby, Cary was run up on the reef and set aflame, all in a drenching rain.

By dark both ships burned furiously. The whale oil cargo shot immense flames high in air as masts came crashing down one after another. “The sight was grand & melancholy, the fruit of months of toil so soon destroyed!” wrote Chew. Hunt: “[The burning vessels] sent forth a lurid glare which lighted up, like the eruption of a volcano, the quiet bay whose waters were disturbed by scarce a ripple, and the tropical shore far inland, with its strange vegetation and grotesque humanity.” [8]

In Washington DC, evening witnessed a grand illumination lighting the city with celebration—thousands of candles and gas lights, gay decorations on every building. The Navy department hung out a large model of a full-rigged ship; lights blazed in every window of the war department; a row of fireballs flared in the park. There were illuminations at the Patent Office, Post-Office, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, the National Conservatory, the hospitals, and the prison. With a trumpet blast, a band crashed into The Star Spangled Banner. The capitol glowed like a beacon on its hill where, over the western pediment, a great gas lighted transparency could be read far up Pennsylvania Avenue: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” This uniquely American conflagration flared simultaneously at opposite ends of the earth.[9]

Sunday, 9 April 1865, was another day of rest for men of Shenandoah. First Lieutenant Whittle let the port watch go ashore on liberty in the forenoon and the starboard watch in the afternoon, each armed with two plugs of tobacco for barter. Ships Surgeon, Dr. Charles Lining rowed up the river with the captain, and afterward visited the chief.

As day departed the Pacific leaving these wayward Southerners asleep under tropic stars, the sun rose to a calm morning in the blooming Virginia countryside. A cold rain wept on smoky breakfast fires and quiet conversation of masses of waking men. The guns were silent. Lieutenant Lee’s uncle donned a new full dress uniform and rode to a meeting at the small crossroads town of Appomattox Courthouse. Admiral Semmes—now also with the rank of general—and his naval brigade from the James River Squadron rested in their defenses around Danville and were included in the surrender. Jefferson Davis fled on south with remnants of his government, among them Navy Secretary Mallory and what was left of the treasury.

Succeeding days on Pohnpei alternated between rain and pleasant weather. An awning was spread across the deck for protection of the officer and men on watch. In a few days, Shenandoah would leave Pohnpei behind, proceed to the Arctic amidst the American North Pacific whaling fleet and capture twenty-five of them, completing spectacularly a mission that no longer mattered.

Pohnpei Sunset
Pohnpei Sunset

[1] Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), 5:75.

[2] James T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 14 April 1865.

[3] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 129; 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, 3:821.

[4] 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), 4 April 1865.

[5] Civil War Naval Chronology, 5:76.

[6] Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E/B. Treat and Co., 1867), 696.

[7] Civil War Naval Chronology, 5:78; Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of American’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief (New York: Random House, 2004), 402.

[8] Chew, Journal, 4 April 1865; Hunt, Shenandoah, 129.

[9] Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1941), 417.

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