The Last Confederate Ship at Sea
The Wayward Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, October 1864-November 1865
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 208 pages
Book Review published on: May 14, 2021
In The Last Confederate Ship at Sea: The Wayward Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, October 1864-November 1865, Paul Williams recounts the final voyage of the CSS Shenandoah during the period between 1864 and 1865. This work adds to the history of the ship from its beginnings as the British vessel Sea King to its conversion to a Confederate States of America naval surface combatant. Obscured by fragmentary and incomplete records as well as the passage of time, Williams recalls the details of the Shenandoah’s final voyage under the orders of Cmdr. James Dunwoody Bulloch, the Confederacy’s lead agent in Britain. Williams recounts Bulloch’s orders for the CSS Shenandoah to leave Liverpool to seek out and destroy Union naval vessels and commercial ships while on a cruise of up to fifteen months in duration. Additionally, Bulloch directed the ship’s captain, James Iredell Waddell, to not return to Britain, as he had provided ample funding for the cruise and noted that the sale of the ship should cover any expenses remaining to pay the crew. Should the ship return, there was concern that the Union would subsequently accuse Britain of siding with the Confederacy in violation of their neutral status in the Civil War. Ultimately, the journey unfolded much differently than anticipated.
Told from the perspective of Waddell and his crew, interspersed with the recollections of other significant individuals, this book provides an important chronicle of the ship’s final voyage from a personal perspective rather than a historical military analysis of the mission. Interestingly, Williams conducts an extended examination of an alleged affair between Waddell and Lillias Nichols, a Yankee captured from one of his conquests at sea. Later, this alleged affair became the basis for a blackmailing attempt by a CSS Shenandoah crewmember to influence the ship’s final destination for his personal gain at the conclusion of the perilous journey. The book explores other important events such as the ship’s extended stay in Australia for repairs and the reactions of the local media, officials, and diplomats. The extended stay in Australia provides one of the more interesting aspects of the book regarding the changing diplomatic status of the Shenandoah under international law while in port in Australia and while operating on the high seas.
Finally, this book examines Waddell’s leadership in the face of uncertain and evolving circumstances during Shenandoah’s final voyage. Among Waddell’s concerns were the challenges of the fluid political situation at home and its influence on interactions with his government, ship’s personnel, and local Australian authorities. Williams also illustrates Waddell’s questionable decision to embark on a previously little understood circuitous journey around the world before finally returning to Liverpool against Bulloch’s original orders. Williams also notes the immediate concern of this longer and un-forecasted journey, which resulted in arguments and fights aboard the Shenandoah by a demoralized crew because of the uncertain future, extended time at sea, and poor food. As the ship neared Liverpool, Waddell dismissed emerging claims of piracy and hanging as imagined by the enemy and his crew, even though federal warships were actively hunting down the Shenandoah. Despite these efforts, the Shenandoah successfully evaded the federal warships to arrive safely in Liverpool, an act that astonished British and federal authorities as well as Bulloch.
This book is highly recommended for naval historians and others interested in the operations of the Confederate navy in the waning days of the Civil War.
Book Review written by: David W. Christie, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas