For Civil War historians, some of the most interesting aspects of the Confederates’ strategy during the war were their unconventional attempts to overcome the superiority of the U.S. Navy.
One of the most adventurous programs was that of commerce raiding, or operations conducted directly against union merchant vessels rather than against the U.S. Navy itself. One particularly notorious Confederate vessel of this type was named the CSS Shenandoah.
Laid down on the River Clyde, Scotland, as a British troop transport and launched as Sea King on 17 August 1863, Shenandoah was an iron-framed, teak-planked, full-rigged vessel with auxiliary steam power. The Confederate Government purchased her in 1864 for use as an armed cruiser. h/t history.navy.mil
Even the process of acquiring, arming, and manning the boat was worthy of a book. But most noteworthy was the timeline of their attacks. Ships of that day often learned of current events only upon pulling into a port, given the lack of radio communication in that era. The ship’s crew was largely unaware of severe reverses the South had suffered in the last year of the war. As a result, they had unknowingly continued to prey upon American shipping in the name of the Confederacy long after the Confederacy had ceased to exist!
The ship’s captain, James Waddell, only learned of this fact from the crew of another vessel in August 1865 (when the Shenandoah had been enroute to San Francisco to raid what they assumed to be a poorly defended Union target). As there was no explicit policy allowing for the amnesty of Confederate commerce raiders after the war, Waddell feared he and his men could be prosecuted and decided to head to Liverpool, England where he surrendered the Shenandoah to the captain of the British ship HMS Donegal. Their fear was understandable, but prosecutions for wartime acts were few during the post-war period, and those crew members who did not chase other ventures abroad generally returned to the U.S. once they realized that imprisonment was unlikely.
The tale was in some ways both tragic and comic, but the odyssey had certainly been an exceptional one:
Shenandoah had remained at sea for 12 months and 17 days, had sailed 58,000 miles and had sunk or captured 38 ships. Most were whalers and two-thirds of them were after the close of hostilities. Waddell took close to a thousand prisoners without a single casualty among his crew. Two men died of disease. The ship was never involved in a battle against a Union Navy vessel, as was Alabama, but instead took unarmed United States merchant vessels. It was an attempt to influence the Union by eliminating a very lucrative source of income which could be used to further advance the cause of the Union Army. Also, it was hoped that these actions would help to disillusion Northerners from continuing to pursue their war upon the South. In the end Shenandoah became the only Confederate warship to circumnavigate the globe.
In 1866 the US took possession of Shenandoah and sold her to the first Sultan of Zanzibar. He renamed her after himself (El Majidi). On 15 April 1872 a hurricane hit Zanzibar and Shenandoah, one of six ships owned by Seyed Burgash, was blown upon the shore and damaged beyond repair. The most feared commerce raider in the Confederate States Navy was no more. h/t history.navy.mil
Confederate commerce raiding never even got close to achieving the South’s strategic goal of convincing Northerners to abandon the war. But the crews of those ships certainly wrote a fascinating chaper for future military and naval historians to ponder.