- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005


By Lynn Schooler, HarperCollins (ecco), $24.95, 308 pages, illus.

The truly incredible exploits of the Confederate raider Shenandoah have been overshadowed by those of the more famous CSS Alabama and its charismatic captain, Raphael Semmes.

But the Shenandoah finally seems to be receiving its due: The ship wins much attention in an exhibit on the Confederate navy at the Museum of the Confederacy, in Richmond. And now comes this first-rate work of history by Lynn Schooler.

In October 1864, after much subterfuge in London, the Confederates finally got their hands on the British merchantman Sea King, 220 feet long and one of the fastest ships afloat. Union authorities immediately assumed that the skipper was Semmes, whose Alabama had lost its famous battle with the USS Kearsarge earlier that year off the coast of France.

Semmes, plucked from the ocean by a British yacht, remained a bogeyman to the Union. But the loss of the Alabama had left him exhausted and “huddling under a blanket,” the author says.

Instead, the Sea King was put under the command of James I. Waddell, 42, an experienced mariner of more than 20 years, who renamed the ship Shenandoah. It was his first command.

Waddell proved to be, in many ways, a superb commander, but he never seemed to gain the confidence of his officers or crew, who continually second-guessed him. His first problem — after he, some 20 officers and about 12 hand-picked men (including 10 survivors from the Alabama) rendezvoused with the Sea King near the Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa — was assembling an adequate crew.

The Confederates had arrived aboard the British steamer Laurel and hoped to recruit men from that ship and the Sea King, but they got few takers. This left Waddell with just 42 men — aboard a ship that normally required about 150.

Nevertheless, Waddell’s officers talked him out of heading for port, which would have alerted the Union to the precise location of this new danger on the seas. Instead, he raised a crew of volunteers from each Yankee merchant ship his crew burned, which turned out to be many.

The Shenandoah headed into the South Atlantic, stopping and burning Yankee ships as it went. Mr. Schooler provides fine descriptions of the prisoners brought aboard. Some captains accepted the fate of their ship stoically or even with a sense of humor, while others wept openly.

Mr. Schooler also offers deft portraits of many of the Confederate officers as well as some of their prisoners. One of the most memorable of the latter was Lillias Pendleton Nichols, wife of the master of the Delphine, out of Bangor, Maine. The young woman combined a sharp tongue with dazzling beauty. The Confederates swooned.

By this time, the Shenandoah had gone around Africa into the Indian Ocean and entered the year 1865. The Confederates continued to capture and burn ships until, with a rush, the Shenandoah arrived near Melbourne, Australia, for repairs.

The Shenandoah by then was world-famous and was hunted by Union warships, to no success. The Australian people treated the Confederates like modern-day rock stars, while the British authorities fretted over how to keep any of her majesty’s subjects from violating the Neutrality Act by signing up with the Confederates.

In fact, the authorities demanded to search the ship for stowaways, which Waddell refused to allow. A short standoff ended when the Australians captured one of the men they were seeking. After 25 exciting and literally intoxicating days, the crew and ship departed with the goal of destroying the New England whaling fleet.

Four months later, in the middle of June 1865, the Confederates found themselves in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Asia, where they encountered a fleet of Yankee whalers. An orgy of destruction commenced.

“Before the Shenandoah arrived, a total of fifty-eight whalers had been working the water north of the Aleutian Islands and in the Arctic Ocean,” the author says. “When the smoke and flames dissipated, the raider had destroyed nearly half of them (including two who sank themselves trying to escape and another five sunk in the South Atlantic and at Ascension Island). All told, in the nine months since leaving Madeira Island, Waddell had captured thirty-eight ships and taken more than a thousand prisoners.”

San Francisco newspapers were aboard some of those whalers, and the Confederates learned, to their consternation, of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the fall of Richmond in April. They did not believe the war was over, however; one newspaper included Jefferson Davis’ proclamation urging the South to fight on.

The Shenandoah was fortunate to survive the ice and fog of the Arctic. Waddell sailed blind for three days, calculating his way through Amutka Pass and into the North Pacific.

“Waddell was so exhausted he had to be helped to his bunk. He had been standing for three days, and his feet were so swollen it was necessary to cut his boots off.”

Waddell now turned his attention to San Francisco, which he thought ripe for an attack. But on Aug. 2, 1865, the Shenandoah caught up with what the men thought might be another victim. Instead, it was the British bark Barracouta, whose captain informed them the war was over.

The rest of the story is how the Shenandoah completed its circumnavigation of the world and delivered officers and crew to safety in England. That is a thrilling story, too.

Mr. Schooler, who lives in Alaska and has served aboard fishing boats in the Aleutians, is not a professional historian, but he is a serious writer and researcher. The book reads like a novel, filled with quotes from memoirs, diaries and logs of captain and officers. He traveled to Australia and to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond to round out his tale. And what a tale it is.

Greg Pierce is editor of the Civil War page.

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