Last shot: Alaska's odd role at the end of the Civil War - Must Read Alaska
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Saturday, July 24, 2021
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Last shot: Alaska’s odd role at the end of the Civil War


(Editor’s note: This column was published at Must Read Alaska on June 19, 2020 and is republished on June 22, 2021.)

Americans are being carpet-bombed by stories about Juneteenth, celebrating the day that 155 years ago the final fighters of the Civil War got the memo that the slaves were emancipated. We’ll leave that to the other pundits to discuss, because we’ve got our own Civil War history in Alaska to review.

While Texas was just getting word of the end of the war on this day in 1865, a Confederate war ship was still prosecuting a sponsored piracy campaign and taking down the commerce of the Union whaling industry.

Few in America have heard of Alaska’s unique role in the end of the Civil War. 

In June of 1865, the Confederate raiding ship CSS Shenandoah was underway toward St. Lawrence Island, in the Western Bering Sea, where Yankee whaling ships were working. 

The war ship was burning and sinking the U.S. whaling fleet in its path after the captain of the Shenandoah had gotten rough coordinates for where the Yankee whalers were working. He took them from a whaling ship in the North Pacific. 

By this time in 1865, the Shenandoah had destroyed a number of these American whaling ships — as many as 20.

On June 22, 1865 the Shenandoah fired what is said in some accounts to be “the last shot” of the Civil War, aiming upon Yankee whalers, some 74 days after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Confederate forces at the Appomattox courthouse, and nearly two months after Confederate Army had actually ended the war on land.

There are lots of credible sources that say the event occurred on June 28, 1865, and that whaling ships were still being burned and sunk right and left on June 22, but most historians agree on one thing: This was a well-executed mission and it decimated the whaling fleet.

When Commanding Officer Lt. James Iredell Waddell of the Shenandoah learned of the South’s surrender, he made his way south. Some accounts say he didn’t believe the war was over and was heading to the young state of California to shell San Francisco, another commercial center. California had supplied thousands of soldiers for the Union war effort, and troops from California had pushed the Confederate Army out of Arizona and New Mexico in 1862.

On the way south, his ship encountered a British ship that confirmed the war had ended and that if he showed back up in the United States he would be tried and hanged. 

By this time, Waddell had a bounty on his head and he decided to sail his teak-hulled war ship on to Liverpool, England, where he surrendered on Nov. 6, 1865. 

Waddell’s was the last surrender of the Civil War, and he presided over the lowering of the Confederate flag on his ship while at anchor on the River Mersey.

The ship itself was put in the custody of the British government via a letter that Captain Waddell penned himself and walked up the steps to the Liverpool Town Hall, presenting it to the Mayor of Liverpool. 

The Shenandoah is the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe. Her flag is now in the possession of the American Civil War Museum, which brings it out only occasionally, due to its size.

 The Shenandoah’s flag is rarely displayed due to its size (roughly 7 feet x 12 feet).

The Shenandoah, which was commissioned to destroy the commerce of the North, had spent nearly a year at sea and had captured 38 ships — two thirds of them after the Confederacy had surrendered. Waddell had reportedly taken more than 1,000 Union prisoners. 

The history of how the news reached Captain Waddell is conflicted. The Civil War Museum says that raids continued in Alaska, which was in Russian ownership at the time, until August.

After the Civil War ended, the whaling business fell on hard times, as it was no longer essential to the war effort, and with so many of the Union whaling vessels destroyed, America lost footing in the world as a leader in shipping.

And now, 155 years later, Democrats are destroying the monuments to their Confederate war heroes, and, ironically, they are still trying to destroy United States commerce. Also somewhat ironically, Republicans are still trying to respect the confederacy and its history, because it is the history of the nation. 

Alaska had a unique role back in the 1860s. It was not American territory, but it soon became part of the United States under the advocacy of abolitionist William Seward, secretary of State for President Abraham Lincoln. Democrats in Alaska are now trying to remove the statue of Seward from in front of the Capitol.

A nation should be able to talk about its Civil War without getting into another one. The important lesson is that we learn from history, so that we don’t repeat it.

Suzanne Downing is editor and publisher of Must Read Alaska and writes a Must Read America column for NewsMax.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • As evidenced by the history, Waddell was a pirate and traitor. I see no need to “respect” his legacy or the legacy of the other traitors who flew the confederate flag.

  • Re: Mike D’s comment above: I guess there is no substitute for putting a century and a half between one’s self and a perceived enemy to bring out a maximum quantity of moral certainty and righteousness. Such courage.

  • A war ship against unarmed and untrained civilian fishermen. That guy would’ve been a pariah in any crowd.

  • Democrats…..what ever floats your boat……rewriting history still isn’t going to change it to suit you.

  • Tell that to every commerce raider in history, from every war… ever.

    Recently for example, the entire Pacific Submarine Fleet sinking Japanese shipping. Total war is total war, that includes civilians providing war materiel.

    As for “traitor” to Mike D: Despite Texas v White (a VERY partisan and recent decision by SCOTUS right after the war), the 10th Amendment clearly allows States to remove themselves from the Union. You can disagree if you want, and the victors write history, but COTUS is pretty clear on the issue.

  • I still flag the rebel flag.

  • In this age when folks are astounded if you don’t have a cell phone, it is very hard for us to understand Waddell was just following orders and didn’t get word until well after that the war was over. Celebrate him? Nah, no more than any other military leader. Spit on his memory? Not worth the spit. But it is history, and of that we must not turn our backs. Thanks Suzanne.

    • It was more than following orders. Waddell essentially destroyed the American whaling industry, but most importantly did it without a single engagement casualty. He understood that wars are between politicians, not the people, and that people are bystanders and victims of politicians’ policies. Compare that to Curtis Lemay’s intentional firebombing of Tokyo, killing 200,000 non-combatants, or Lt Calley’s killings at My Lai (for which he served only about 3 years house arrest with no other leader or participant punished).
      People generally get along. I recall during the Cold War, meeting, talking and joking with Soviet officers. We all shared the same desires and goals for life (and laughs). Our leadership intervened when we tried to exchange uniform items.
      True story-during the Christmas Truce in 1914, soldiers left the trenches to share the holiday, gifts and songs together. The event caused panic on both sides as leadership broke up units and 100% censored all correspondence even mentioning that the enemy was people just like themselves. Only in the last few years have events (and confiscated letters) come to light. The movie Joyeux Noel tells this story based on as much information as remains.
      Waddell was a hero not because he fought to preserve an inhumane system, but because he followed orders humanely. It is an important lesson for all of us if we as a people desire to keep our humanity. This story is the most important lesson of battles during the Civil War and I have long taught it to my children in hope that they will learn to emulate the mercy of it, especially compared with the likes of Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge.

  • This was one of my favorite reads. The Last Shot tells the whole story: 58,000 miles sailed in circumnavigation of the globe, 38 ships captured or sunk and over 1,000 prisoners taken with no casualties, though two men died of disease during the voyage. I highly recommend it for everyone studying the Civil War. The story of Captain Waddell ranks with Count Felix von Luckner and his raider SMS Seeadler in WWI, which accomplished a similar feat.

  • Fascinating. I can’t imagine the logistics of such a long enterprise.

  • A really interesting article and well done!

    One question – Where was the Russian fleet that was protecting San Francisco at the time, and should have searched for and engaged the raider? But most important was your last sentence with which I whole-heartedly agree:

    “A nation should be able to talk about its Civil War without getting into another one. The important lesson is that we learn from history, so that we don’t repeat it.”

    Isn’t this why we study history?

  • Great history read, Suzanne. Thank you. Art Chance is not the only historian here at MRAK.
    If Dermot Cole had written this article, he might have opined that sinking whaling ships is a good thing for saving the whales.

  • Dermot Cole couldn’t write this article.
    He was totally influenced by his twin brother who spent all of his time writing and lecturing on revisionist History, wokism, partisan Lefty- politics, and utter nonsense. And these were the guys who got kudos and backslap awards from the Democrats and local communists. No wonder some folks up in Fairbanks refer to them as the two Dwarfs.

    • @Ted:
      There’s only one dwarf left. The other made it to dwarf heaven Regarding Dermot Cole: he had a piece in the Fairbanks paper on Monday lambasting Dunleavy over DMV and the long wait times for vehicle registration. My gosh, dwarf journalists should never have to wait in line like the rest of us. He deserves a limo. And a free ride to API, where you no longer need to drive a vehicle, or wait in any line.

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