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Civil War's last shots were fired in the Bering Sea

Mike Dunham
A colored lithograph by B. Russell shows the CSS Shenandoah attacking U.S. whaling ships in the Bering Sea on June 23, 1865. The artwork is from the collection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center
Painting of the CSS Shenandoah in the Arctic ice, 1865.
Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

A unique battle flag hangs in the Confederate Museum in Richmond, Va. It's the flag of the only ship in the southern navy to have circumnavigated the globe. The one that fluttered as cannons fired the final volleys in the war. The last to be lowered in surrender.

And the only Civil War ensign -- Yankee or Rebel --to have flown in action in Alaska.

The 150th anniversary of the first shot of America's deadliest conflict has been widely noted this month. Few people are aware, however, that the last shot was fired off Alaska's shores.

Yet the roar of the guns of the CSS Shenandoah -- like those of Fort Sumter -- continue to echo in our world after a century and a half.

STEALTH RAIDER

Built as a supposed troop transport in supposedly neutral Great Britain, the 1,160-ton screw steamer Sea King was designed with subterfuge in mind. Its smokestack could be lowered, its masts and sails switched to look like a different ship.

In October 1864, it was secretly transferred to the Confederate Navy in a black-ops rendezvous off the coast of Africa. A skeleton crew rigged the ship for battle and renamed it Shenandoah.

Its mission was to disrupt Union shipping and commerce. It burned American-flagged ships in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans. Then it sailed into the Pacific and laid a course for the Bering Sea.

The extensive New England whaling fleet off Alaska included some of the biggest and most expensive vessels of the day, the 19th century version of factory ships. Their lucrative cargo of oil was essential for modern life in the nation's growing cities.

But the whaling grounds were in territory claimed by the Czar. Union battleships were thousands of miles away. No one envisioned a Confederate assault amid the ice floes of Russian America.

The Shenandoah had speed, power and guns that could fire a half-mile with some accuracy. The whalers gave little or no resistance. In 12 months, the raider captured or sank 38 American ships and took 1,000 prisoners -- without a single battle casualty on either side.

Lynn Schooler of Juneau is the author of perhaps the best-known history of the Shenandoah, "The Last Shot: The Incredible Story of the C.S.S. Shenandoah and the True Conclusion of the American Civil War" (Ecco/HarperCollins). He noted that many of the captives, attracted by the spunk and spirit of the rebel ship, freely signed onto their captor's crew.

"The officers, in particular, were a charming bunch of fellows," Schooler said in a recent interview. "Well-educated, young, enthusiastic -- and silver-tongued."

Evidence of their charm emerged in accounts of a stop for repairs in Melbourne, Australia. In those days it was the custom to give a button from your uniform to a lady with whom you had ''dallied.'' When the Shenandoah's officers shipped out, Schooler noted, their uniforms were held together with pins and string.

For the captured whaling crews, there were also economics at play. No ship meant no pay. If they joined the Shenandoah, however, they could share in the spoils.

Navy pay was determined by a warship's profits, similar to a crewman's cut of the catch on modern fishing boats, Schooler said.

"They were like crabbers, long-liners."

Schooler has been a commercial fisherman. He became fascinated with the Shenandoah saga as a bookworm teenager in Anchorage when he came across an article about it in an old Alaska Sportsman magazine.

As an adult, he researched "The Last Shot" by tracing as much of the ship's path as he could.

"I'm not a Civil War buff," he said. "But as I traveled around the world, it became clear how really global the conflict was. (The history of the Shenandoah) is still common knowledge down in Melbourne. I saw three private boats with that name in the harbor. There's a prominent mural of the ship on the side of a restaurant. That surprised me because hardly any Americans know about it."

TARGET: SAN FRANCISCO

Surely more Americans would remember the Shenandoah -- and curse it -- had Capt. James Waddell carried out his planned bombardment of California.

Between June 22 and 28 of 1865, he sank or captured two dozen American ships near Little Diomede. Like the Battle of New Orleans, it was an act of war conducted well after the war was over.

Captured captains protested and showed newspapers announcing Robert E. Lee's surrender (in April of that year). But the Confederates presumed the war was continuing on other fronts.

With information gleaned from prisoners, Waddell surmised that San Francisco might be vulnerable to an unexpected strike. With his business finished in the Arctic, he steered for the Golden Gate to attack the defenseless city.

He was mere days away when a chance encounter with a British barque confirmed the newspaper reports. The South's army had capitulated and its president, Jefferson Davis, was a prisoner. Abraham Lincoln was dead. So was the Confederacy.

Rebel soldiers received a blanket pardon -- except for the crew of the Shenandoah. They were to be caught and hanged.

The most amazing part of the story, in Schooler's opinion, is how Waddell escaped the noose with his ship and crew intact.

Waddell put the Shenandoah into disguise mode. He stowed the guns and repainted the hull at sea.

Then he began an epic race across three oceans.

"He had every navy in the world looking for him. He never saw land, never contacted another ship. He stayed out of the main shipping lanes, which meant unfavorable winds, bad seas and going the most inhospitable way. He went 27,000 miles by guesswork and hit Liverpool dead on in a fog."

In England, Waddell surrendered to the Royal Navy. On Nov. 5, 1865, the flag that had wrought terror in the Bering Sea came down.

For combatants in uniform, at least, the Civil War was finally over.

LASTING IMPACT

But the ramifications continued. The Union demanded Waddell be arrested. Britain declined. The U.S. brought history's first international civil court cases, known collectively as "the Alabama Claims" after the most famous Confederate sloop.

The Alabama, sunk in battle off the coast of France in 1864, inflicted more damage than the Shenandoah, with some 60 kills. But the Shenandoah was more notorious because of the sneaky way the British had supplied it.

"That pissed the Union off royally," said Schooler.

Adding to that insult was the fact that the Alaska attacks happened so long after the rest of the South had surrendered, the daring escape that humiliated the most powerful military machine on the planet and the international incident involving Waddell's immunity in England.

"The effect of the Shenandoah was greater than the Alabama," said Schooler. "It had more long-term effects and actually changed the balance of power at sea."

And not in America's favor.

The raiders' depredations had caused insurance rates for American shippers to skyrocket. Many went out of business. The British bought cargo vessels from bankrupt companies at pennies on the dollar. American shipping, which had boomed before the war, languished for years after and Britannia continued to rule the waves until the age of the U-boats.

Following the precedent-setting international arbitration, conducted in Geneva, Switzerland, Britain agreed to pay the U.S. $15.5 million in damages -- twice what America paid Russia for Alaska.

"For that, England got control of world shipping for another 50 years," Schooler said. "It was an incredible bargain."

Tempers cooled. The Shenandoah's officers returned to America where several had successful careers. Waddell continued to command ships, receiving high praise for his abilities. He died in 1886.

Seventy-six years later, the U.S. Navy christened a guided missile destroyer in his honor, the USS Waddell.

Schooler remains astonished at the idea of naming a Navy ship for an enemy officer. It's the final peculiar twist in the peculiar history of the last shot fired in the Civil War.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
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