Commerce Raider / Ship-of-War Tall Ship
The CSS Shenandoah flew the only Condeferate naval flag to circumnavigate the globe.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
The Confederate Naval Department turned to James Dunwoody Bulloch - the Confederate States of America's agent in England - on July 16, 1864 and ordered him to find a suitable replacement for the destroyed Confederate raider CSS Alabama. Bulloch closely watched British shipyards for suitable vessels and found a potential blockade runner - the "Sea King". A well-constructed, fully-rigged, three-masted ship having twenty-one square sails with steam power as an auxiliary propulsion system. The designers had built-in the new ability to disconnect and lift her screw into the well deck below the ship - increasing her speed when under sail power alone.
The civilian steamer Sea King was built as a British cargo or troop ship with primary sails and a steam-powered 1,160 ton screw engine as secondary. She was launched on the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in August 1863. The Sea King was the first screw steamer built on a scheme using iron frames under wooden planking. Designed to be a fast ship of commerce, able to cross the ocean and bring the first teas of the growing season from China to many London households.
She had three decks built from teak wood, a raised forecastle with a clipper bow that extended from the forecastle to the forward bulkhead and a large poop deck extending 30 feet over the Captain's cabin. Shipbuilders often designed a cabin space at the very rear of the ship called a poop cabin that would extend a few feet above the level of the main deck aft and finished off with a flat roof. The flat roof of the poop, or captain's, cabin served as an observation platform called the poop deck. Officers and petty officers often used the poop deck as an ideal position for observing the horizon for ships during action - or to keep a watchful eye over their own crew from above. Under the poop deck was a well deck which would hold the raised propeller when the ship moved just under sail power. Below the half deck was a dining saloon, staterooms and the officer's quarters.
The crew was housed in the topgallant forecastle. Between the fore and main masts was built a large deckhouse containing the galley and rooms for the ships petty officers. Her bathrooms were built with inside toilets - a rather modern quality for a wooden vessel of the time. Between the main and mizzenmast, space was allocated for the auxiliary steam engine and the boiler rooms. The engine space was surrounded by coal bunkers that were always a safety problem with flammable coal dust and open flames found in the boiler rooms. Canvas partitions were used to reduce the airborne coal dust and limit the threat of onboard fires.
Shortly after the Sea King was completed, Bulloch noticed the new ship at anchor and saw that her size and use of dual power between wind and steam made her an ideal candidate for conversion to an armed cruiser commerce raider. The Secretary of State of the North, William Seward, had previously warned the British government about allowing the Confederate Navy to purchase ships and cannon to be used in the War Between the States - otherwise known as the American Civil War. British authorities would not sell war goods to the Confederate cause and to their agent Bulloch in the open, requiring him to act covertly with owners of ships directly to help avoid detection by Union spies. First Bulloch quietly purchased coal, cannon, powder and supplies as well as a tender ship to carry them - this ship named the "Laurel". Customs officials in Liverpool could uncover no violation of any municipal laws and allowed the Laurel to leave Liverpool on Sunday morning October 9th, 1864, the very same day that the Sea King left London under the ruse of a trading voyage to Bombay, India for tea. The total cost for her purchase was 53,715 pounds, 10 shillings and 9 pence.
Sea King sailed to the region of Madeira near the port of Funchal, Portugal where she rendezvoused with the Laurel. The Laurel brought supplies and Confederate Naval officers and some crew members that were acquired in Scotland. Her war supplies were heavy cannon and equipment needed to refit her to become a commerce raider. Although Bulloch asked for Lieutenant William H Murdaugh to take command he was unavailable and C.S. Navy First Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell was chosen. The refit work had to be at sea under the supervision of Waddell, who became the cruiser's first Commanding Officer. Waddell took his ship to sea as the Sea King - a merchant ship - her decks stacked with supplies. The gun ports had not yet been cut out for the cannon batteries that needed to be moved from the Laurel to the Sea King's quarter deck. This conversion to a Confederate "man-of-war", or any ship, was normally performed in a naval shipyard. However, due to the secret nature of the mission, the work was to be done at sea with an untrained and minimum crew.
The two ships were lashed together at sea and cannon and supplies were hoisted over the side of the Laurel onto the deck of the Sea King. When Waddell tried to mount the guns, he found the needed cannon tackle for the 4x8 inch and the 2x32 pounders had not been obtained. The tackle was used to restrict the recoil when the cannons were fired. Without them, the recoil would carry the cannon to the other side of the ship, possibly injuring or killing sailors and even smashing thru the railing and falling into the sea. Although Waddell had the guns sticking through the newly cut gun ports and they would be visible to any ship that approached, without the tackle they could not be fired in anger. Waddell had the use of the 2x12 pounders that could be safely fired. When the refit was completed on October 19, 1873, the Sea King was commissioned as the CSS Shenandoah.
Now with the conversion completed as a ship-of-war, Waddell's problem was to man the ship with a capable fighting crew. He made an offer of two months extra pay to enlist in the Confederate Navy but only convinced a cabin boy and a fireman. Waddell now used a bucket of sovereigns but only two more men took gold and signed on. Captain Corbett returned to the Laurel and Waddell could only coax another five crew to join. In all, he had 19 crewmen and 23 officers making up the complete 42-man crew though he needed at least 150 to sail and fight the ship properly. Regardless, Waddell was ready and with the Confederate flag flying gracefully, the CSS Shenandoah embarked on her great adventure accompanied by cheers and acclamations from the crew of the Laurel.
The Confederate Naval Department had supplied written orders for Commander Waddell to take the Shenandoah out to the high seas to destroy Union commerce ships away from American waters in the Atlantic. Her course lay in pursuit of merchantmen while on the way to Australia by the Cape of Good Hope and on to the Union merchant whaling fleet in the Pacific. As she sailed to the Cape, she came upon six ships flying the American flag. Five of the ships were boarded, the crews transferred to the Loral along with useful supplies, and then the ships were sunk. Waddell was able to acquire the needed tackle from the prize ships for the 8 inch and the 32 pounder cannons so now he was ready for a fight.
The sixth ship was taken as a prize and most of the prisoners from the other ships sunk were transferred to her with the prize ship sailed to the neutral port at Bahia, Brazil. Waddell was still short of crew members and forced some of the prisoners into remaining onboard as conscript crew members. CSS Shenandoah continued on her course and arrived at Melbourne, Australia on January 25th, 1865. There she took on needed supplies, released the conscript draftees and filled her crew complement from local volunteers. After three weeks in the Melbourne port, Shenandoah had completed acquiring the needed supplies and repairs which allowed her back out to sea. On her way to attack the Pacific whaling fleet flying the American flag, Waddell decided to take his ship into the Indian Ocean.
Word of her intentions found their way to the whalers from passing ships so the fleet dispersed. When Waddell found his plan had been discovered, he set course for the north Pacific expecting to find American whalers there. In April, CSS Shenandoah arrived at the Eastern Carolinas island chain. There she found and captured four Union merchantmen. The ships were appropriately stripped of supplies and sunk while Waddell took the crews onboard for their personal safety.
Back in America the war had gone badly for the South and the Confederacy had collapsed in May 1865. Due to the slow pace of news through the distant Pacific distance Waddell did not receive the information in a timely fashion. Sailing the Sea of Okhotsk in May she sunk only one prize ship while navigating around ice flows. Waddell headed north past the Aleutian Islands into the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. There Shenandoah had found some of the whaling fleet and captured 11 ships as prizes. As she moved into the Bering Sea she found more Union targets. In the seven days between June 22nd and the 28th, Shenandoah captured 24 whaling vessels. Waddell burned the majority of the ships and spared a number to collect the crews and take them to a port for safety.
On June 27th, 1865, Shenandoah took the merchant ship SS Susan & Abigail as a prize. Her captain provided Waddell a San Francisco newspaper reporting General Robert E. Lee's surrender in Richmond, Virginia in May of that year. The recent newspaper had a story that quoted Confederate President Jefferson Davis announcing that the war would continue even after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Waddell was struck by the surrender but felt the words of Davis to continue the war was an order from the President of the Confederacy and decided to continue his patrol as normal. Sailing in the waters of the Arctic Circle, Waddell captured another 10 whaling ships. This action placed Waddell and his crew in jeopardy of being considered pirates by Union naval forces.
The below freezing temperatures placed stress on the ship's hull and rigging and Shenandoah required repairs so Waddell set sail for San Francisco, California. Waddell felt the union forces on the west coast would not be expecting her arrival. On her way down the coast, Shenandoah learned of the final Confederate collapse when she encountered the British Barque HMS Barracouta on August 2nd, 1865. The British captain, friendly to the Confederate cause, provided Waddell with San Francisco newspapers only two weeks old. The dark news was that President Davis and part of his cabinet, who had been on the run from Union authorities, were captured by federal forces. Additionally, the stunning news that the armies of General Joseph E. Johnston and General Magruder's had surrendered further compounded the matter.
With this news Waddell now had to face the fact that the war was truly over and ordered the crew to disarm Shenandoah as a Confederate ship-of-war. Her battery of cannon was dismounted and stowed below the quarter deck and she had her hull repainted to not resemble an obvious ship-of-war. With the South losing the war, Captain Waddell considered what would happen to him and his crew if they sailed into an American port to face a possible trial as pirates. Without Waddell's knowledge, his concern was justified since the reconciliation and amnesty papers signed by the North and South did not include commerce raider crews - only Confederate soldiers and sailors that had surrendered at war's end.
Waddell made the decision to set sail for England via Cape Horn, arriving at Liverpool where the CSS Shenandoah was surrendered by Captain Waddell to the Captain of the HMS Donegal on November 6th, 1865. Upon arrival, Waddell took the Confederate Ensign down and presented it to the Royal Navy. This surrender of the CSS Shenandoah and her crew to the British put the Crown between the American government and the Confederate crew. Since this could potentially involved a deadly decision for the Confederate crew back home under the charges of piracy, the British Crown ordered a naval investigation which ultimately found the Confederate crew not guilty within the rules of war at sea. The crew was released and the sailors found work on British ships going to America. Most of the officers decided not to return to the United States fearing the worst.
Officers Lee, Brown, Mason and Whittle decided to make for South America, sailing to Buenos Aires from Liverpool in December of 1865. The self-imposed exile in South America was hard on the men and their families while the rest of the men who fought for the Confederacy were allowed to return to their homes. The Federal Naval Department held a grudge and the United States Government wanted the officers arrested and hung for piracy. In a few years the animosity in America began to subside and Mason and Brown returned home to their families while Lee and Whittle felt it was still not safe and returned some years later.
When Shenandoah arrived in Liverpool, England to surrender she had sailed or steamed 58,000 miles, remaining at sea for 12 months and 17 days sinking or capturing 38 merchant ships flying the Union flag. During the Civil War, Waddell and his crew took almost one thousand prisoners without causing any war casualties - illness claimed just two men. This rather spotless war record was not the norm during this time of sea voyaging. However, the CSS Shenandoah never came across, or did battle with, any Union Naval ship-of-war, only Federal merchant vessels. It bears mention that the CSS Shenandoah was the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe while flying the "stars and bars".
The American Government held the British Crown at fault as they helped to finance the Confederate cause. The US Government pursued a claim of 21 million dollars loss due to the Shenandoah sinking or capturing the 38 ships. The maritime law suit, an international law called the "Alabama Claims", filed against the British Government (which was essentially on the losing side of the war) was required to pay millions for the loss of these ships to the United States in a court of arbitration.
In 1866, the United States government took possession of CSS Shenandoah, making her the last surrender of the American Civil War. She was then sold to the First Sultan of Zanzibar for 17,000 English pounds. The Sultan renamed the vessel the "El Majidi" after himself. She was returned to maritime service as a cargo ship for six years but remained armed for self-defense. On April 15th, 1872, a hurricane hit the vessel and a small fleet of six ships. The former CSS Shenandoah was badly damaged and reported lost at sea - a fitting end for a ship-of-war, avoiding the less honorable path of being broken up and sold for timber.