29. Apr, 2017


Whom could have imagined that in 1864, an island of six English Colonies the size of the United States, could have been drawn into a conflict half war around the world by one incident. The Australian Colonias were affected by the American Civil War economically. The Australian cotton crop became more important to England, which had lost its American sources, and it served as a supply base for Confederate Blockade Runners.

Australia became directly involved when the Confederate navy visited in order to repair one of their warships. This led to protests from the Union representative at Melbourne, while the citizenry of nearby Williamstown entertained the Confederates and some Australians joined the crew. Accounts disagree as to whether Australians generally favoured the Union or the Confederacy, as sorrowful demonstrations were held in Sydeney when news arrived of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Together, 140 Australians and New Zealanders were veterans of the American Civil War, 100 of whom were native-born. Some of these were originally Americans who came to Australia during the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s. Officers during the war included one who gave Tasmania its first telegraph service, and another officer who mined for gold in Ballarat, Victoria.

Confederate blockade runners occasionally obtained supplies there, despite a historic fear of possible naval attack by Americans, a fear rooted in the actions of American privateers during the War of 1812.

Possibilities of war between Russia and Britain

During the Civil War, the Union and Russia were allies against what they saw as their potential enemy, Britain. The Russian Blue Water Navy was stationed in San Francisco and from 1863 in New York—with sealed orders to attack British naval targets in case war broke out between the United States and Britain. This was threatened if Britain gave diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.

The flagship of the Russian Pacific Squadron, Bogatyr under Rear Admiral Andrey Alexandrovich Popov, officially made a friendly visit to Melbourne in early 1863. According to information passed on to Australian authorities in June 1864, Rear Admiral A.A. Popov had in the first half of the year 1863 received orders and a plan of attack on the British naval ships positioned near the Australian shore. The plan also included shelling and destruction of the Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart coastal batteries.

The CSS Shenandoah, formerly Sea King, was an iron-framed, teak-planked, full-rigged ship, with auxiliary steam power, captained by Confederate States Navy Lieutenant Commander James Waddell, a North Carolinian with twenty years of prior service in the United States Navy.

The Shenandoah was launched as Sea King on August 17, 1863, and would become one of the most feared commerce raiders in the Confederate Navy. She surrendered on the River Mersey, Liverpool, England, on November 6, 1865. Her flag was the last sovereign Confederate flag to be officially furled.

During  12 1⁄2 months of 1864–1865 the ship undertook commerce raiding resulting in the capture and sinking or bonding of thirty-eight Union merchant vessels, mostly New Bedford whale-ships. The Shenandoah fired the last shot of the American Civil War, across the bow of a whaler in waters off the Aleutian Islands.

The vessel had three names and many owners in her lifetime of nine years. She had been designed as an auxiliary composite passenger cargo vessel of 1,018 tons being built in 1863 by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow, Scotland, for Robertson & Co., Glasgow to be named Sea King. The vessel was intended for the East Asia tea trade and as a troop transport. On being fitted out at the builders the Northern Union assessed the ship for purchase. After change of owner and a number trips to the Far East carrying cargo and to New Zealand transporting troops to the Maori War, the Confederate Navy assessed and purchased her from Wallace Bros of Liverpool in secret with the signing on 18 October 1864, one day before being renamed CSS Shenandoah. The ship was to be converted into an armed cruiser with a mission to capture and destroy Union merchant ships.

The Sea King sailed from London on 8 October 1864, ostensibly for Bombay, India, on a trading voyage. The supply steamer Laurel sailed from Liverpool the same day.

The two ships rendezvoused at Funchal, Madeira, with the Laurel carrying the officers and the nucleus of the commerce raider's crew, together with naval guns, ammunition, and ship's stores. Her commander, Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell supervised her conversion to a man-o-war in nearby waters. However, Waddell was barely able to bring his crew to even half strength, despite additional volunteers from the merchant sailors on the Sea King and from Laurel. The Confederate cruiser was commissioned on 19 October 1864, lowering the Union Jack and raising the "Stainless Banner", and renaming the vessel CSS Shenandoah. As developed in the Confederate Navy Department and developed by its agents in Europe, CSS Shenandoah was tasked to strike at the Union's economy and "seek out and utterly destroy" commerce in areas yet undisturbed. Captain Waddell began seeking enemy merchant ships on the Cape of Good Hope–Australia route and in the Pacific whaling fleet. Captain Waddell sailed her around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa and headed across the Indian Ocean for Australia, destroying Union vessels he encountered on the route.

Colony of Victoria stopover

Still short-handed, the Shenandoah arrived at Melbourne, Colony of Victoria, on January 25, 1865, where she filled her complement and her storerooms.

She also signed on 40 crew members who had been stowaways from Melbourne. They were not enlisted until the ship was outside the Colony of Victoria's territorial waters. The Shipping Articles show all 40 crew members had enlisted on the day of her departure from Melbourne, February 18, 1865. However, nineteen of Waddell's crew deserted at Melbourne, some giving statements of their service to the United States Consul.

The CSS Shenandoah arrived in Australian waters on January 17, 1865. Off the coast of South Australia, her crew spotted an American-made sailing ship named the Nimrod and boarded it. Having ascertained it was an English ship, the Shenandoah left it alone.

On January 25, 1865 the Shenandoah made harbor at Williamstown, Victoria, near Melbourne, in order to repair damage received while capturing Union whaling ships. At seven o'clock in the evening, Waddell sent a Lieutenant Grimball to gain approval from local authorities to repair their ship, with Grimball returning three hours later saying they were granted permission. The United States consul, William Blanchard, insisted that the Victorian government arrest the Confederates as pirates, but his pleas were ignored by Victoria's governor, Sir Charles Henry Darling, who was satisfied with the Shenandoah’s pleading of neutrality when requesting to be allowed to undertake repairs. Aside from a few fist fights between Americans, there was no direct conflict between the two warring sides. However, there were eighteen desertions while ashore, and there were constant threats of Northern sympathisers joining the crew in order to capture the ship when it was at sea.

The local citizenry was very interested in the Confederate ship being in Port Phillip Bay. While at Williamstown, James Iredell Waddell, the captain of the Shenandoah and his men participated in several "official functions" the local citizens arranged in their honour, including a gala ball with the "cream of society" at Craig's Royal Hotel in Ballarat, Victoria and at the Melbourne Club. Thousands of tourists came to see the ship every day, requiring special trains to accommodate them. After being treated as "little lions", the officers of the Shenandoah later reflected that the best time of their lives was given to them by the women of Melbourne.

After leaving Australia, the Shenandoah captured twenty-five additional Union whaling ships before finally surrendering at Liverpool, England in November, 1865. Those surrendering included 42 Australians who had joined the crew at Williamstown; sources differ as to whether the Australians were stowaways or illegally recruited. Waddell did refuse Australian authorities to see if Australians were aboard the ship prior to sailing from Williamstown on February 18. Four Australians were arrested to prevent them from joining the Confederate ships, and Governor Darling allowed the Shenandoah to sail away, instead of firing upon it. Waddell's official report said that on February 18 they "found on board" the 42 men, and made 36 sailors and enlisted six as marines. One of the original Confederate crewmen, midshipman John Thomson Mason, stated that they just happened to find the stowaways, of various nationalities, and enlisted them outside of Australian waters. He further said one of the stowaways was the captain of an English steamer that was at Melbourne at the time; the Englishman became the Captain's Clerk

The residents of Melbourne, realising they were vulnerable to attack by others, especially the Russians due to the events during the war, hurried to build coastal defence forts. This included the government of Victoria requesting an ironcladed ships to be sent to protect the colony, after the values of ironclads were demonstrated during the American Civil War's Battle of Hampton Roads

In 1872 the British government paid the United States $3,875,000 as a result of the assistance provided to CSS Shenandoah and other Confederate ships in Victoria and other ports controlled by Great Britain, after an international jury ruled on the case in Geneva, Switzerland

NEXT WEEK’S BLOG-next weeks blog will be an article based on a photograph on the ‘AMERICAN CIVIL WAR-THE WAR BETWEEN STATES’ Face book page posted by Julia Tingley