Last shot of Civil War lands in Bering Sea
Aunt Phil's Trunk
June 1, 2022 | View PDF
Seventy-four days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia, and almost two months after the Confederate Army stopped fighting on land, the last gun of the Civil War was fired in the Bering Sea of Alaska.
Not knowing the war had ended, the commander of English-built Confederate vessel CSS Shenandoah fired upon several whalers near Saint Lawrence Island on June 22, 1865 (although some credible sources say it was on June 28). Commanding officer
Lt. James Iredell Waddell and his crew inspected vessels flying British, French and Hawaiian flags and let them pass, but seized American whalers, according to an article written by Robert N. DeArmond in the July 1937 issue of The Alaska Sportsman.
The Shenandoah was one of several ships used by the Confederates to disrupt Yankee commerce on the high seas and she targeted whaling ships in particular. Confederates figured if they could disrupt the traffic of whale oil, they could bring the Union's economy to its knees. Whale oil was the hot-ticket item of the day used in lamps as well as a lubricant for everything from guns, watches, clocks, sewing machines, typewriters and more.
The 1,100-ton steamer, built in Glasgow in 1863, had been purchased by the Confederate government in 1864. She measured 230 feet, had a 32-foot beam and drew 15 feet of water.
During her 13-month saga with the Confederate Navy, the Shenandoah covered 58,000 miles and captured, burned and sank more than three dozen Yankee ships, 25 of which were after the war was over. Her crew also took more than 1,000 Union prisoners, yet never took a life.
Following the capture of the American whalers in the Bering Sea, the Shenandoah followed other whalers that had slipped into the Arctic Ocean. She passed through Bering Strait and into the Arctic but was forced to turn southward after a few miles due to sea ice.
While sailing in a dense fog, the Shenandoah slammed into ice floes that almost tore off her rudder and threatened to crush her hull. After several hours, however, she managed to steam free of the ice. She then continued on her course down the Aleutian Chain and set course for the coast of California.
On Aug. 2, 1865, just 13 days out of San Francisco, she overtook the English bark Barracouta. That's when the crew learned the war was over. The men also learned their commander had a bounty on his head. If the ship showed up at an American port, he would be tried and hanged.
Commander Waddell knew he needed to take his ship to some port for surrender. Part of the crew wanted to put into a South American port, while others wanted to be landed in Australia or New Zealand. After careful consideration, Waddell decided to run the gauntlet of federal cruisers and take his ship to a European port.
The crew reached Saint George's Channel on Nov. 5 without sighting any land on the way, 122 days after leaving the Aleutians. On Nov. 6, they dropped anchor in Mersey off Liverpool. The crew pulled down her flag and surrendered the Shenandoah to the British government. The Brits eventually freed the officers and crew and then turned the ship, which is the only Confederate ship to circumnatigate the globe, over to the United States.
One might ask why the Union had placed a bounty on Waddell. It turns out his success in seizing so many whaling ships during the Civil War contributed to the destruction of the whaling industry in America. The fleet actually was cut in half from its former size (by 1846, the United States had been home to 735 of the 900 whaling ships worldwide). Insurance rates rose to the point most companies could not afford to insure their ships and investment in the whaling industry dried up.
This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.