- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

Most students of Civil War history are familiar with the adventures of the ironclad CSS Virginia; Raphael Semmes’ commerce raider, CSS Alabama; and the world’s first true submarine, the H.L. Hunley.

The Virginia’s attack on the Union blockade at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, inflicted nearly 300 casualties, the worst losses inflicted in a single day upon the U.S. Navy before Dec. 7, 1941.

The Alabama and other commerce raiders wreaked havoc on the U.S. merchant fleet. The Hunley was the first submarine ever to sink an enemy warship, the USS Housatonic. It is almost inconceivable that these accomplishments were the work of an agrarian society known for having little industrial capacity.

The stories of the Virginia, Alabama and Hunley are just part of “The Confederate Navy,” a new exhibition at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

The exhibit introduces visitors to the CSS Shenandoah and the full scope of Confederate naval history. It is divided into sections and covers such subjects as the Navy Department, naval officers, the Confederate States Naval Academy, shipbuilding, torpedo and submarine warfare, privateers, blockade runners, “brown water” Navy squadrons, commerce raiders and Confederate naval forces in Europe.

The Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah is of particular interest. It sailed among the icebergs in the Arctic Ocean as it practically destroyed the U.S. whaling fleet months after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The Shenandoah also was the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are swords belonging to such luminaries as Capt. French Forrest and Midshipman James Morris Morgan; the globe and other possessions of renowned naval scientist and officer Matthew Fontaine Maury; uniform jackets and coats of the Virginia’s flag lieutenant, Robert D. Minor; and uniform coats of officers who served aboard the CSS Florida and Alabama. An amazing sight is a set of Confederate navy regulation gilded brass buttons, shining like new in their original box.

Scattered among the exhibit are beautifully executed models of the CSS Florida, Tallahassee, Fredericksburg, Virginia II, and the Shenandoah, crafted by O.L. Raines Jr. There are original ship plans for the Georgia-built ironclad Jackson, and the national flag of the CSS Shenandoah — the last flag of the Confederacy, lowered in Liverpool, England, in November 1865.

Measuring more than 7 feet by 11 feet, the Shenandoah’s flag is the largest and most striking among the artifacts and documents in the exhibition. It barely fits in the museum’s largest display case and fittingly represents the legendary voyage of the last Confederate commerce raider commissioned for duty. She captured 38 Northern vessels, 25 of them after the Confederacy had ceased to exist.

The Sea King was a British merchant ship just returned from her second voyage to Asia when Cmdr. James D. Bulloch (uncle of Theodore Roosevelt) purchased her for the Confederacy. Safely delivered to Confederate control in the Madeira Islands, she was commissioned Shenandoah on Oct. 19, 1864.

Only her captain, Lt. James I. Waddell, knew the ship’s unique assignment until she was fitted out and under way. Instead of continuing the work of other Confederate raiders against shipping in the Atlantic, the Shenandoah was to attack the Northern whaling fleets in the North Pacific and Arctic oceans.

The ship arrived in the North Pacific in March 1865. Its officers would not credit the occasional news they received of the Confederacy’s collapse and sailed for the Arctic, determined to carry out their orders. In a six-day period in late June, the Shenandoah captured 24 ships and burned all but four of them.

The Shenandoah was on its way to San Francisco to shell that city when it encountered the English bark Barracouta, which was bound for Liverpool. That ship brought definitive evidence of the Confederacy’s surrender. Waddell ordered the ship’s guns stowed, and the officers voted to sail for Liverpool and turn the ship over to British authorities rather than face possible arrest as pirates in a U.S. port.

The ship’s colors actually were struck twice. The first time was on Aug. 2 so that the ship would not be regarded as a pirate vessel. Then on Nov. 5, 1865, the crew raised the flag to identify their ship and then lowered it; they offered the unsurrendered flag to British authorities, who returned it to the officers.

The Shenandoah and other Confederate vessels flew several different flags: a naval jack flown from the bowsprint; a long, narrow commission pennant flown from the topmast; and the national ensign flown from the stern. (The flag on display is the Second National Flag, often referred to as the Stainless Banne.)

Commerce raiders also were equipped with a variety of decoy flags to better lure their prey. The Shenandoah flew an English flag in the Atlantic and a Russian flag while operating in the Arctic Sea.

Confederate Lt. Dabney Scales took the large Confederate flag ashore and gave it to his cousin, who entrusted it to an English friend of the Confederacy. Matthew Fontaine Maury’s son eventually brought it back to the United States, and Maury’s daughter, one of the first officers of the Museum of the Confederacy, donated it to the museum in 1907.

The Museum of the Confederacy is located at 1201 E. Clay Street in Richmond. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibition, which opened earlier this month, will run through Dec. 31, 2006. More information about prices and directions is available at www.moc.org, or call the Visitor Services Desk at 804/649-1861. A catalog is available for $10.

William Connery is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He is available for personalized tours of historic sites in the Baltimore-Washington area and talks on the Civil War. He can be reached at [email protected]verizon.net.

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