Rebels down under – the incredible story of the CSS Shenandoah

Jeff Megahan | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 3
The Confederate raider, CSS Shenandoah in Hobsons Bay off Williamstown. State Library of Victoria
The story of the Confederate raider, CSS Shenandoah and its visit to Australia has all the makings of a first-rate movie.

Williamstown is a small, inner-city bay-side suburb, just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Melbourne. Located, as it is, some 15,000 kilometres from the southern United States, most visitors are understandably surprised to see a house in the centre of town decorated with the most brazen work of Confederate memorabilia likely to be seen outside the city of Atlanta.

Two enormous murals adorn the walls of the house, each a celebration of the Confederate raider, the CSS Shenandoah. One mural depicts the ship, an odd combination of sail and steam boat, majestically sailing the open seas; in the other, the Shenandoah is locked in fierce and smoky battle against a (losing) Yankee frigate.

The ‘Shenandoah house,’ as it’s known locally, is owned by Leigh Goodall, former chairman of the Williamstown Maritime Association. Over the years, Leigh has spent many hours patiently explaining the significance of the murals to curious pedestrians. “People say the truth is better than fiction,” Leigh says. “This is the perfect example.”

It was in January, 1865, during the final months of America’s bloody Civil War, that the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah sailed through Bass Strait and into Port Phillip Bay. The ship was badly in need of supplies and repairs and the Captain received permission to put in to the port of Williamstown. The ship’s visit lasted less than a month – just long enough to set off a storm of controversy and cause an international incident.

Leigh Goddall first heard about the Confederate war ship that once docked in his home town while he was on a trip through the eastern United States. Returning home, he was surprised to find that nobody in Williamstown knew anything about it.

To stir up local interest, he started the Shenandoah Society. At first, it was just a few guys meeting at the local pub, trying to research and publicise the story of the ship’s visit. As their knowledge of the ‘Shenandoah incident’ grew, so, too, did their appreciation for the nautical heritage of their home town, and their desire to protect it.

CELEBRITY REBS

The CSS Shenandoah was an iron-rigged, teak planked screw steamer, built in Glasgow in 1863. Rigged as a clipper ship with 21 working sails, it was 70m long and capable of 17 knots at full sail, and nine knots under steam. To get around British neutrality laws, the Confederate government purchased the Shenandoah in London and converted it into a ship-of-war while at sea, fitting it out with eight guns, including four 8-inch shell guns and two 32-pounder Whitworth rifled guns.

The ship’s captain, James Waddell, took command soon after the re-fit and, with a crew of 43 inexperienced sailors (about a third the number required for a ship that size), headed south with orders to ‘seek out and utterly destroy’ all Union merchant ships he encountered.

Waddell proved to be extremely good at his job. By the time the Shenandoah limped into Port Phillip Bay with a busted propeller shaft three months later, he had sailed through the South Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, capturing nine merchant vessels, burning and sinking all but two.

News of the Shenandoah’s exploits preceded it and its arrival in Port Phillip Bay created quite a stir. As the harbour pilot guided her into a berth, she was met by a flotilla of well-wishers. Boats of every size and description jostled in the water surrounding the Confederate ship. On shore, thousand lined the docks, straining to catch a glimpse of the ‘rebel pirate ship’.

It would be hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm Melburnians had for the Shenandoah. “Never was conquering flag at peak hailed with such honours as were given us upon that bright tropical morning,” ship surgeon Charles Lining wrote in his journal. “Steamer, tug-boat, yacht – all Melbourne, in fact, with its 180,000 souls seemed to have outdone itself in welcome to the Confederates.”

Leigh Goodall says a Confederate vessel in out-of-the-way Melbourne must have been an incredible sight. “Of course, everyone in Melbourne had heard about the Confederacy fighting the Yankees,” Leigh Goodall explains, “but nobody had ever seen an actual warship before. When the Shenandoah sailed into the harbour, with these rebels in their gray uniforms standing on the deck, it was just phenomenal. They were absolute celebrities. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”

TOURIST ATTRACTION

On the second day at anchor, Captain Waddell opened the ship to visitors, a decision that confirmed the Shenandoah’s status as a bona fide tourist attraction. For two days, thousands of sightseers crowded aboard; the decks were filled to capacity with curious tourists and supporters, eager to meet the crew and to explore the warship.

On the second day of the open-house, more than 7000 people jammed the railway line from Melbourne, trying to get to the ship. Local entrepreneurs transported passengers from the pier to the ship, advertising their services with signs that read ‘Shilling to the Steamer’. “I have been harassed almost to death,” Lieutenant William Wittle would later complain in his journal, “the ship has been a perfect mass of human beings, the rails, rigging and masts have been crowded and filled. Oh how I wish we were once more at sea.”

Ashore, the officers and crew were treated like foreign dignitaries. At least five celebrations were held in their honour, including a ‘Confederate Ball’ at the Craig’s hotel in Ballarat and a formal dinner at the Melbourne Club. The city issued open passes on the train lines for the crew and the ship’s officers were elected honorary members of Melbourne’s most exclusive clubs. Even a special performance of Othello was staged, featuring, probably for the first and last time ever, a performance of ‘Dixie’ during intermission.

Even as Queen Victoria branded the Confederacy “belligerent”, Britain chose to remain neutral in the war between the US states. For that reason, providing aid and support for the Shenandoah would be a breach of English neutrality laws. Despite that, or probably because of that, a large number of Victorians strongly sympathised with their Confederate visitors.

Clearly, the reception that the southerners enjoyed had more to do with local attitudes toward Britain than towards the United States. As Leigh Goodall points out, “many of the people who stood along those docks cheering the rebels were sent out here in chains or in forced labour. Many were Irish. Whatever it was, they obviously hated the Brits at the time and therefore went on the side of the rebels.”

Then there is the famous Australian love of the underdog. Even though Australians opposed slavery; even though there were free American blacks working in the gold mines north of Melbourne; and even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ranked as the most popular play in Australia at the time, the Australian love of the underdog was, even then, stronger than any desire for moral consistency.

But support was far from unanimous. As the days wore on, venomous debates about the Shenandoah began to appear in the editorial pages of the daily papers. (One hilarious letter in The Age railed against the ‘soft-headed flunkeys from the Melbourne Club’ for committing a breach of neutrality). Many were convinced that the town had lost its mind in its wanton devotion to the Confederates.

In Melbourne, US consul William Blanchard, who considered the Shenandoah nothing more than a pirate ship, launched a campaign to convince Governor Charles Darling to have the ship seized and the crew arrested. “The best way to put it,” Goodall explains, “is that the public loved them and the Government tolerated them.”

Over the sustained protests of the US consul, Governor Darling granted Captain Waddell permission to dock and make repairs, provided it was done quickly. On February 4, the Shenandoah was towed to the government dry dock in Williamstown.

The US consul believed (correctly, as it turned out) that Captain Waddell was intentionally extending his stay in Williamstown to draw recruits from the local citizenry. The Shenandoah arrived in Australia in early 1865, near the end of Victoria’s legendary gold rush, and Melbourne was teeming with exactly the sort of person that Waddell hoped to recruit – young, single men with a lust for adventure and money.

Things came to a head when the US consul learned that at least 20 new recruits had signed on since the ship docked in Williamstown – a clear violation of the Queen’s neutrality proclamation. A warrant for the arrest of the recruits was issued and on February 14, 200 policemen and 50 soldiers were dispatched to search the ship. Captain Waddell refused the search and, in response, Governor Darling called for an end of all repairs and demanded that the ship leave port immediately.

STOWAWAYS SURFACE

Having well and truly worn out its welcome, the Shenandoah departed Melbourne on February 18, 1865. All in all, Williamstown proved to be quite a hospitable port of call. By the time of the ship’s inauspicious departure, all the needed repairs were completed and after reaching international waters, 42 ‘stowaways’ emerged from the lower decks.

The ship went on to capture 29 more Yankee ships (most of them after the Civil War was over). In the end, the Shenandoah outlasted its government by four months, becoming a de facto pirate ship. Finally, on August 2, 1865, after receiving irrefutable proof that the war was over and the Confederacy had lost, Captain Waddell set a course for Australia. No doubt he was thinking of retiring and living among the people who had proven so friendly. However, after consultations with his officers, the decision was made to return the ship to England and formally surrender.

In its relatively short 13-month career, the Shenandoah captured 38 ships and took a total of 1053 prisoners. On a single day – June 18, 1865 (two months after the Civil War ended) – the Shenandoah captured 10 Northern whaling ships, burning nine.

On a cold and foggy morning of November 6, 1865, the Shenandoah completed its circumnavigation of the globe. The exhausted crew steamed the battered raider up the Mersey River in Liverpool, England, and surrendered to British authorities.

When asked if any of his crew were British subjects, Captain Waddell said he had not paid much attention to nationalities when he enlisted crew, but supposed most were American. Since no sailor admitted to British (or Australian) nationality, they were all released.

After the surrender, the Shenandoah saga took a turn for the exotic. Befitting its romantic history, it was sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar, who renamed it Majidi, and converted it into a private yacht. In 1879, the proud southern raider was all-but destroyed in a hurricane in the Indian Ocean, 14 years after the last Confederate flag was lowered. It was recovered, but later scuttled in the waters off Bombay.

In a speech made to the United Confederate Veterans in 1907, Lieutenant William Wittle offered this sad tribute to the story of the Confederate raider on which he served: “Thus ended our memorable cruise: grand in its conception, grand in its execution, and unprecedentedly awfully grand in its sad finale! To the four winds the gallant crew scattered, most of them never to meet again until called to the bar of that highest of all tribunals.”

CSS SHENANDOAH BY THE NUMBERS

• 13-month navigation of the globe

• 58,000 miles

• Captured 1053 prisoners

• Captured 38 vessels

• Took 24 Union whalers in seven days in June, 1865

• Fired the last shot of the US Civil War – June 22, 1865 (two months after the war ended).

From Shenandoah to Seaworks

It would, no doubt, come as a great surprise to the crew of the CSS Shenandoah to learn that their brief visit to Williamstown would one day play a part in the battle to preserve the village’s maritime heritage.

Founded in 1835, Williamstown was Melbourne’s first port and is the oldest continuous settlement on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. Fittingly, it has the distinction of being the ‘place of firsts’ in Victoria – first bank, first pub, first gaol, etc. But located, as it is, across the bay from Melbourne’s Central Business District, it’s also seen by many as the first location ripe for real estate development.

When Leigh Goddall started the Shenandoah Society, it was just a few guys who would meet at the pub and talk up the story of the CSS Shenandoah. But the group soon realised that it would have to do more than talk if it were to preserve the historic character of the Williamstown area.

Knowing that the old Port of Melbourne was being threatened by developers, the group conceived of a plan to preserve the site as a working maritime precinct. “Basically,” says Goodall, “a lot of infrastructure associated with this romantic era has been lost to the developer’s hammer and it was thought that we could develop a first-class maritime attraction for the people of Victoria.”

But first, the group had to change its name. The transformation of the Shenandoah Society to the ‘Williamstown Maritime Association’ is, according to Goodall, pretty easy to follow: “Every time we said ‘We’re the Shenandoah Society’, somebody would say ‘What the hell is that?’ So we changed the name to the Williamstown Maritime Association.” You have to admire his willingness to compromise, especially given that Goodall’s own house is covered with three-metre tall murals of the Shenandoah.

Ultimately, the Williamstown Maritime Association entered into an agreement with Parks Victoria to establish a permanent site to preserve the unique role the city played as the first seaport to service the Colony. The old Port of Melbourne site, fronting Nelson Place in Williamstown, will now be conserved. It’s now on its way to becoming a multi-million dollar maritime heritage and tourist site.

Assured that he has done his part for Williamstown, Goddall recently stepped down as president of the Williamstown Maritime Association. Incoming president, Patsy Toop has wasted no time in moving the Shenandoah Society’s dream of a working marine precinct forward and has recently announced that the maritime village will be called ‘Seaworks’.


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