Murky Gray At Sea: The Story of James Waddell and CSS Shenandoah
By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah (Hill and Wang, 2006, 448 pp.) by Tom Chaffin tells the harrowing story of the last Confederate sea raider’s mission around the globe—a mission that confounded the United States navy for more than a year.
On Oct. 8, 1864, the British merchant Sea King set sail from London bound for Bombay. She vanished and word quickly spread in seaports that she was lost at sea. In fact, the Confederate Navy had reinvented the Sea King as the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah.
Openly building or procuring a vessel to assist the Confederacy in the war would have violated England’s neutrality. So Chaffin introduces readers to Commander James D. Bulloch, the Confederacy’s premier agent provocateur in England. Bulloch procured 33 blockade runners and had masterminded the building of CSS Alabama, a 1050-ton screw steam sloop of war that made her Captain, Rafeal Semmes, a hero of the Confederacy.
The novel design and construction of Shenandoah herself will be of interest to seamen. The ship was a “composite, full-rigged ship, with something more than auxiliary steam-power, and all necessary arrangements for disconnecting and lifting her screw” to reduce drag while sailing. The ship weighed 1,018 tons and was propeller-driven by a 250-horsepower steam engine with a top speed of eight knots—sixteen knots under sail. Armed with modern rifled British Whitworth 32 pounders and other guns, Shenandoah was a sleek, fast, cutting-edge technological wonder.
The Shenandoah’s Captain, U.S. Naval Academy graduate James Iredell Waddell and his crew ultimately destroyed 32 ships, ransomed six, took more than 1,000 prisoners, and destroyed or captured $1.4 million in Union assets. Shenandoah never fired a shot in anger – a remarkable feat of daredevil nerve. And Waddell and his men managed to round up and send home safely every one of her captive seamen: without serious injury to any man.
The Shenandoah’s tale is easily the most quixotic and previously neglected sea story of the Civil War. Her 58,000-mile, circumnavigation of the globe made her the Confederacy’s second most successful merchant raider.Her Captain, James Waddell, who became a Confederate Navy Lieutenant (later a Commander) proved himself not quite the strategist, seaman and warrior as Rafeal Semmes, who delighted Confederate newspaper readers for twenty two months of at sea bravery starting on 24 August 1862 in CSS Alabama.
Waddell’s exploits at sea were often overlooked amid the overwhelming news of Union Army advances and the Confederacy’s final days.For four months after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Waddell continued his wartime mission: totally unaware that he had no flag, rank or legal standing.
The already legally murky work of the commerce raider became, for the loser at war’s end, potential grounds for prosecution for war crimes. The author notes that even before the war ended, “the difference between privateer and pirate was, literally, paper-thin.” As news spread that the war was over, Waddell’s men made this realization, and feared for their lives. Waddell displayed indecision, which ultimately resulted in the near mutiny of his men; an interesting sidebar to this saga of the sea.
Chaffin’s way of telling the tale makes readers understand that this is not just a historical account of Shenandoah, Bullock and Waddell. By adding quotes from diaries and other first hand accounts, Chaffin gives readers and students of history insight into First Lieutenant William Whittle, Jr., the Executive Officer, and Midshipman John Mason who recorded that the crew “made it a rule from the start that there should be no pillaging of the captured vessels.
”The interesting characters encountered include several Shenandoah captives, some who exhibited cowardice, and some who showed great dignity and bravery. Captain John Eldridge of the Hawaiian vessel Harvest, protested the capture of his ship vehemently, as Harvest was not a U.S. flagged vessel. Much like the crewmen of HMS Bounty, who disappeared on Pitcairn Island in 1789, when put ashore in the languid paradise of the Pacific Islands by Shenandoah, Eldridge spent the rest of his days on a tropical island with a native wife, where his descendants live today.
Chaffin also recounts the Shenandoah’s encounters with the likes of the Royal native leader of Ascension Island, where males “submitted to a rite of passage that required castration of the left testicle.”
Shenandoah sailed past both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, crossed the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and past the west and east coasts of North America. The officers and men suffered the hardships of long periods of desolation at sea. There were also times of playful interaction, including one “winter” frolic aboard the commerce raider on June 4, 1865 near Siberia. The Confederate sailors did not yet know that the war was over and “engaged in a regular school-boy “snow-balling,’” according to observer and participant Francis Chew.
Other memorable good times for the men of Shenandoah included a sumptuous wine-fueled reception in Melbourne, Australia. This breech of Victoria’s neutrality proved costly to the British government, after an international tribunal awarded damages of 800,000 pounds against Britain when Shenandoah continued to attack shipping after she departed Australia.
Sea of Gray is a detailed account of the history and voyage of the Shenandoah’s men and captives. Captain Waddell, for all his flaws, outran and out-lasted the vastly superior United States Navy. The Liverpool Mercury reported on the last days of the Shenandoah on Tuesday, November 7, 1865. The reporter commented that “one or two of the fleetest ships in the United States navy were sent in pursuit of the Shenandoah,” to no avail.
In some of the more intriguing elements of the Shenandoah story, a U.S. Navy Charles F. Adams class guided missile destroyer would bear the name of James Waddell. And another John Eldridge, USNA Class of 1971, would rise to command both USS Los Angeles and USS Rhode Island.
Tom Chaffin based most of his work on painstaking research in diaries, letters and documents of the period. He wrote a captivating history important to Civil War buffs, mariners and students of American Studies.
Commander John E. Carey, USN (Ret) works in the war against terror.