Surrender of the Shenandoah ended Civil War

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Civil War aficionados like to brag about how many battlefields they have walked and talked about — starting with the skirmishes in the backcountry of Virginia, to Gettysburg, and finally, the early morning “breakout” chasing the Confederates to Appomattox Courthouse. 

In the West, the battlefields of Henry and Donelson point to Vicksburg, and then the Atlantic, and finally, the Tar Heel state. 

But there is one battlefield that few have visited or even read about. In the waters of Alaska is Little Diomede Island. Here, the CSS Shenandoah fired the last shots of the American Civil War. 

British sympathy at the beginning of the Civil War definitely leaned toward the South. But as the war continued, British feelings shifted to the North because the English needed wheat more than cotton, and profits of neutrality were more important to industry than wishing for Southern independence. 

The British government provided assistance to the Southern cause by allowing them to support British industries, especially shipbuilding. The English built in their home ports a number of destroyers for the use of the Confederacy — the most famous were the CSS Alabama, the CSS Georgia, the CSS Florida and the CSS Shenandoah. 

Successful ship

The Shenandoah would be the last armed cruiser to carry the Confederate flag and next to the Alabama, was the most destructive to U.S. shipping. 

Initially christened the Sea King and launched Aug. 17, 1863, this ship was one of the first screw steamships in the world and was designed for transporting British troops to India. The frame and beams were of iron and planed with teakwood. Weighing 1,160 tons and 230 feet long, it was capable of skimming the ocean waters at nine knots under steam. 

Escaping from England through a ruse and under the name H.M.S. Sea King, it sailed to Madeira to rendezvous with a British supply ship the Laurel that had the armaments to outfit a warship. The Laurel also transported the Confederate crew to man the ship. 

When Captain James I. Waddell officially commissioned the ship the CSS Shenandoah Oct. 19, 1864, it set sail on the high seas with a crew of 73 men and an armament consisting of four 8″ and two 12 pounder smoothbore cannon, and two 32 pound rifled guns. It was fast and a terror on the seven seas. 

From Madeira, the Shenandoah headed to the Pacific Ocean with orders to “seek out and destroy the New England whaling fleet,” that was harvesting the bowhead whale in the Alaskan waters. 

On the way to Australia through the Cape of Good Hope, the Confederate warship took six Union prizes in the Atlantic. Docking in Melbourne for two months of repairs, the Shenandoah was on station in the Pacific Ocean by early 1865. 

Waddell’s long stay in Australia to make repairs and acquire supplies allowed the U.S. whaling vessels fishing the South Pacific to be warned and disperse. Waddell then took the Shenandoah north and devastated the Union whaling fleet operating in the cold waters of Alaska. 

He captured 38 Union ships and burned 32. They captured more than 1,000 prisoners and paroled them with neutral ships. Damage to the Union whaling industry was estimated at $6,488,000. 

Late notice

Being far from sources of information, the Shenandoah did not learn of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender until June 1865. Waddell did not consider Lee’s capitulation to mean the end of the Civil War and continued his hunt for whalers in and around the Little Diomede Island in Western Alaska. 

Leaving the cold for warmer waters, the Shenandoah encountered a British ship and received proof Aug. 2, 1865, that the Confederate States of America ceased to exist.

Dismounting the Shenandoah’s guns, closing the portholes, whitewashing the funnels and disguising her as a warship, Waddell sailed 17,000 miles without stopping at any port, by way of Cape Horn, under sail except for a short time under steam to avoid capture. 

He arrived in Liverpool, England Nov. 6, 1865, where he surrendered to the British authorities. The 58,000-mile adventure resulted in the Shenandoah being the only Confederate warship to sail around the world. 

The British transferred the cruiser to the U.S., who sold it to Sultan of Zanzibar in 1866. Renamed the El El Majidi, the heroic ship was damaged in an 1872 hurricane off the coast of South Africa and a few months later sank on a voyage to India. 

At one or another time during the Civil War, there were about 18 Confederate commerce destroyers. They plied every ocean and only in an emergency did one attempt to slip into a port. Most of them eluded the Union warships hunting them and in the meantime were able to seriously disrupt Federal commerce like the CSS Shenandoah did. 

That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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