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Stalking Yankee whalers was so much fun, the crew didn’t notice the war was over.

The Scots build fine ships; they always have. And in the early 1860s, a number of their vessels found their way into the service of the Confederate Navy.

Initially ordered by British government and businesses for commercial and military use, the ships ended up as Southern blockade-runners and commerce raiders. One such vessel earned the dual distinction of being the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, and the last combatant vessel of the Civil War.

It began life in Glasgow in late 1863 as Sea King, built on the River Clyde as a British troop transport. The following year, it caught the eye of James D. Bulloch, the Confederacy’s principal agent in Britain. With the famed Confederate raider Alabama now lying at the bottom of the English Channel, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory had ordered Bulloch to find a suitable replacement. Bulloch told Mallory Sea King was a “fine, composite, full-rigged ship, with something more than auxiliary steam power….”

Because Union Secretary of State William Seward was pressuring the British for supplying the South with weapons and engines of war, Bulloch had to engage in a convoluted series of secret negotiations to purchase the ship—along with a steam tender, the Laurel—for the Confederacy. Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell assumed command and supervised conversion of Sea King—now rechristened CSS Shenandoah— to a Rebel raider. Waddell was a good choice; a career Navy man from North Carolina, he had resigned his commission when his state seceded and immediately entered the Confederate Navy. Now 40 years old, he brought experience and fierce dedication to his new post. He was not afraid of a fight; in fact, he walked with a limp as a result of an earlier duel fought with a fellow officer.

His first task was to sail Shenandoah past Yankee gunships watching the British ports for enemy vessels. This he accomplished through a combination of skill and luck, and in October, he rendezvoused with Laurel off Madeira. Waddell took aboard naval stores, guns and ammunition, and set about cutting gun ports and mounting batteries. The humble transport vessel now boasted four 8-inch smoothbores, two 32- pounders and two 12-pounders.

But Waddell was woefully short of crew. Faced with the prospect of going to sea with only 43 men—about a third the number the ship required—he nevertheless decided to commence his mission to “seek out and utterly destroy” enemy commerce, and perhaps attract additional crewmen from the captured vessels. His target: the Yankee whaling fleet.

Waddell set a course that would take him past the Cape of Good Hope, and with luck, on to the Pacific whaling fleet. He captured six prizes before even reaching the Cape, burning five and sending the prisoners from the sixth to Brazil. And as hoped, with each ship taken another handful of sailors volunteered to serve in his crew. By the time Waddell sighted the Australian coast, the number of captured Yankee vessels had grown to 11. Still short of men— and in serious need of supplies and repairs—the ship docked in Melbourne late in January 1865.

“The men are a fine and determined looking set of fellows,” an Australian newspaper reported. “The uniform worn is a sort of yellowish-grey with a shoulder strap of blue silk bearing a single star, surrounded by a thin gold cording. The cap is also grey, with a broad gold band.”

The Aussies found the presence of a Rebel raider in Hobsons Bay a romantic experience. At the urging of the local authorities, Waddell opened his ship to visitors—and the locals thronged aboard. “The visitors,” it was reported, “showed their southern sympathies by cheering the vessel heartily as they took their departure from her.”

Shenandoah remained in port for three weeks. “There were few if any who sailed in the Shenandoah who will not carry to their graves many pleasant memories of the days they spent on the shores of Australia,” a crewman wrote in his journal. “Invitations to dinners and balls poured in from all sides, and every one was particular to mention that he had the warmest sympathy for the Confederate cause….Hundreds of men made application to join us here, but as we had no right to ship any in a neutral port, all were denied, reluctantly.”

At least officially, that is. In fact, 40 to 45 Australians “stowed away” aboard ship and were added to the crew list as Shenandoah weighed anchor and left port—helping to make up for the 19 crewmen so taken with Melbourne’s charms they “took leg bail” and stayed.

Waddell sailed from Melbourne to the Carolines, where he burned four whalers and bonded a fifth—a process by which the captain agreed to pay a sum equal to the ship’s worth to the Confederacy at the end of the war. Flush with success, he continued to the Sea of Okhotsk, off the coast of Russia. By now, however, word of the Rebel raider’s relentless hunt had spread among the whaling fleet. Terrified, the captains headed north. Waddell—unaware his prey had fled—had scant luck, taking only a single prize. On May 27, he captured the whaler Abigail.

According to one chronicler, the scene resembled a Marx Brothers comedy as Shenandoah’s prize crew discovered aboard Abigail a large quantity of trade liquor, which they liberally sampled. When they failed to return, Waddell sent another crew to investigate, who promptly joined the others in sampling the spoils. The pattern continued as a third party, armed this time, was rowed to the Abigail—at which point the fiesta simply mushroomed.

Disgusted, Waddell dispatched a contingent of Marines—who added to the merriment by drinking their fill as well. Finally, he sent some officers over to put a stop to the impromptu party, and when they arrived…well, you get the idea. Only after the revelers were suffering the aftereffects of a terrible drunk did they return chastened to their ship.

Bereft of targets, Waddell now changed course, sailing for the Bering Sea and into the Arctic Ocean. It proved to be an astute move; threading his way among the icebergs, he discovered the fugitive whaling fleet. By late June, he had taken another two dozen whalers, destroying nearly all of them. What he didn’t realize was that meanwhile, back on the continent, the war had ended more than two months before. He was informed of this by at least two of the captured captains—but in the absence of convincing evidence, he chose to ignore the news and to continue his mission. He set a course for San Francisco, believing the port city to be ill-defended and easily won. Finally, on August 2, he encountered the British bark Baracouta, carrying hard evidence of the defeat of the Confederacy and the death of President Lincoln.

What to do now? Waddell was sailing under the flag of a nonexistent country, and he anticipated being treated as a pirate if sighted by a Union ship. After all, most of the 32 ships he’d destroyed, the six ships he’d seized and the 1,053 men he’d captured were taken after Lee’s surrender! Weighing his options, he chose not to sail to America to surrender his vessel. Since most of his crew were British, he ordered a course set for Liverpool—some three months and 9,000 miles away, by way of the perilous Cape Horn. He struck his colors, dismantled his guns and gave his ship the aspect of a harmless merchant vessel.

Finally, on November 6, 1865—nearly seven months after the end of hostilities— Waddell arrived at Liverpool and surrendered Shenandoah to British authorities.

In the span of a year, Waddell had nearly destroyed the Union whaling fleet and commanded the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe. In all that time he took no lives and lost only two crew members—to causes unrelated to the mission.

Waddell spent the next decade in England. When he returned to the United States, he took a position as a captain in the Pacific Mail Line, helming the steamer City of San Francisco. Nearly 100 years later, the U.S. Navy named a guided missile destroyer—USS Waddell—after him.

Shenandoah was sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar and renamed Majidi. By all accounts, it was poorly maintained and was lost in a gale—in 1872 or 1879, no one is quite sure which—a sad end for the ship that bore the fight for the South long after all the other guns were stilled.


Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.