Alaska, Civil War, Commerce Raider, CSS Shenandoah, History, Military History, Piracy, Russia, War
Where was the last shot fired in the civil war?
Where was that last shot fired?
Oh, also, when?
Some folks would put that on April 9th, 1865, when the battle of Appomattox Courthouse (Virginia) concluded with Lee’s surrender. (Presumably, the last shot would have been fired a little before the surrender, but at any rate, you can see why this moment might be a good candidate for the end of hostilities.) On the other hand, Lee’s surrender left a number of other Confederate forces in the field and still quite willing to fight. Some folks thought the last shot was fired a little later on, in Waynesville, North Carolina on May 6th, 1865. Of course the battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) comes after that (May 12, 1865), which leads some to name that as the last battle of the civil war. Apparently, there was a small battle in Eufaula, Alabama, on May 19th of 1865 which certainly beats all of the above. If we are looking for an official end of the war, we could put it at May 5th when Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, officially disbanded the Confederate government or on May 10th when Davis was captured, putting to rest any hopes that he might somehow carry on after all. One might say that nothing after that counts. Just don’t tell that to Frank and Jesse James who seemed to view themselves as continuing the struggle well into what most would think a completely different story altogether. We could probably find a few other outlaws who might have told similar accounts of their actions. Sticking with official military forces, it’s worth noting that the last Confederate General to surrender was Stand Watie, who surrendered on June 23, 1865. Just how much fighting he and his men were doing in those last few days, I must confess I do not know. And then of course, there is the Confederate canon ball that exploded in Fort Macon, NC in the winter of 1942, putting an American soldier in the hospital for a couple days. Does that count? I’m gonna say ‘no’, but I do wonder what those who fired that shot might think to find out they scored a hit so many years afterwards. Clearly, there are a lot of candidates for the last shot of that war.
Or a story about a war.
Turns out it isn’t easy to wrap up a war!
I’m half-tempted to say the last shot of the civil war (so far) is the one that killed Ashli Babbitt on January 6th of this year, but that’s a whole other write-up.
So, what was the last shot of the civil war?
It really depends on what you choose to count as the last shot.
The key word there is ‘choose’.
Let me tell you about my favorite candidate for the last shot fired in the civil war!
It took place on June 22, 1865, in the Bering Sea. It would have been one of two warning shots fired by C.S.S. Shenandoah in the general direction of the Sophia Thornton, a whaling ship out to harvest bowheads in arctic waters. The shot had its intended effect, bringing the Sophia Thornton to a stop so this Confederate Commerce raider could loot and burn it to the waterline before they moved on to plunder other ships in the Yankee whaling fleet.
What makes this the last shot?
Well it is the last shot fired by troops acting under a flag of either belligerent in what they believe to be an action authorized by their own government in pursuit of the war. Why is that the important criteria? Well it just is, dammit! (Jesse and Frank can suck an egg.) I have spoken!
The Shenandoah would go on to plunder additional ships over the next couple days, but she didn’t need to fire any more warning shots. In time she would head south in hopes of launching an attack on San Francisco. One final capture along the way proved sufficient to furnish proof of the war’s end, thus bringing to a close this one last chapter of the Civil War.
.Almost the close anyway.
The Shenandoah made its way to England before surrendering, a trip which was certainly an ordeal in itself. And then of course there were the Alabama Claims, a lawsuit in which the Shenandoah figured rather prominently.
Maybe that’s when the story ends?
Or maybe not.
It’s damned hard to wrap up a war.
Or even a story about one chapter in a war.
What I love about this story is that it helps me connect the Civil War to the history of Alaska. It might seem like a footnote in the story of either Alaska or the Civil War, but it’s one of a few such footnotes that helps me connect the Civil War to students often prone to think of that war as a story for those that live in the lower 48. What I also love about this story is it keeps getting richer every time I come back to it.
Of course the story of the Shenandoah is not really just one story.
It’s a whole bunch of stories.
It’s a story about international relations. It’s a story of asymmetric warfare. It’s a story about whales and whalers. It’s a story about race and racism. It’s a story about law and violence, and the use of law as an instrument of violence. It’s probably a few other stories as well, but these are the themes this story usually takes takes on when I tell it.
First a few basic facts, which I probably should have mentioned way back in the first or second paragraph here, but anyway, you’re getting them now.
The Shenandoah began as a merchant vessel and troop transport, named the Sea King. She set sail from England in August of 1863 and finally surrendered to the British government in November of 1865. She first rendezvoused with another ship called the Lauren just off the coast of Madeira where she was outfitted with guns and other equipment necessary for work as a commerce raider. The Shenandoah was Captained by Lieutenant James Waddell, an officer in the Confederate Navy. Additional Confederate military provided the bulk of the ship’s officers, but the rest of her crew was initially unaware of the true purpose of their voyage. At Maderia, that crew was given the option to stay aboard and help on her actual mission (for a share of the loot), or to return home aboard the Lauren in the event that work in borderline piracy was not to their tastes. In time, the Shenandoah would flesh out her crew by adding sailors from the very ships she plundered. Apparently, it was not unusual for men to volunteer in such cases. Neither was it all that rare for the crew of a commerce raider to push the issue.
And by “push the issue” I might mean torture.
The Shenandoah carried 8 total canons of various sizes, not enough to make her a formidable warship, but enough to make resistance from a merchant vessel a losing proposition. She was equipped with a full set of masts with which to catch the winds as well as an auxiliary steam engine to get her moving when the winds weren’t so kind. She could make headway against the wind, but she could also take full advantage of favorable winds. Commerce raiders needed enough speed to catch their prey and outrun a full warship, and they needed just enough weaponry to defeat their civilian prey, or (more importantly) to convince their prey that surrender was the best course of action. By these standards, the Shenandoah was well suited to her task, at least when she finally got all the necessary materials.
Her first few captures, it seems, were secured through a bit of a bluff as her canons lacked the proper rope and tackle system to reload. Also, she didn’t really have enough crew. Once these problems were resolved, she was good to go!
International relations: The first chapters of any book about the Shenandoah are inevitably chapters of political intrigue. The ship was born in England, but of course that was politically impossible. England was officially neutral in the American Civil War, and so they couldn’t possibly allow the Confederates to purchase a ship meant for war from one of their ports. This is why her first stop was made off the shores of Madeira. She had been purchased by Confederate agents, aided by the complicity of British officials, setting sail without weapons of war and barely escaping British waters ahead of Yankee diplomatic efforts to shut down the voyage.
The official neutrality of Britain in regards to the Shenandoah would plague her voyage as the Shenandoah had to look for neutral ports or hide her true purpose when stopping anywhere at any port under a British flag. (This problem nearly ended her voyage in Melbourne.)
Britain’s official neutrality and unofficial complicity of course played a role in the decision to surrender in London. Other options were considered, of course, but surrendering to the United States was pretty much out of the question. The legality of commerce raiding is questionable enough under any circumstances. It gets a lot more questionable when your side loses, and continuing the raids a couple months past the end of hostilities might be a good way to earn your way right into a hang-man’s noose. Under the circumstances, a neutral nation seemed like the best place to bring the voyage to a close.
Britain’s complicity in this story would be revisited in the Alabama Claims, an international dispute resolved in 1872. In this case, the American government sought damages from Britain for allowing construction and purchase of 5 Confederate warships in their own waters. The Alabama was the most important of these vessels, but the Shenandoah certainly played a role. The Alabama claims ended when Britain paid the U.S. 15.5 million to cover the damages caused by ships such as the Shenandoah, thus setting the stage for international arbitration and eventually to things such as the Hague, the League of Nations, and the World Court.
…all of which states’ rights activists in the modern world might well consider examples of that Goddamned globalism!
(and thus the struggle continues…)
Asymmetric Warfare: How do you defeat an enemy that has more troops, more weapons, more industry, and more of pretty much everything necessary to fight a war? Well, to make a long story short, you might want to fight dirty. At least, that seems to a common response. That’s at least part of the story here. The Union established clear dominance over the Confederacy early in the Civil War and used a blockade to cut off much needed supplies coming in from other nations. The Confederacy thus relied on blockade runners to get supplies for the war, and on commerce raiders which served two purposes; they could weaken the Union financially, and they could draw warships away from the blockade as they were diverted to pursuit of the raiders. The Shenandoah falls into this category as it was tasked with wrecking havoc on the Yankee whaling fleet, then concentrated in arctic waters. It was part of a strategy born of desperation, but it’s also part of a strategy that works. …to a degree at any rate. It certainly works better than direct engagement with superior naval forces.
Ironically, the United States had a chance to prevent this sort of thing shortly before the Civil War as different European nations had put together an international agreement discouraging such practices. Realizing that it’s own navy was little match for its European counterparts, the United States declined to join the agreement, thus preserving the option to use such tactics in the event of a war with Nation’s like Britain or France (see Chaffin, pages 15-16). The civil war thus brought an unexpected twist of fate insofar as the Union found itself then facing down a weaker enemy with every reason to take advantage of this very option.
Suffice to say this would not be the last time, the United States would play Goliath to someone else’s David on the international stage.
Whales and Whaling: Upon encountering the first of Shenandoah’s prey in northern waters, The Abigail, Captain Waddell is said to have told its captain that the Confederacy had entered into a treaty with the whales (Chaffin, 231). It’s a clever line, one of several exchanged between the two men, but it doesn’t seem so frivolous in retrospect. At least some sources (Barr, Dunham), credit the Shenandoah with helping to reduce the Yankee whaling fleet which had only been working northern waters in search of the Bowhead population for a couple decades. She caused enough damage to change the way that insurance companies weighed the risks of covering a whaling expedition (Dunham). This wasn’t the only development shifting the economics of whaling at the time, but a plausible case can be made that the Shenandoah played a role in slowing down the whaling fleet. Waddell might well have thought himself to be telling little more than an amusing joke, but the Shenandoah may well have contributed to the welfare of the Bowhead population.
For Waddell’s allies at least, the impact of the Shenandoah were to last for some time after the close of its voyage and the war in which its crew served.
Race and Racism: One of the more interesting details of this story, at least to me, is the fact that the Shenandoah carried at least four African-American crew members (Chaffin, 360). One might wonder why an African-American would serve aboard a Confederate ship (a commerce raider or otherwise), and some of the sources which mention them do little to help explain this. Chaffin, however makes it clear that some of these men were put under heavy pressure, shackled, triced and threatened by Waddell who made it a point to tell one of them at least that blacks were the cause of the war. Mistreatment of these men continued well after their enlistment onto the crew. That one of them, John Williams, would escape during the ship’s stay in Melbourne would of course come as no surprise.
It would be easy enough to miss this. Just a few more sailors. These ones happen to be black, nothing to see here! Of course one can find denials of (and justifications for) their mistreatment in the comments of the ship’s officers. In the end, however, the story of the Shenandoah contains at least enough information to remind us that, at its heart, the Civil War is about a regime of forced labor defined in racial terms. To be sure, other sailors were pressed into service aboard the Shenandoah, but the treatment given to black sailors pressed into service does appear to have been significantly more abusive than that of their white counterparts.
Which really should not be surprising in the least!
Ahem, …Tricing consisted of hanging a prisoner for a period of time by their hands (or even their thumbs), often stretching them sufficiently to prevent their feet from supporting their full weight. This was done in conjunction with shackling prisoners and simply keeping in them in the same pen that was used to house animals carried for food.
Law and Violence: One of the more fascinating things about this story is the relative lack of overt violence in the capture of ships. For an act of war, this was generally carried out without any direct attacks on anyone. The ships captured by the Shenandoah were simply convinced to stop with a warning shot or two, after which the Shenandoah would send over a boarding crew to bring back the Captain of the vessel they had captured along with the ship’s records. These would then be inspected to ensure that the ship did indeed belong to Yankees, or at least that its cargo was owned by Yankees, after which the captured vessel would be looted, it’s officers, passengers and crew stowed aboard the Shenandoah itself, and then it would be burned. Some of these prisoners were treated as guests; others as prisoners. And (as mentioned) some signed onto service aboard the Shenandoah.
Prisoners were released in port.
What fascinates me about this is the legalism of the process. The officers aboard the Shenandoah were quite concerned to ensure that their prizes were legal, so to speak, even if the legitimacy of the legality was hardly something they could take for granted. They did not wish to plunder a ship from a neutral party, though; that at least would be more trouble than it was worth. So, the process was uniform, almost bureaucratic. They even enjoyed the option to require a ship to turn itself in at the nearest neutral port, effectively holding it for ransom, but doing so on little more than a written promise made under great duress.
The real violence in this story occurred primarily in the relationships between officers and crew or prisoners. Their actual naval engagements may have been a tad emotional, but they were largely legalistic affairs.
So much for the life of pirates!
Of course the men of the Shenandoah were not pirates. They were commerce raiders operating under orders from the Confederate government. This would distinguish them from buccaneers (private ships granted letters of marque from a government) or pirates who operated on their own without license from any government. The legitimacy of commerce raiding and letters of marque was always dubious, and it was coming more and more into dispute by the outset of the Civil War. In the end, their penchant for dotting legal Is and crossing legal Ts left them without much of a case to make when they finally realized the war was over. Things might have been different had the Confederacy won the war, but then again, they might also have been different if the Union had captured the Shenandoah. As it stands, they spent the final leg of their voyage trying to evade Yankee warships and get back to England where they might at least fall under the control and ostensibly neutral party.
Well, that’s it. Are you still here? Bet you thought this would be over long ago, didn’t you?
Like I said; it’s tough to end a war.
Or a story about the end of a war.
I really did warn you.
John Baldwin, Last Flag Down. (A monograph on the voyage of the Shenandoah)
Brad Barr talk in 2017. (It’s an interesting talk in which Barr argues that the greatest significance of the Shenandoah’s voyage was its impact on the practice of whaling.)
The History Guy on the Shenandoah. (A short and pithy video on the subject).
Laurell Bill, “Last Shots of U.S. Civil War Lands in the Bering Sea,” Aunt Phil’s Trunk. Aunt Phil is always worth reading!
Tom Chaffin, Sea of Gray. (A monograph on the voyage of the Shenandoah.)
Mike Dunham, “Civil War’s Last Shots Were Fired in the Bering Sea.” An article on the subject published in the old Alaska Dispatch News.
Lynn Schooler, The Last Shot. (Another monograph on the voyage of the Shenandoah)