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.