In January, 1865, in the last months of the American Civil War, the Confederate warship Shenandoah sailed unannounced into Hobson’s Bay. Staying 24 days, she secretly enlisted 42 men to fight for the Southern cause.
In a curious twist, it was the Shenandoah, with its small band of Australian sailors, that fired the last shots of the war. Years later the British government would pay millions of pounds in damages to the United States because of the ship’s Australian visit.
“The Shenandoah had a huge impact,” said Barry Crompton of the American Civil War Round Table in Australia (pictured right), a group of local enthusiasts planning the 150th anniversary commemorations in 2015.
“Melbourne scaled-up its defences because of the Shenandoah. Cannons were installed in 1867 on the shore line and an ultra-modern ship was commissioned to represent Victoria’s sea power.”
That ship was the two-turreted ironclad Cerberus, which patrolled Port Phillip Bay from 1870 until it was deliberately sunk to create a breakwater at Beaumaris in 1926.
The arrival of the Confederate States’ Steamship Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay on the evening of January 25, 1865 shocked the young British colony – settled less than 30 years previously.
Queen Victoria had proclaimed the Confederacy a power belligerent to Great Britain and here, suddenly, was one of its front line vessels on Melbourne’s doorstep. Her eight heavy guns of three-mile range could easily have pulverised the fledgling capital.
However, the ship’s captain, Commander James Waddell from North Carolina, declared neutrality, asking Governor Charles Darling for permission to take on coal and supplies, land prisoners and repair a broken propeller.
The Shenandoah’s previous port of call had been Madeira in the mid-Atlantic, where Waddell had received orders to load coal in Melbourne and then head to the Pacific whaling grounds for the peak June season. En-route south, Waddell captured eight ships and took aboard prisoners.
Despite this, the Shenandoah was vastly short-handed. Its complement was only 43 men and the ship was built for 130. Was her secret mission in Melbourne to recruit crew for the Confederate cause?
With permission granted, the ship transferred to dry dock in Williamstown on the other side of Hobson’s Bay.
“Australia Post made a special Williamstown postmark for the 125th anniversary,” said Mr Crompton. “We’re talking to them about repeating something similar for the 150th.”
In yet another twist to a story that has all the makings of a buccaneering movie, Melbourne writer Paul Williams, in a soon-to-be-published book, CSS Shenandoah: The Untold True Story, claims he has uncovered evidence that Captain Waddell had an adulterous love affair while the ship was berthed in Australia.
“It happened in Melbourne and it was with one of his prisoners, Mrs Lillias Nicholls, who was a Yankee,” Mr Williams revealed.
“They were spotted in the city by the Master’s Mate, Cornelius Hunt. To be seen fraternising with the enemy like that was terrible at the time and he blackmailed Waddell.
“Mrs Nicholls’ nephew, Clark, is still alive, living in Searsport in Maine. He remembers her well: she didn’t die until 1933.”
The repaired Shenandoah sailed from Port Phillip Bay on February 18. On board were fresh supplies, coal and 42 additional passengers. When the ship entered international waters, all of the Australians signed on to the Confederate cause using false names.
Waddell’s orders were to destroy Union merchant vessels, especially whaling ships. Whalers were vital to the Union war effort because in the 1860s whale oil was crucial in the manufacture of arms.
The Shenandoah had both steam and sail power and sped to the far north Pacific where, by June, she had sunk 38 ships, claiming 10 on a single day.
Such was her devastating success the Illustrated London News reported that the Shenandoah had single-handedly driven the price of whale oil up from 70 pounds to 120 pounds a ton.
“It’s been said the Shenandoah’s destruction of the whaling fleet changed attitudes to whaling,” said Mr Crompton. “The oil price went so high it forced people to consider alternatives and to think about whaling itself. It was a forerunner to the whole Greenpeace movement.”
Then, unwittingly, the Shenandoah’s crew, half of them Australian, fired the last shots of the Civil War – aimed at a Union whaler in the Bering Sea on the edge of the Arctic Circle – on June 22. In fact, the war had already ended. General Robert E Lee had surrendered two months earlier on April 9; Abraham Lincoln had been shot dead on April 15.
Waddell gambled on more lenient treatment in England than in a Union court, surrendering the Shenandoah in Liverpool, England in November 1865 having been pursued all the way by Union vessels.
The dash paid off: captain and crew walked free. At a roll call, none claimed British citizenship so the sailors fell outside of British jurisdiction, despite it being recorded that many spoke with broad Scottish accents.
Not one of the Melbourne sailors who signed on has been traced with certainty: all feared individual prosecution from the United States for piracy and once ashore in Liverpool, they vanished.
But the Shenandoah’s blitz was not forgotten. In 1872, an international court ordered Britain to pay millions of pounds damages to America for “improperly allowing” her to increase her crew and coal supplies in the British colony of Victoria.
“The Shenandoah is the only direct link between Australia and the Civil War,” noted Mr Crompton. “It’s a great tale with many knock-on effects. We’re talking to both the ABC and an independent film producer about making a documentary.”
Shirani Aththas, of the Australian National Maritime Museum, agreed: “Yes, the Shenandoah was a very significant vessel and its Melbourne visit is an intriguing and important story in Australia’s past. As we get closer to January 2015, we will certainly be looking at how [the museum] may be able to support the anniversary.”
Melburnians in 1865 were thrilled by the rebel ship. Over 7000 visitors were shown around by the officers, who reported “standing room only” on deck. They were besieged by invitations to socialise. Boom-town Ballarat, the site of the 1854 Eureka Stockade rebellion, welcomed them as heroes and a ball held in their honour at Craig’s Hotel on Lydiard Street ended at four in the morning.
The American Civil War has been called the last romantic war and the first modern war. A ball in Gone with the Wind dress is planned in Melbourne, while Craig’s Hotel plans to host a commemorative ball in the original ballroom in January 2015.
The local Civil War enthusiasts hope to travel from Melbourne by steam train. “But we really need a company to underwrite the commemorations,” said Mr Crompton. “Maybe an American company? John Pemberton, who invented Coca-Cola … he was a Confederate doctor in the Civil War.”