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The Civil War & Hawaii

February 23, 2012

Third National Flag of the Confederate States of America (1865).

The United States was in the midst of the Civil War 150 years ago. Today we thought we’d share something a little different with you in commemoration of this momentous time in our Nation’s history.

When people think of the Civil War, most probably conjure up visions of huge armies charging across fields with antebellum houses in the background or blockade runners and ironclad ships dueling in the Atlantic. Well, many folks are surprised when they hear the true story of a Confederate ship that wrought havoc on American interests in the Pacific Ocean. Named the CSS Shenandoah, this ship and her crew traveled across the Northern Pacific towards the end of the war. The actions of the CSS Shenandoah affected not only the United States, but the Kingdom of Hawaii as well, as you shall see in the following article from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Historical Center:

CSS Shenandoah hauled out for repairs at the Williamstown Dockyard, Melbourne, Australia, in February 1865. Note Confederate flag.

The CSS Shenandoah, a 1160-ton screw steam cruiser, was launched at Glasgow, Scotland, in August 1863 as the civilian steamer Sea King. After the Confederate Navy secretly purchased her, she put to sea in October 1864, under the cover story that she was headed for India on a commercial voyage. Sea King rendezvoused at sea off Madeira with another ship, which brought Confederate Navy officers, some crew members, heavy guns and other equipment needed to refit her as a warship. This work was completed at sea under the supervision of C.S. Navy First Lieutenant (later Commander) James Iredell Waddell, who became the cruiser’s first Commanding Officer when she was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah on 19 October.

Waddell took his ship through the south Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, capturing nine U.S. flag merchant vessels between late October and the end of 1864. All but two of these were sunk or burned. In late January 1865, Shenandoah arrived at Melbourne, Australia, where she was able to receive necessary repairs and provisions, as well as adding more than forty “stowaways” to her very short-handed crew. Following three weeks in port, the cruiser put to sea, initially planning to attack the American south Pacific whaling fleet.

The Kingdom of Hawaii benefited greatly from the whaling industry. Well before the invention of the electric light bulb, many Americans utilized whale oil to light their houses.

However, discovering that his intended targets had been warned and dispersed, Waddell set off for the north Pacific. He stopped in the Eastern Carolines at the beginning of April, seizing four Union merchantmen there and using their supplies to stock up for further operations. While Shenandoah cruised northwards in April and May, the Confederacy collapsed, but this news would spread very slowly through the distant Pacific. Following a month in the Sea of Okhotsk that yielded one prize and considerable experience in ice navigation, she moved on to the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska (then part of Russian America). There, between 22 and 28 June 1865 the now-stateless warship captured two-dozen vessels, destroying all but a few. Soon afterwards, Waddell started a slow voyage towards San Francisco, California, which he believed would be weakly defended against his cruiser’s guns.

Though Shenandoah’s late June assault on the whaling fleet was accompanied by many rumors of the Civil War’s end, she did not receive a firm report until 2 August 1865, when she encountered an English sailing ship that had left San Francisco less than two weeks before. Waddell then disarmed his ship and set sail for England. Shenandoah rounded Cape Horn in mid-September and arrived at Liverpool in early November, becoming the only Confederate Navy ship to circumnavigate the globe. There she hauled down the Confederate Ensign and was turned over to the Royal Navy. In 1866 the ship was sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar and renamed El Majidi. She was variously reported lost at sea in September 1872 or in 1879.

Colored lithograph of an artwork by B. Russell, depicting CSS Shenandoah's assault on the U.S. whale ships in the Bering Sea area. (Collection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph)

So why do we mention about the CSS Shenandoah? From the time it slipped out of the Thames River and headed literally around the world in search of prizes, between October 1864 and November of 1865 the Shenandoah seized a total of 38 ships of commerce, and burned 32 to the waterline.  Prowling North Pacific, over a period of less than a week in late June of 1865, the Shenandoah captured 24 whaling ships and sunk 20 in the waters near the Bering Strait.  The Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, and his officers did not believe reports from the vessels they were destroying that the war had already ended, some three months earlier.  All ships’ personnel from these captured vessels, numbering over a thousand according to the ship’s records, were released unharmed, and only two of the crew of the Shenandoah lost their lives during the epic voyage.  The total loss to the whaling industry was estimated at $1.4 million ($19.7 million in 2000 dollars).

Prior to the U.S. Civil War, whaling and related activities were the primary economic engine of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Following the Civil War, whaling had been greatly reduced (no thanks to the zealous crew of the CSS Shenandoah) and would never regain its pre-war prominence, as sugar plantations began to take the place of whaling.

For more information about how the National Parks are commemorating the 150th anniverary of the Civil War, visit:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Vance permalink
    April 30, 2012 10:38 pm

    The Shenandoah would have flown the 2nd National Flag of the Confederacy since it began is voyage before the 3rd was adopted.

    • Pacific Island Ranger permalink*
      May 1, 2012 2:22 pm

      Mahalo for sharing that info!


  1. U.S. Civil War Took Bigger Toll Than Previously Estimated « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

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