Oh Shenandoah! Australians in the American Civil War

Confederate Navy Jack, courtesy of Wikipedia

Americans this week are marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour on 11 April 1861.  As a result, American historians and journalists have been looking at the long term effects of that war on any number of issues – race relations, naturally, but also other fault lines that, to an outsider, still seem remarkably raw, 150 years on.

The impact of that war on Australia was marginal – Queenslanders started growing cotton as the world price rose, the newspapers covered the story, there was a minor diversion of immigrants from America to Australia – but in general, it was all a long way off.  But a few dozen Australians played a tiny but embarrassing part in the war, and eventually cost Great Britain a fortune.

In January 1865, the Confederate steam ship Shenandoah sailed into Port Phillip Bay in need of repairs and fresh crew.  By then, the land war was going badly for the Confederates.  Britain – and therefore her colonies – were neutral in the war, so although the American Consul in Melbourne objected, Melbourne turned out in force to meet and greet the captain and crew.

Sydney had a long history of welcoming visiting naval ships, not just British, but French, German, Russian or American – just so long as they weren’t at war with Britain at the time.  Their officers were usually presentable young men in uniform who enhanced a ballroom; their crews brought good money for the pubs and brothels of The Rocks.  Melbourne, less than 30 years old, had less experience of dealing with foreign naval ships, so the arrival of CSS Shenandoah caused great excitement.

…now comes an American representative to testify the reality of that fierce fratricidal contest which interests us all so much,’ wrote the Melbourne Argus on 26 January.  ‘Melbourne yesterday was startled by the telegraphic announcement that a Confederate war steamer had entered the Heads, and report was confirmed by a large steamer, with something of a warlike aspect, casting anchor, a little before sundown, at an easy distance from the Sandridge Pier.

What was Shenandoah doing in the Pacific, anyway?  While the Civil War dragged on up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the Pacific American seamen continued to hunt for whales.  Most whalers were New Englanders, so closely linked to the Union cause.  The CSS Shenandoah set out to destroy these whalers, and other merchant ships, as a way of attacking the Union’s economic base.  This was, after all, a war in which civilians were targeted by both sides.

When Shenandoah arrived in Victoria, she had already sunk a number of ships, with an unknown loss of life, and the people of Melbourne knew it.  As the Argus wrote,

The Shenandoah has not been unsuccessful in her mission of destroying the enemy’s shipping, having altogether taken eleven or twelve sail of all kinds, and some nine chronometers on board are trophies of large vessels captured between this and the Cape of Good Hope….

Perhaps it says something about conditions aboard the ship that a number of crew deserted in Melbourne, while some prisoners, including two women, were also released.  Captain Waddell badly needed to recruit new crew, and American ships had been signing up Australian crew since convict times, often in the teeth of official opposition.   He had no trouble finding about 40 local men, who joined the Shenandoah on the day she left Melbourne, 18 February.

Shenandoah then resumed her attacks on American shipping.  Back home in America, the war drew to a close – General Lee’s troops negotiated a surrender on 11 April, on 14 April Lincoln was assassinated, Jefferson Davis was captured on 10 May.  But in the North Pacific, Captain Waddell continued the war.  These were the peak months for the whaling industry around the Arctic Circle, and on 28 June he captured and destroyed 10 whalers in a single day. Waddell heard about Lee’s surrender at the end of June, but it was only at the beginning of August that he finally accepted that the war was truly over, and sailed to Liverpool to surrender.

In all, Shenandoah destroyed 25 ships in the months after leaving Melbourne, most of them after the war ended.  Which meant that most of those attacks were not acts of war, but of piracy, and amongst her crew were a number of British subjects who shouldn’t have been there anyway.  In 1871, Britain paid the re-United States £820,000 damages, for the actions of her subjects, as well as for providing repairs for the ship at Williamstown.

Why did those Victorian men join up? Most were probably out for adventure, rather than any ideological commitment to the Confederate cause.  But Australian colonists were sympathetic to separatist causes in general – both Victoria and Queensland had only recently separated from New South Wales.  Besides, by 1865 the gold rush was over, and many ex-diggers were unemployed.

And they shared the racist attitudes of the Old South.  As Exhibit A, here is the flag that was brandished by rioters who destroyed Chinese diggings at Lambing Flats in 1861, the year that the Civil War began.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that it seems to have been modelled on the Confederate flag – which was known, ironically, as the Southern Cross.

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8 responses to “Oh Shenandoah! Australians in the American Civil War

  1. Marion, a great read and thank you. There was a lot I didn’t know. I have always been bemused by the American absorption with that war but of course, a civil war is the worst sort of war (if we are allocating degrees). The spectacular TV series on the war by Ken Burns was a masterpiece and his beautifully restored black and white images were startling in their clarity and depiction of the brutality. We tend to forget that America is nearly 200 years older than Australia and had fought at least two major wars before the Civil conflict; the war of Independence and the war against the British in 1814. We have been spared a lot of grief in this country by comparison.
    Cheers
    PETE

    • Hi Pete, thank you. I’m even more bemused when non-Americans like Kim Beazley become hooked – but I agree, the Ken Burns series was wonderful, images and music both. Cheers – Marion

  2. Roger Brothers

    The article above is so full of politically correct misconceptions, misunderstandings and just plain error it is hard to know where to begin. I’ll just try and mention them in the order that they appear.

    First of all is the matter of the “naval jack”. . Most of the CS Army of Tennessee battle flags of the same pattern were identical to this (that is rectangular, unlike the CS Army of Northern Virginia battle flags which were square.) The flag pictured was indeed the second official navel jack of the Confederacy, its just that it was not exclusively that.

    Next is the date of the beginning of the bombardment of Fort Sumter ( and I might add, that this was in direct response to a deliberate and aggressive military provocation by Lincoln and his government.) It was April 12, 1861 NOT April 11. (at 4:30 AM to be precise)

    Next, in the paragraph beginning with this sentence “What was Shenandoah doing in the Pacific, anyway?” the implication is made that making war on enemy commerce is the same as “making war on civilians” This is just not so. Attacking enemy shipping before and after the War Between the States is a perfectly legitimate action according to international law. The American and British navies certainly both engaged in it during the American War of independence and during the War of 1812. What was certainly illegal according to accepted rules of civilized warfare was the deliberate targeting of civilian populations (such as what occurred during“Sherman’s march” and in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia)

    In the very next paragraph the implication is that the CSS Shenandoah and her crew may have deliberately killed innocent yankee civilian ship crew members (“she had already sunk a number of ships, with an unknown loss of life”) This is a patent falsehood. The “loss of life” was most certainly not “unknown”. The “loss of life” caused by the Shenandoah was exactly zero. (unless some yankee ship owner back at home in New England dropped dead from shock when he found out his ship had been burned) The general method of operation for commerce raiders like the Shenandoah was to get within easy cannon shot of their prey (either by outrunning her or by flying false colors) then run up their true colors, and fire a blank charge. If this didn’t cause the yankee to “heave to” they would fire a live round “across their bows” i.e. missing her. This was of course all it took.. The ship would then be boarded. If ship was registered to a yankee owner and no neutral cargo was on board the officers and crew would be removed to the commerce raider and the captured ship would be burned. No loss of life was involved.

    Next: “Perhaps it says something about conditions aboard the ship that a number of crew deserted in Melbourne, while some prisoners, including two women, were also released.” What exactly does this mean? It probably says something about conditions aboard ANY ship of the period putting into port after several months at sea that “a number” of the crew would desert. And BTW what is “a number” One? Two” Three? All numbers now ain’t they? The fact that “some prisoners, including two women, were also released” might also tell us something about the officers and crew of the Shenandoah. If these men were the criminals and pirates that you seem to believe wouldn’t they have just drowned ALL their prisoners (If you are in Davy Jones locker you can’t testify in court now can you?) And again how many is “some” Was it three or three hundred? They are both “some” now ain’t they? BTW the American consuls all over the world were in the habit of offering bribes to crew members of Confederate commerce raiders if they would desert. I am sure the one in Melbourne was no different.
    Also in the same paragraph there is this:
    “He had no trouble finding about 40 local men, who joined the Shenandoah on the day she left Melbourne, 18 February.” Well I’ll just be John Brown. How do you reckon he was able to do that with “no trouble” if conditions for the crew of the Shenandoah were so bad? Did he shanghai them?
    Next paragraph”
    “General Lee’s troops negotiated a surrender on 11 April”
    First of all General Lee nor any other General that I am aware of would have his “troops” “negotiate” with the enemy much less negotiate a surrender. Lee did that himself. And again the date is in error. It was April 9. The assumption is also made here that this was last day of the war. Just not so. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and NOT the Confederacy as a whole. The Army of Tennessee under Joe Johnston did not surrender officially until March 26. Stand Watie, the last CS general to do so did not sign a cease fire agreement until June 23, 1865. And again this was a surrender of military personnel only. Point is Waddell had no way of know that Lee had surrendered and even if he did he may not have ceased hostilities immediately. “Historians” have decided that April 9th was the end of the war with the benefit of hind sight. Waddell didn’t have that.

    Next paragraph:

    “Which meant that most of those attacks were not acts of war, but of piracy”
    I think I have already amply shown that this is a patent falsehood. Had the us federal government thought for a second that they could prove that in court they would have tried hung Weddell and all his officers after the war. The fact that none of them ever went to trial and all of them went home after the war should tell us something.

    “……and amongst her crew were a number of British subjects who shouldn’t have been there anyway.”

    This at least is true. British subjects who served on CS commerce raiders (and most of the crews of those ships were British subjects) were doing so illegally.

    “In 1871, Britain paid the re-United States £820,000 damages, for the actions of her subjects, as well as for providing repairs for the ship at Williamstown.” Yes, the British government did lose their case in the “Alabama Claims” international arbitration (they certainly DID NOT pay voluntarily) but this was for ALL damages inflicted by British built and armed commerce raiders and certainly not ONLY for what the the Shenandoah inflicted. I might point out too that they lost their case because of their lax enforcement of their own neutrality laws and most certainly NOT because of anything done against international law by the commerce re raiders themselves.

    The next paragraph rings true to me but the final one?

    “And they shared the racist attitudes of the Old South”

    So what? The whole 19th century white western world would be considered “racist” by today’s standards. And that most certainly includes the “great emancipator” himself. Why are you singling out the “Old South”?

     “As Exhibit A, here is the flag that was brandished by rioters who destroyed Chinese diggings at Lambing Flats in 1861, the year that the Civil War began.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that it seems to have been modeled on the Confederate flag – which was known, ironically, as the Southern Cross.”

    Exhibit A? Does this mean you think this proves some heretofore unknown connection between “racist Australians” and “racist Southerners”? Looks more like the National flag of Scotland to me. Are you saying they are all racists too simply because their flag incorporates a St. Andrews Cross? I guess this proves all Jamaicans are racist too!

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  4. Charles R. Matlock III

    Enjoyed this article. Many of my Dad’s relatives fought in the American Civil War, mostly for the Confederacy. Visited Melbourne in 2006 and was very impressed with the city and Australia as a whole.

  5. My great grandfather, Jean Pinel had two vesseles built in Scotland in 1864. One was “El King”, and the other was “Sea King”. He sailed them to London to start their trading when James Waddell approached Jean to purchase one of them. So he sold the Sea King.

    • That’s interesting, but I’m not sure I understand completely. Does that mean your ancestor sold a ship to James Waddell that was rebranded as the Shenandoah? Did he sell to Waddell privately, or to the Confederacy?

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