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February 20, 2006
Confederate ship sailed through Sea of Gray
By Michael Terrazas
Thousands of miles from the green forests of the Confederacy, within an afternoon’s sail of the Russian empire—and more than two months after Appomattox—the icy waters of the Bering Sea played host to some of the most brazen naval activity of the Civil War.
Over six days in June 1865, the CSS Shenandoah, a 222-foot-long auxiliary steamer captained by a brooding man named Waddell, captured 24 New England whaling vessels, striking a blow for the Confederacy against Yankee commerce—in support of a war that had already been lost.
It was the Civil War’s final act of aggression and the military apex of a yearlong mission that distinguished the Shenandoah as the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, and it is the subject of Tom Chaffin’s Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah (Hill and Wang, 2006).
Chaffin, a visiting scholar in history, said initially he planned to write a book about how the war played out in the American West, perhaps touching on the modest “naval theater of sorts” in the Pacific. Then one day his editor suggested focusing on this curious black three-masted ship that had gained infamy by continuing its raids on the U.S. merchant marine weeks after Lee surrendered, its officers refusing to believe such news when it reached them.
Sea of Gray follows the tale from the ship’s covert acquisition by Confederate agents in England, to its subsequent arming and rechristening as a man-of-war, to the far-flung journey that took it south around the Cape of Good Hope and the southern coast of Australia, north to the Arctic Circle, south again to Cape Horn and finally back to its home port of Liverpool, crossing the equator four times and covering 58,000 nautical miles.
Like the CSS Alabama (its more-famous predecessor), the Shenandoah was a commerce raider, charged with destroying or capturing Northern commercial ships, the goal being to disrupt the U.S. economy and lead Northern industry to pressure Lincoln’s government for peace. From October 1864 to June 1865, the ship seized some 38 prizes, valued at $1.4 million—burning or scuttling all but six of its victims.
But Sea of Gray’s real story is that of Shenandoah’s officers and crew, many of the latter recruited from among the captured sailors who could be persuaded, or coerced, to “ship” with the Confederate—and who constituted a veritable United Nations of citizenships. The book’s title captures the moral dilemma of the ship’s officers who, from the very start, grappled with the legal implications of their mission. In earlier eras, many of the world’s nations—including the U.S. during the American Revolution and the War of 1812—had routinely dispatched ships to prey on their enemies’ merchant fleets. By the mid-19th century, however, much of the world viewed commerce raiding as little more than piracy.
“One of the things I hope to do is to recover a quite lively debate from that era on the legitimacy of commerce raiding,” Chaffin said. “There was enough historical precedent and hypocrisy going back and forth to compel legitimate arguments on both sides.”
In doing his research, Chaffin sifted through what he described as an “embarrassment of riches” in primary source material. Not only did the Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, order each of his officers to keep individual ship’s logs, but still extant are four personal diaries, including those of Waddell and his first officer. Finally, after the war was over, the United States sued supposedly neutral Britain for turning a blind eye to Confederate commerce raiding, demanding monetary compensation for the value of ships lost. The ensuing international arbitration yielded a historian’s treasure trove: pages and pages of depositions taken from sailors who’d been aboard the many ships captured by the Shenandoah and its fellow raiders.
In all, the material enabled Chaffin to consider the ship’s odyssey—both its encounters with other vessels and the long periods of tedium in between, enlivened by the melodrama of onboard squabbles—from nearly as many angles as there are points on the compass.
“I felt like I was in the middle of all this gossip, because you’d read about these incidents from all these different perspectives, kind of Sound and the Fury-like,” Chaffin said. “Mostly I wanted to create a nuanced portrait of these guys and try to understand them.”