- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006


By Tom Chaffin, Hill and Wang, $25, 448 pages,

This book tells the harrowing story of the last Confederate sea raider’s mission around the globe.

On Oct. 8, 1864, the British merchant Sea King set sail from London bound for Bombay. She vanished, and word spread quickly in seaports that she was lost at sea. In fact, the Confederate navy had reinvented the Sea King as the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah.

Openly building or procuring a vessel to assist the Confederacy in the war would have violated England’s neutrality. So Mr. Chaffin introduces readers to Cmdr. James D. Bulloch, the Confederacy’s premier agent in England.

Bulloch procured 33 blockade runners and masterminded the building of CSS Alabama, a 1,050-ton screw steam sloop of war that made her captain, Raphael Semmes, a hero of the Confederacy.

The Shenandoah’s captain, U.S. Naval Academy graduate James Iredell Waddell, and his crew ultimately destroyed 32 ships, ransomed six, took more than 1,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured $1.4 million in Union assets. The Shenandoah never fired a shot in anger — a remarkable feat of daredevil nerve.

In addition, Waddell and his men managed to round up and send home safely every one of her captive seamen without serious injury to any man.

The Shenandoah’s tale is easily the most quixotic and previously neglected sea story of the Civil War. Her 58,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe made her the Confederacy’s second-most-successful merchant raider.

Waddell proved himself not quite the same kind of strategist, seaman and warrior as Semmes, who delighted Confederate newspaper readers during the Alabama’s 22 months at sea, starting on Aug. 24, 1862. Waddell’s exploits at sea were often overlooked amid news of Union Army advances and the Confederacy’s final days.

For four months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Waddell continued his wartime mission, unaware that he had no flag, rank or legal standing. The already legally murky work of the commerce raider became, at war’s end, potential grounds for prosecution for war crimes.

The author notes that even before the war ended, “the difference between privateer and pirate was, literally, paper-thin.” Waddell’s men feared for their lives, while the captain displayed indecision, which ultimately resulted in a near mutiny, an interesting sidebar to this saga of the sea.

Mr. Chaffin’s way of telling the tale makes readers understand that this is not just a historical account of the Shenandoah, Bullock and Waddell. By adding quotes from diaries and other firsthand accounts, Mr. Chaffin gives readers and students of history insight into 1st Lt. William Whittle Jr., the executive officer, and Midshipman John Mason, who recorded that the crew “made it a rule from the start that there should be no pillaging of the captured vessels.”

The interesting characters encountered include several Shenandoah captives, some who exhibited cowardice and some who showed great dignity and bravery. Capt. John Eldridge of the Hawaiian vessel Harvest vehemently protested the capture of his ship, as Harvest was not a U.S.-flagged vessel. Eldridge was put ashore on an island in the Pacific Ocean, where he spent the rest of his days with a native wife; his descendants live there today.

Mr. Chaffin also recounts the Shenandoah’s encounters with the likes of the royal native leader of Ascension Island, where males “submitted to a rite of passage that required castration of the left testicle.”

Shenandoah sailed past both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, crossed the Sea of Okhotsk and journeyed past the West and East coasts of North America. The officers and men suffered the hardships of long periods of desolation at sea as well as a sumptuous wine-fueled reception in Melbourne, Australia.

This breach of Queen Victoria’s neutrality proved costly to the British government: An international tribunal awarded damages of 800,000 pounds against Britain when the Shenandoah continued to attack shipping after she departed Australia.

The novel design and construction of the Shenandoah will be of interest to seamen. The ship was a “composite, full-rigged ship, with something more than auxiliary steam-power, and all necessary arrangements for disconnecting and lifting her screw” to reduce drag while sailing. Armed with modern rifled British Whitworth 32 pounders and other guns, Shenandoah was a sleek, fast, cutting-edge technological wonder.

“Sea of Gray” is a detailed account of the history and voyage of the Shenandoah’s men and captives. Tom Chaffin writes a captivating history important to Civil War buffs, mariners and American studies students.

John E. Carey writes from Falls Church.

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