Captain Waddell did not know the American Civil War had ended

Posted in Adventure, America, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Tuesday, 4 June 2013

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This edited article about the American Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 279 published on 20 May 1967.

General Lee surrenders, picture, image, illustration

General Ulysses Grant accepting the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox by Severino Baraldi

Captain James Waddell’s eyes glinted high on the poop-deck as he sighted five whalers ahead in the sunlight.

“Clear for action!” he bawled at his men as they sailed in to attack under a full head of canvas.

The boisterous skipper, eager for battle that bright morning of 22nd June, 1865, did not know that the American Civil War was over – and had been so for the last two months!

With his Southern raider out to destroy Northern merchant vessels he had been scouring the Bering Sea since February, more than 3,000 miles from the mainland fighting, and not a sound of surrender had reached his ears.

Although he had no way of knowing it, his dreaded sea wolf, the Shenandoah, was no longer a patriot to the Confederate cause . . . but a pirate, outlawed by both North and South.

With her cannons ready for blasting, she eased alongside the nearest whaler, the Milo, and Waddell’s powerful voice was heard to bellow that he intended seizing the ship as a prize of war.

“But the war has finished!” the Milo’s captain shouted when he saw the grey Southern Navy uniform. “Lee surrendered in April.”

“Heave to, or I’ll fire into ye!” Waddell retorted, suspicion creeping up his huge weathered face.

He flatly refused to believe that his side had fallen. It was, he accused the whalers, a ruse to avoid capture.

The little fishing fleet were not equipped to offer resistance to this Southern ‘madman’. Within a couple of hours Captain Waddell had assembled all his prisoners in one of their boats and set fire to the rest.

Ordering the prison ship to return to the nearest port, he turned away in search of new prey in the bleak northern waters.

The very next morning, Waddell encountered the trader, Susan Abigail, out of San Francisco, far up the Alaskan coast near St. Lawrence Island.

Her skipper, too, stared in disbelief at the Confederate greycoats, as the raiders drew close to board her.

“Hark ye down, in the name of Robert E. Lee,” thundered Waddell.

“Lee?” gasped the Abigail’s captain. “He’s done and finished, man.”

Waddell, stubborn and powerful as ever, felt the blood rising in him again. But by now even he was beginning to have his doubts about whether the war was still on, and his subordinate officers begged him to be sure of his actions.

“Can you document this?” he shouted over the side at the trader.

“Sure I can,” replied the other skipper. “I have newspapers published in April with the printed statements of Grant and Lee at Appomattox.”

Waddell boarded the Abigail furiously and snatched the papers. According to them, Lee had surrendered, hunger riots had broken out in the South, and Jefferson was on the run.

But, on the other hand, Lincoln had been assassinated, resistance continued in the West and, from a new capital at Danville, Virginia, Davis was calling to press the war with renewed vigour.

Waddell seized upon these latter reports. Reverses there had certainly been, but defeat? It was unthinkable.

Without further ado, he destroyed the Susan Abigail and turned his bows into the Bering Strait.

During the following weeks, the Shenandoah pillaged and fired no fewer than eighteen Northern merchant vessels.

When questioned later, the hardy Captain Waddell said it was because not one of them had any official word about the war being over!

By now, of course, the master of the Shenandoah was riddled with doubt about the legality of his actions. The consciousness that he might now be a pirate became a nightmare to him – but should he stop fighting without an order from his Southern States?

A few days later, Waddell engaged the Favourite, a Union whaler under Captain Thomas Young, who, at 70, was every bit as tough.

All Young’s men bolted, leaving their skipper alone to face the terror, Shenandoah.

“Strike your colours or I will blow you out of the water,” Waddell shouted at the old skipper.

“I’ll be darned if I will,” rapped the old seaman, waving his flag above his head and loading his whale gun. “Stand off, or I’ll cut ye down.” He vanished below, then re-appeared a few minutes later brandishing a rusty and ancient old cutlass for good measure.

Old man Young was still yelling lustily when they trussed him up and dropped him in a longboat.

Having virtually obliterated the Northern whaling fleet single-handed, the crew of the Shenandoah now turned south under sail. Indeed, the audacious Captain Waddell had even devised a plan to capture San Francisco and hold it for ransom!

On 2nd August the Shenandoah was idling along on a light breeze off the tip of Lower California when she spotted a sail and gave chase.

It proved to be the British barque Barracouta, and a shot across her bows from the raider forced the merchantman to come about.

Waddell boarded her – and half an hour later returned to his ship with bitter tidings and a hurried conference.

He looked pale and drawn.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “the war between the States is over – and has officially been so for going on four months!”

His assembled crew stared at him in stunned silence.

“Everyone is looking for us now,” he continued, “and if they catch us we’ll all be hanged for piracy.”

Since the armistice, the Shenandoah had ravaged and burned no fewer than 31 US vessels.

In minutes, the proud little ship had been reduced from bold hunter to fair game.

To decide where and when to surrender, Waddell called a meeting of all ship’s officers.

Several weeks later, the Shenandoah dropped anchor – in the Mersey, at Liverpool.

In due course the Shenandoah was turned over to the US consul and her captain and crew forgiven for their acts of piracy.

Eventually amnestied by the United States, the Southerners returned home as free men.

The terror of the seas had at last come to the end of the war.

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