Ending The War: The Darkest Day

CSS Shenandoah

“The darkest day of my life,” wrote Lieutenant William Whittle in his journal entry for August 2, 1865. “The past is gone for naught—the future is dark as the blackest night. Oh! God protect and comfort us I pray.”

The Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah was booming along eight hundred miles west of Northern California, heading south under full sail after a successful, globe-straddling cruise destroying Yankee ships, most recently in the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle.[1]

On this morning, Shenandoah encountered the British merchant ship Barracouta, thirteen days from San Francisco bound for Liverpool. The two vessels paused in mid ocean. Barracouta provided newspapers only two weeks old with war news confirming the worst. The men of Shenandoah had no country, no flag, no home.

Lieutenants William C. Whittle (standing) and Sidney S. Lee, Jr.

“We have lost all but our honor & self respect, and I hope our trust in God Almighty,” continued Whittle. “Were it not for my dear ones at home, I would rather die than live. Nearly all our work in the Arctic must have been done after this terrible visitation, but God knows we were ignorant…. My heart bleeds in anguish.”

Shenandoah had invaded the cold north pursuing the Pacific whaling fleet, the largest concentration of high-value Yankee targets remaining on the oceans. On June 22, amidst ice floes, the New Bedford whalers Euphrates and William Thompson became her latest victims, the first of many.

From Thompson’s Captain F.C. Smith they learned of the April 14 assassination of President Lincoln. “I am certain that it was not done by anyone from our side,” recorded Whittle, but he feared that Confederates would be blamed anyway.

Newspapers from San Francisco via Hawaii with dates up to April 22 provided additional discouragement. Lieutenant Whittle anticipated the loss of Charleston and Savannah, and even the evacuation of Richmond once Wilmington was gone, but not Lee’s reported surrender at Appomattox on April 9. “All this last I put down as false…. I do not believe one single word.” Ship’s surgeon, Dr. Charles Lining, also maintained a journal: “I was knocked flat aback. Can I believe it? And after the official letters which are published as being written by Grant & Lee, can I help believing it?”[2]

Midshipman John Mason confided to his journal that there must be some truth to it. “I am very uneasy about Mother, Aunt E. & the girls, as well as Tom, who no doubt has been in all these battles.”[3] One might think from reading these papers, continued Whittle, that the Confederate States were subjugated, but considering the enemy’s “propensities for falsehood,” he would place no confidence in them. Still, the news was very bad. “My heart is heavy! heavy!! heavy!!!”

God alone knew what would become of his darling sisters if, with no means of support in a country devastated by invasion, their dear old state should be given up to cruel and relentless foes. “God help us I pray. Oh! God protect us.”

James I. Waddell

One captured whaling captain said the war was over but could not produce documentary evidence. Another did not believe the war was over but that the South would yield eventually. Captain James Waddell would not quit just as Shenandoah was able to deliver a devastating blow for the beleaguered Confederacy.

On this same June 22 in London, the British foreign ministry consented to forward sealed letters to Shenandoah from Confederate representative James Mason (distant uncle to Shenandoah’s Midshipman Mason) through consular channels in Nagasaki, Shanghai, and the Sandwich Islands, to colonial governors, and to Her Majesty’s ships on foreign stations.

The letters directed that Captain Waddell desist immediately from offensive operations. James Mason had little confidence that the missive would reach its destination (and indeed it did not) but thought it necessary to put the attempt on record. He summarized the collapse of Confederate armies and capture of President Davis, noting that hostilities had formally ended and Southern ports opened to trade.

European powers had withdrawn recognition of belligerent rights and forbidden entry of vessels flying the Confederate flag into their ports, except only for the purpose of disarming and dismantling. Waddell’s first duty was care for his personnel, to pay off and discharge the largely foreign crew with due regard to their safety.

Finally, concluded the letter: “[The terms of the president’s proclamation] are such as to exclude most of the officers of your command from the privilege of returning at once to their original homes.” Not covered by the initial amnesty, they should come to Europe for protection under the laws of a neutral nation or await developments elsewhere.[4]

Meanwhile, Shenandoah, passing herself off as a Russian or American man-of-war, struck back with a vengeance. In the next week, 11 weeks after Appomattox, they would take a total of twenty-four whalers—an unprecedented accomplishment that a few months before would have been greeted with jubilation in the South and despair in the North.

The unfamiliar boom of cannon echoed across frigid waters; a wholly unexpected flag appeared; boats scuttled like beetles; whale carcasses floated loose; sails flapped (when there was wind) in frantic attempts at escape through ice and fog or into Russian waters. Under steam and/or sail, the Rebels devoured each victim individually or in groups and rushed on to the next.

Giant pillars of black smoke smudged the crystal air. Towers of flame glowed through fog or illuminated midnight dusk. Eighteen whalers were out of New Bedford and one from Fairhaven; three hailed from New London; another was a Rhode Islander, and one was home ported in San Francisco. Four of the oldest and slowest were saved and sent off to San Francisco crammed with almost eight hundred prisoners of war; there were no casualties. Several captured sailors joined the Confederates.

Having apparently done all the damage they could, and undoubtedly uncertain as to their status, Captain Waddell turned Shenandoah’s bow south out of the ice and cold. Lieutenant Francis Chew assumed that the Arctic visit completed their assignment. “We are now homeward bound! That is, to Europe, for when shall I again see home?”[5]

The news from home deeply affected them; their country had suffered great reverses and was in perilous condition if not overrun. “Under these circumstances our anxiety may be imagined,” continued Chew. They had no word since learning of Lincoln’s death. “I trust that none of our people had anything to do with it. If he had been killed in battle it would have been the fate of war; but not to be assassinated.”

Now a month later in mid Pacific, they had the final word. Whittle feared that his father, a Confederate Navy captain, would be imprisoned or executed. He prayed that his army brother, Beverley, may be spared. His five sisters and two little brothers had no means or property and might starve. He could do nothing.

“‘I have been young, and now am old, but never have I seen the righteous man forsaken, or his children begging bread.’ [Psalm 37:25] Let this be my motto until I can get safely to some port. Oh! God protect them for Christ’s sake. I am almost mad, and will lay down my pen.”

Lieutenant Dabney Scales entered official notice in the ship’s log: “Having received…the sad intelligence of the overthrow of the Confederate Government, all attempts to destroy the shipping or property of the United States will cease from this date,” in accordance with which the captain ordered the first lieutenant, “to strike below the battery and disarm the ship and crew.”

“The curtain has dropped,” wrote Chew, “the bloody tragedy has finished. We are Exiles! A few particulars only have reached us with the overwhelming, the awful end. Our situation is very peculiar and very dangerous.”

Shenandoah had been, in their minds, a commissioned warship of a fledgling nation with belligerent rights recognized under international law, including the right to capture and destroy enemy property wherever encountered. But now, noted Midshipman Mason, they were a ship with no government, “a novel position!”

Vessels conducting offensive operations under the Confederate flag would be charged with piracy. Shenandoah had destroyed American whalers in the Arctic without sanction. Men-of-war of all nations were obligated under international law to capture pirates. The penalty was hanging. “We were certainly a blue looking set,” Mason wrote. “None of us able to fix our minds on reading or writing, were wandering about the ship with the most doleful countenances or sitting in knots about the deck talking over the dreadful news.”

“Every man felt as though he had just learned of the death of a near and dear relative,” recalled Master’s Mate Cornelius Hunt. Dr. Lining recorded: “From today I must look forward to begin life over again starting where I cannot tell, how I cannot say, but I have learned for a certainty that I have no country…. Thus ends our dream! But I am too sad to think of it.”[6]

The news cast a deep stillness over the ship’s company, wrote Captain Waddell. “My life had been checkered, and I was tutored to disappointment.” But still, he had his duty, involving both personal honor and the honor of the flag entrusted to him, “which had been thus far triumphant.”

After a harrowing voyage around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic under constant fear of capture, Shenandoah steamed into Liverpool. November 6, 1865: Captain Waddell lowered the last Confederate banner without defeat or surrender, discharged the crew, and abandoned the tired ship to British authorities.

“I claim for her officers and men a triumph over their enemies and over every obstacle, and for myself I claim having done my duty,” Waddell concluded. He and his officers went ashore to reconstitute their lives. All eventually would return to the United States, resume citizenship, and live out successful careers.


Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes (U. S. Naval Institute Press, 2015)

[1] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), a published version of Whittle’s journal. Quotes from Whittle are from this journal on or about the date in context.

[2] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. Quotes from Lining are from this journal on or about the date in context.

[3] James T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. Quotes from Mason are from this journal on or about the date in context.

[4] James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped, 2 vols. (repr., New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), 2:157-159.

[5] 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. Quotes from Chew are from this source on or about the date in context.

[6] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 218.

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