Friday, March 03, 2006

 

A bracing tale of the Civil War and the sea

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The Boston Globe
By Michael Kenney
March 01, 2006


Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, By Tom Chaffin, Hill and Wang, 432 pp., illustrated, $25.

In early 1864, at the height of the Civil War, so successful had Confederate commerce raiders been at destroying Union merchant ships that the Confederacy's agent in London was reporting to the South's navy secretary, ''There really seems nothing for our ships to do now upon the open sea."

But within months of making that report, James Bulloch was securing a Scottish-built auxiliary clipper for use as yet another raider, the CSS Shenandoah, which, during a yearlong around-the-world voyage, would seize 38 American merchant ships and whalers, destroying all but the few used to send off crews of the destroyed ships.

In ''Sea of Gray," Tom Chaffin, a visiting scholar at Emory University, gives a spirited account of the Shenandoah's odyssey -- both an intriguing Civil War story and a bracing nautical yarn.

The Confederate navy secretary, Stephen Mallory, Chaffin notes, believed that the depredations of Confederate commerce raiders would drive up insurance and operating costs for New England's fishing and whaling industries and, in Mallory's words, ''have a decided tendency to turn the trading mind of New England to thoughts of peace."

The thoughts of the captains whose ships the Shenandoah seized were more personal.

Its first capture was the bark Alina out of Searsport, Maine. ''I'll tell you what, [matey]," its captain told one of Shenandoah's officers as he left his ship for the last time. ''I've a daughter at home that that craft yonder was named for, and it goes against me cursedly to see her destroyed."

For Shenandoah's crew, however, the sight of burning ships was a tonic. ''I have rarely seen any thing which is more beautifully grand than a ship burning at sea," Shenandoah's first officer exclaimed. Conversely, a week or more without a capture was a cause of frustration and discontent.

Whatever effect Mallory's commerce-destroying strategy might have had on the course of the war, by mid-June of 1865, when Shenandoah reached the Arctic whaling grounds where it would seize 24 whalers, General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered the main Confederate Army some two months before.

The first of those whalers carried news of the surrender. But as one of the Shenandoah's midshipmen recalled, ''I put the best face on the matter possible & try not to believe it."

Shenandoah proceeded, on one day alone seizing eight whalers, abandoning its mission only when its passage farther north was increasingly blocked by ice floes.

Definitive news of the Confederate surrender then came from a British merchant ship. Captain James Waddell decommissioned his ship, stowing its armaments, and headed back toward England. Shenandoah dodged Union ships searching for it and arrived back in Liverpool on Nov. 6, 1865, 13 months after its departure.

The crew members, many recruited from ships Shenandoah had seized, scattered, and the officers were eventually paroled. The ship, returned to merchant service, sank after striking a reef in the Indian Ocean.

A final curious twist came with an unexpected honor for Captain Waddell. In 1964, ''in a spirit of Civil War centennial sectional-reconciliation," Chaffin writes, the US Navy commissioned the USS Waddell, ''a destroyer named in honor of the former U.S. Navy officer who had resigned that commission to command the CSS Shenandoah."


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