Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Ed Wilson.
For those from Britain with an interest in the American Civil War, the sites are quite literally half a world away. During the sesquicentennial commemorations many looked on enviously at the commemorations, re-enactments, and roundtables taking place across the Atlantic. However, the chance to mark our own piece of Civil War history was not to pass us by. For those of us living in the North of England the final act of the American Civil War was surprisingly close to home. In response to the great outpouring of events and occasions in the U.S., it was the job of a small band of English living historians to make their mark on the sesquicentennial anniversaries.
With the crew of the CSS Shenandoah to portray, our research led us to a more distant aspect of the cruiser’s history, its visit to Melbourne, Australia in January of 1865. Of particular interest were the 45 extra crew that the ship took on at Melbourne. Whilst documentation of the ship notes their (almost certainly assumed) names, they predictably vanish from the pages of history quickly afterwards leaving no accounts, at least that we can find, to tell their tale. To create an ‘impression’ of the Melbourne Mess of the Shenandoah’s crew, it was necessary to rely on accounts by the officers involved in the surrender and the newspapers that recorded it. It became apparent that these sailors were “a desperate and motley set of men… who had been picked up on the high seas and who rank the risk for high wages and prize money.”
Our initial thoughts were to keep our marking of the events of November 1865 simple. A trip on the Mersey River followed by a walk from Pier Head to Liverpool Town Hall would suffice. This would enable us to take not only a trip by boat along the channel where the Shenandoah sailed, flying the last Battle Ensign of her country, but also the spot at Pier Head where many of her crew were landed after their parole by the British authorities. The Town Hall was the site of the offices where Captain Waddell handed over letters officially surrendering the ship to Her Majesties’ Government. The route was planned, all that was needed was authentic attire to do it in.
Our initial research illustrated that like so many fascinating units of conflict, the crew of the CSS Shenandoah did not seem to enjoy being photographed. Whilst some of the senior officers sat for portraits, and a group of officers sat in England in their civilian clothing some months after the surrender, the enlisted crew remained a mystery. It was decided to make the impression a conjectural one based on what was available: the many descriptions of them in the media of the time. Most strikingly of all the Liverpool Mercury of 7th November 1865 described the crew coming ashore in “grey uniforms and wearing a bizarre mix of hats and caps.” The crew of HMS Donegal being quoted as saying they were “remarkably smart, intelligent and seaman-like men.” The Liverpool Mercury perhaps best sums up their demeanour when it describes them as being “cautious as to how far they talk about the circumstances of their voyage, but their peculiar and heavy luggage seems, to indicate that most of them have found it profitable.”
Images taken of the well known Confederate Raider Alabama aided in the research. The ordinary crew wear an all-grey pullover shirt or smock, very much like the U.S. Navy pattern of the era. Unlike C.S. Naval regulations which stated collar and cuffs to be of a white material, here they were clearly of the same material that the smock was made from. As both the Shenandoah and Alabama were equipped in England before sailing and not supplied by Confederate arsenals, it was reasonable to suggest that as a wartime measure these smocks were all of the one material. These images would guide our impression for a basic set of sailors clothing to represent English-equipped mercenary sailors in Confederate service.
During the research phase of our project we contacted and communicated with the organiser of the official ‘Last Flag Down’ event, Jerry Wells. Great effort had been put into many commemorative services as well as a scripted ‘re-enactment’ of the surrender onboard a small sailing ship moored in the Albert Dock. However, the present-day political landscape has brought with it a very real fear of the symbolism of the Confederate flag. As the event drew nearer, officials including mayors and Lord-Lieutenants, as well as vicars and government officers, withdrew citing many reasons for being unable or unwilling to support the event.
Many living history societies use such an undeniably potent symbol with due discretion. However, the fear that some might be seen to turn an act of commemoration into one of celebration and remembrance so close to the United Kingdom’s own Remembrance Day commemorations can be suggested to be one of the reasons for the lobbying by groups within the Liverpool Tourist board, Council and Albert Dock complex to have any form of re-enactment of the Surrender of the Shenandoah ‘banned’ from the city. A reflection of our times, but also a reminder that symbolism can be a powerful thing even 150 years later. The 150th ‘Last Flag Down’ seemed to be in tatters.
Hearing that the event was not-to-be, we determined to revert to our initial plan and ensure that we did our part to end the sesquicentennials. Starting from the now-redeveloped Kings Dock in Liverpool, we walked to Pier Head as the “dirty-drawling, ill-looking, gray-coated, big-bearded men… of the Shenandoah.” Ferried to Seacombe where the last muster would be called, we took names of men known to have joined at Melbourne: William Green, William Burgess, William Brice, Franklin ‘Gloon’, and Lawrence Kerney. When the roll was given we all gave our nationalities as ‘Southerner.’ After three lusty cheers for our Captain and ship, the crew were declared as free to go about their business before journeying to deliver a copy of a transcript of Waddell’s original letter surrendering the ship to the Mayor’s office.
The day ended at the Old Ship pub in Brighouse, Yorkshire. The inn’s facings are the surviving timbers from HMS Donegal: old beams that too saw the Mersey when the last Confederate unit disbanded. We also took time to remember William Hall VC, the first black recipient of the Victoria Cross who served on HMS Donegal. A native of Nova Scotia, he had briefly served in the U.S. Navy (1847-49) before joining the Royal Navy and serving in both the Crimea and Indian Mutiny where at Lucknow he won the prestigious award. It is an undeniably delightful historical irony that a man such as he should serve on the ship to take the surrender of the last Confederate fighting unit. He saw the last Confederate flag taken down and stored “without ceremony.”
It was without ceremony but with due reflection that we ended our day. Although not the end to the round of ‘150th’ commemorations that was envisaged, it is testament to the hard work and dedication of many groups who continued to ensure that the last act of the American Civil War in the sesquicentennials did not go unmarked. We were proud and honoured to do our part as the ‘Melbourne Mess.’