- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

Two naval officers share the rare distinction of being the only documented commanders to have served in three navies, all operating within the borders of the United States. Both began their careers in the U.S. Navy, joined the Confederate Navy and later became commanders of the little-known Maryland “oyster navy.”

Hunter Davidson and James Iredell Waddell led parallel lives in many respects. Davidson was born in the District in 1827, and in 1841, he became a student at the Naval School of Virginia. He transferred to the newly created Naval Academy and graduated in 1847.

In April 1861, Davidson joined the Confederate Navy and briefly served at the Norfolk Naval Yard and onboard the CSS Patrick Henry. From March to May 1862, he served on the ironclad CSS Virginia (the Merrimack) during its brief but celebrated history.

Davidson became an expert at naval mine warfare, no doubt spurred by a Confederate directive that the inventor of a device by which a vessel of the enemy should be destroyed would receive 50 percent of the value of the vessel and its armament. He became commander of the gunboat Teaser and was in charge of the submarine battery that mined the James River.

On April 9, 1864, while commanding the torpedo boat Squib, Davidson sailed past the Federal fleet at Newport News, attacked the USS Minnesota and escaped back up the James. Coincidentally, the Minnesota was one of the ships the Virginia had attacked during its first day of combat in 1862; it was saved only by the timely arrival of the Monitor.

The Minnesota was apparently little damaged by Davidson’s attack, since it continued in service until war’s end. However, Davidson’s bold action resulted in his promotion from lieutenant to commander. His final Civil War service was as commanding officer of the blockade runner City of Richmond.

Much has been written about James Iredell Waddell’s Confederate naval career. Born in 1824 in North Carolina, he became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1841 and spent nearly 20 years onboard several ships. He saw action during the Mexican War and was an instructor at the Naval Academy at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Waddell resigned his commission in 1861 and was appointed a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy in early 1862. He was briefly assigned to an ironclad on the Mississippi River and later served with shore batteries on the James and near Charleston, S.C.

In March 1863, Waddell was sent to England to await a seagoing assignment. His opportunity finally arrived in October 1864, when he assumed command of the British steamer Sea King and converted it to the cruiser CSS Shenandoah. Waddell took the Shenandoah through the south Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, capturing several U.S. merchant vessels along the way.

Sailing into the north Pacific and Bering Sea, Waddell captured or destroyed nearly three dozen merchantmen and whalers from April to July 1865. On Aug. 2, 1865, just as the Shenandoah was about to sail off to shell San Francisco, Waddell learned of the Confederacy’s collapse.

Fearing that he and his crew would be tried as pirates for their post-surrender “depredations,” Waddell decided on a unique course of action. Instead of returning to the United States and surrendering there, Waddell set a course that would take the Shenandoah around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic to England. He surrendered his ship and command in Liverpool in November 1865, hauling down the last official Confederate flag. The Shenandoah entered history as the only Confederate warship to have circumnavigated the globe.

The history of Maryland’s oyster navy is not widely known. Before the Civil War, Maryland enacted legislation to conserve the supply of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay by regulating the methods of taking them and outlawing the transport of oysters out of the state in boats not owned by Maryland residents. However, enforcement was left to the county sheriffs, and results were meager.

By the 1860s, with the arrival of the railroads, commercial shucking houses, canneries and the use of oyster shells as fertilizer, the oyster industry had become a major business. In 1865, Maryland enacted comprehensive legislation to regulate the taking of oysters. But major problems in policing the law remained, such as keeping boats from other states off Maryland oyster beds, keeping dredgers out of areas limited to tonging, arresting unlicensed vessels, assuring that dredgers only used sails and preventing oyster catching out of season.

Enter the oyster navy. In 1867, the Maryland General Assembly authorized chartering a steamer to patrol the Bay and apprehend oyster-law violators. In 1868, under the prodding of the oyster industry, the state established the Board of Commissioners of the State Oyster Police Force. The steamer Leila was built in Baltimore in 1869 and was the flagship of the nascent “navy.” Other steamers and sloops were added over the years.

Davidson became the first commander of the oyster navy. He commanded the flagship Leila (named after his daughter) and equipped it with ordnance from a former Confederate vessel. He prepared the initial “Internal Rules and Regulations” and “Shipping Articles,” which each officer and crewman had to sign when joining the navy.

Davidson served until 1872. He moved to South America, used his expertise in marine mines and torpedoes on work for the Argentine Navy, and died in Paraguay in 1913.

Still worried about piracy charges, Waddell remained in England until 1875, when Confederate veterans received a general amnesty. That year, he returned to Annapolis and then served as captain on Pacific Mail Line Co. vessels.

In 1883, Waddell was appointed captain of the new oyster navy steamer Governor Hamilton and given a seat on the oyster commission. He wrote the part of the commission’s report recommending adding more steamers and choosing commanders on merit rather than political connections. In 1884, Waddell was named commander of the oyster navy.

By the early 1880s, the navy suffered from lack of funds, had become a source of patronage and was ineffective at curbing illegal oyster dredging. Waddell was appointed to step up enforcement.

Two weeks after his appointment as commander, Waddell ran the Leila into the midst of a fleet of illegal dredgers at the mouth of the Honga River. The oystermen didn’t take this attempt to enforce the oyster laws seriously, which was a big mistake. Waddell ordered the Leila’s crew to open fire. Within 15 minutes, one boat had been sunk, three run ashore, another three captured and the rest put to flight.

Waddell was well on his way to eradicating the Chesapeake’s “oyster pirates” as head of the State Fisheries Force (then the official name of the oyster navy) when he died on March 16, 1886. His pallbearers and escort were former Confederate naval and army officers.

Maryland’s oyster navy survives as the Natural Resources Police, the state’s oldest law enforcement agency as well as one of the oldest conservation law enforcement agencies in the country. Its growth, successes and survival would not have been possible without the efforts of the two Civil War naval veterans who brought it to life and became Maryland’s most colorful “naval” commanders.

Richard P. Cox is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Annapolis.

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