The last shot of the Civil War


Australian Confederates, Terry Smyth, Ebury Press.

In 1865 an American Confederate navy ship, the Shenandoah, steamed into Melbourne. It was on its way to chase and cripple the Union whaling fleet which was employed in the northern Pacific. I first heard about this earlier in the year, as the State Library of Victoria was engaged in bidding for the diary, recently discovered, of one of the Shenandoah’s crew members. At the time I thought the story would make a great book. Then I discovered Terry Smyth’s new book American Confederates, which describes this almost forgotten aspect of the American Civil War.

Smyth describes how the Shenandoah’s crew was feted in Melbourne, and how Melbourne had quite strong sympathies towards the Rebel cause, even though in official circles there was also reserve, as Britain was against the Confederacy. (Many Melburnians often thought of themselves as put-upon Southerners, having a rivalry with Sydney.) There was so much sympathy with the Rebel cause, and racist attitudes, that a number of Melburnians (illegally) signed on to become crew members.

After living it up in Melbourne the Shenandoah fulfilled its mission by destroying dozens of Union whalers, crippling the whaling industry, pretty much permanently, according to Smyth. Even the Confederate shipmen had mixed feelings about their efficiency, with one soldier describing watching a burning, sinking ship as like watching a soul sink beneath the waves.

While destroying the fleet, the ship’s captain, James Waddell, was also being told by prisoners that the war was over, and indeed it had ended in the middle of their journey north, but Waddell assumed this was simply a ruse to avoid being pillaged. It seems the Shenandoah’s crew also refused to entertain the idea that their cause could be lost. It was the Shenandoah’s crew who fired the last shot of the Civil War. Once the news finally got through, they realised they would be prosecuted as pirates, and the ship was chased around the world, eventually to England, where any non-Southerners were to be arrested under British foreign enlistment laws. The Melburnians, in their colonial accents, swore they were all Southerners, and a British official with the task of arresting traitors, likely with a wry smile, turned a blind eye.

The ship was outfitted as a private yacht, changed hands a couple of times and eventually met an undignified end at the bottom of the Indian Ocean… somewhere.

On this long journey, Smyth dredges up many treasures of information, about the Civil War and about other aspects of nineteenth-century life, including the (almost) invention of the radio in the American South, and the introduction of rabbits into Victoria.


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