The quartermaster of the CSS Shenandoah hauled down the Confederate flag flying from the stern, folded it reverently and handed it to Lieutenant Whittle, who turned his head away to conceal the tears rolling down his cheeks. He passed it on to Captain Waddell, the ship’s commander. Moments later Captain James Paynter of HMS Donegal, which was moored alongside, came aboard and Waddell formally surrendered the ship to him. The date was November 6th 1865 and the place was the estuary of the Mersey river, just off the port of Liverpool. It was the final act of the American Civil War.
The events that led up to this moment are complex and little known. When the Civil War broke out Britain adopted a strictly neutral position. It was illegal for anyone to sign up to fight on either side, or to do anything to help. The attitude of the citizens of Liverpool was, however, somewhat more nuanced. Until the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 the slave trade had been the foundation of Liverpool’s wealth. Since that time, the main source of the city’s trade had been the import of raw cotton from the southern states of America. The cotton was then transported to the Lancashire cotton mills. One of the first acts of the Unionist government on the outbreak of war was to blockade the southern ports, preventing the export of cotton and thereby depriving the Confederates of an important source of income. This, in turn, led to a considerable reduction in Liverpool’s trade and exacerbated a slump in cotton production in Lancashire. As a result, the mill workers, who had been some of the best paid in the UK, were reduced to poverty and near starvation.
In Liverpool, while many saw the moral force of the Unionists’ argument, they were also aware of a severe reduction in prosperity. There was a great deal of sympathy for the Confederates, which was demonstrated by a Grand Bazaar held in the St George’s Hall on October 18th 1864, to raise funds, ostensibly to help Southern prisoners of war and their families, organised and run by some of the most prominent ladies in Liverpool society, including three marchionesses and two countesses.
The Confederates desperately needed fast ships which could break through the blockade and get the cotton out to market. At this time the first steam ships were being built and the shipwrights of Liverpool and Birkenhead, just across the Mersey, were leaders in the field. Georgia-born James Dunwoody Bulloch was sent to Liverpool to organise the building of blockade runners. He was helped in this endeavour by George Alfred Trenholm, the Confederate States Secretary of the Treasury, who had set up an office in Liverpool. Together they arranged the building of dozens of ships which successfully broke through the Unionist blockade.
These, however, were not the only ships required by the Confederates.
On Oct 9th 1864 a ship called the Laurel slipped out of the port of Liverpool, supposedly bound for Havana Once clear of the estuary, she made rendezvous with a tug called the Black Hawk and took on a number of passengers. These men were in civilian dress, but their bearing was not that of civilians and they were addressed in terms that suggested a naval background. The Laurel’s first port of call was Funchal, Madeira, to take on coal, but her crew were puzzled by the lack of urgency with which the operation was carried out. Even when it was completed, her captain seemed in no hurry to weigh anchor. After three days of delay the lookout posted at the top of the mast saw a ship on the horizon. She was painted black, with three tall masts. She made no attempt to enter the harbour and with nightfall she disappeared, but next morning she came back and signals were exchanged between her and the Laurel. Immediately the captain gave orders that they should prepare to sail. The two ships met and the Laurel took the lead, searching the coastline of small islands until they came to a sheltered bay off an island they called Las Desertas. Here the two ships dropped anchor side by side and the crew of the Laurel were able to get a good look at the other vessel. She was called the Sea King. Her slender build was obviously designed for speed and as well as her tall masts she possessed auxiliary steam power, allowing her to manoeuvre in confined spaces and to sail when there was little wind.
After the lethargy of the last three days there was suddenly hectic activity on board both ships. The Laurel’s cargo was hauled up from the hold and swung across to the Sea King, and it was not at all what was listed on her official papers. Naval guns and ammunition of all sorts, plus stores and equipment for a long voyage, were transferred from ship to ship. When the process was complete, the crew of the Laurel were invited to join the men of the Sea King on deck. The mysterious passengers who had come aboard earlier now revealed themselves on the quarter deck in the grey uniforms of the Confederate navy. The senior officer (pictured right) introduced himself as Captain Waddell and informed them that the Sea King had been bought by the Confederate navy and would henceforth be known as the CSS Shenandoah. Her new mission was as a ‘commerce raider.’
The idea of these vessels was to catch and sink merchant ships carrying goods to and from the northern states, and in particular to disrupt the whaling fleets which were a principal source of wealth for the Unionists. They sailed under what were called ‘letters of marque’, granted to ships of belligerent powers, which allowed them to operate as privateers and gave them legal immunity from acts which otherwise would have been piracy. The Shenandoah was the last in a line of such ships. The most successful of them was the CSS Alabama, which took a total of 65 union vessels as prizes. Her career came to an end when she was sunk by the USS Kearsage and the Shenandoah was intended to take over where she left off.
Captain Waddell then invited men from both crews to sign on under his command but they were reluctant to commit themselves to a voyage of unknown duration and it was only the offer of much higher wages and a promise of a share of the booty that he was able to put together a scratch crew. As soon as these negotiations were complete the Shenandoah weighed anchor and put to sea, while carpenters were still busy carving out gun ports in her sides and otherwise transforming her from a merchant vessel into a man of war.
This was the beginning of a voyage which was to take her round the world and result in the capture of thirty eight Unionist ships. Waddell’s method of operation was this. When they encountered a ship which they suspected belonged to a Unionist company she would be ordered to heave-to. Menaced by Shenandoah’s guns, the captain had no option but to obey. If it turned out that the ship was not owned by Unionists, or carrying goods intended for Unionist ports, she was allowed to continue her voyage. Otherwise, all the goods on board, together with any useful stores and equipment, were transferred to the Shenandoah, the officers and crew were made prisoner and the ship was set on fire or sunk. None of the crew were harmed and were usually put ashore at the next convenient point – unless they could be persuaded to sign on with the Shenandoah. In this way, the Shenandoah kept herself supplied so that she was able to continue her voyage without touching port. The only harbour she called at during the entire year-long voyage was Melbourne, to take on coal and have repairs carried out. Since Australia was still a British colony, this caused considerable headache for the authorities; but she and her crew were made welcome by the local people and the officers were lionised and invited to dine and dance by the cream of Melbourne society.
After leaving Australia the Shenandoah sailed north through the Pacific until she reached the Arctic whaling grounds where the Unionist fleet was operating. On June 28th she came upon eight whaling ships, clustered around a ninth which had been holed by a collision. By the ruse of flying the Union flag, she was able to approach them. Then the union flag was replaced by ‘Old Glory’ and a warning shot was fired. Very soon all nine ships had surrendered. Their officers, when taken aboard the Shenandoah, expressed surprise at Waddell’s actions. The war, they had heard when in port, had ended several months earlier. On April 9th Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appotomax courthouse in Virginia.
The officers and crew of the Shenandoah refused to believe this. The idea of defeat was something they could not countenance and they assumed it was a ruse on the part of the captured whalers. It was not until they encountered a British owned ship as they sailed south again and were shown newspaper accounts of the surrender that the terrible truth came home to them. For the last three months they had been committing acts of piracy.
They now had a dilemma. Where should they go? If they put into any American port they would be arrested and probably hanged. Where might they find a neutral country which would allow them to go free and possibly make their way back to their homes? While Waddell tried to solve the problem the Shenandoah continued to sail south and finally rounded Cape Horn into the Atlantic. For a while they considered putting into Cape Town but could not see any way of getting home from there. They sailed on northwards. Unable to resupply themselves rations and coal for the engines was running short and the crew was close to mutiny. Finally, as the November fog closed in, they made their landfall off the north-west coast of England. The Shenandoah limped into the Mersey estuary and dropped anchor astern of the British naval ship HMS Donegal.
The dilemma was now the British authorities’. After a frantic exchange of messages between Liverpool and the government in London it was agreed that the American officers and crew should be allowed to go free but any British citizens who had shipped with them were to be arrested, as having broken the laws of neutrality. Captain Paynter was given the job of sorting the American sheep from the British goats. Remarkably, when asked, every single man aboard the Shenandoah claimed to have been born and bred in the southern states of America. Since there were no such things as identity papers at that period, Paynter gave up and allowed them all to disembark. The American Civil War was finally over.
I had no idea of these events until I began to research the background for my novel Workhouse Orphans, the story of two siblings brought up in the Brownlow Hill Workhouse in Liverpool. I decided that Gus, the boy, would run away to sea in search of the father who disappeared when he was a baby. When I read the story of the Shenandoah there was only one possible outcome. Gus stows away on the Laurel and becomes a witness to the stirring events described in this article.
- CSS Shenandoah by Patrick O’Brien
- George’s Dock, Liverpool circa 1875
- Commander James Iredell Waddell (1824-1886)
- Model of Shenandoah, in front of her Confederate flag, the last lowered in surrender. Via Alaska Public Media
- CSS Shenandoah in dry dock in Williamstown, Victoria, Australia, 1865, US Naval Historical centre