For months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, an oblivious CSS Shenandoah fought on thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. When the Confederate warship finally lowered its flag 150 years ago, it brought the Civil War to a conclusion in a most unlikely place—Liverpool, England.
“Sail ho!” bellowed CSS Shenandoah’s lookout as he spotted a distant ship on the great blue plain of the Pacific Ocean. For months the fearsome Confederate commerce raider had prowled the high seas, preying on Union shipping. As Shenandoah stalked its latest target on August 2, 1865, however, Captain James Waddell’s men soon saw that the ship was flying the Union Jack rather than the Stars and Stripes. Waddell dispatched Irvine Bulloch to board and inspect the British bark Barracouta, and after a half-hour the ashen-faced officer returned with devastating news.
The Civil War had ended. The Confederacy had lost.
Aboard Barracouta, Bulloch had been given newspapers from California and Germany that broadcast the undeniable truth. “Our gallant generals, one after another, had been forced to surrender the armies they had so often led to victory,” wrote Shenandoah sailor Cornelius Hunt. “State after state had been overrun and occupied by the countless myriads of our enemies. Star by star the galaxy of our flag had faded, and the Southern Confederacy had ceased to exist.”
Now aboard a ship without a country, Shenandoah’s distraught crew had little time to mourn their loss. Since the Confederacy had been defunct for months, Waddell knew his men could be arrested and prosecuted for piracy, and he told them that there was “nothing more to be done but to secure our personal safety by the readiest and most efficacious means at hand.” The captain ordered Shenandoah’s armaments dismantled and stowed below deck. He disguised the ship’s appearance, even painting the hull to resemble an ordinary merchant vessel. Over the objections of his crew, he ordered the ship to begin an extremely risky voyage halfway around the world to the safest haven he could think of—Liverpool, England.
That city had been where Waddell’s British-built clipper was docked when the Confederacy secretly purchased it in October 1864. Originally named Sea King, the ship sailed the tea lanes to Bombay until Waddell personally supervised its conversion into a formidable warship on the island of Madeira. The rechristened CSS Shenandoah immediately began to terrorize cargo ships from New England crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It captured eight Union commercial vessels before rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.
A balky propeller forced Shenandoah to dock in Melbourne, Australia, for repairs, but after a three-week stay, the warship departed to inflict havoc on the Yankee whaling fleets harvesting the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast. The raider actually achieved its greatest success in the months after the guns of the Civil War fell silent following Robert E. Lee’s April 1865 surrender in Appomattox. On June 28 alone, the Confederate vessel seized 10 whalers. Waddell’s crew took so many captives that they were forced to tow them in a string of a dozen small whaleboats tethered behind the warship.
After seizing the ship Susan Abigail on June 23, Waddell found newspapers aboard that reported the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and Lee’s subsequent capitulation. The captain, however, chose to fixate on another article in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis implored the South to carry on the fight. That Waddell did until he encountered Barracouta, learned that the Civil War was indeed over and began the warship’s daring dash from the northern Pacific Ocean to Liverpool.
After capturing or sinking 38 ships, seizing more than 1,000 captives and inflicting $1.6 million in damages, Shenandoah was on the run. In order to evade detection, Waddell ordered the Confederate warship to avoid any sightings of land and busy shipping lanes. After plowing through rough seas on an epic 130-day voyage around the tip of South America, Shenandoah entered the mouth of Liverpool’s River Mersey on the morning of November 6, 1865, thereby becoming the only Confederate vessel to have circumnavigated the globe.
Raising the Stainless Banner, which featured the Confederacy’s square battle flag in the upper left-hand corner of an all-white field, Shenandoah sailed into the harbor and dropped anchor next to HMS Donegal. Waddell then ordered the Confederate flag lowered for the very last time and surrendered to a contingent of British marines.
After several days of deliberation, the British government determined the Confederate sailors had not violated any rules of war and freed them unconditionally. CSS Shenandoah, however, was turned over to the United States. The warship eventually sold at auction to the sultan of Zanzibar and renamed El Majidi before it sank in the Indian Ocean in 1872.