Our rebels who fought on

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley Stephen Loosley is chair­man of the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute in Can­berra.

The most in­trigu­ing trivia night ques­tion on the Amer­i­can Civil War is usu­ally this. Q: What was the last bat­tle of the Civil War, and who won? A: Pal­metto Ranch, Texas. The Con­fed­er­ates won. It is mem­o­rable be­cause the bat­tle was fought on May 12-13, 1865, well af­ter Robert E. Lee had sur­ren­dered the main Con­fed­er­ate Army (of North­ern Vir­ginia) at Appomattox, Vir­ginia, in April.

Now Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist Terry Smyth adds a fur­ther di­men­sion to the clos­ing months of the Civil War in his lively book Aus­tralian Con­fed­er­ates.

Smyth’s ar­gu­ment is straight­for­ward and per­sua­sive. An Aus­tralian sea­farer, Ge­orge Can­ning, serv­ing on the Con­fed­er­ate States ship Shenan­doah, likely fired the last shot in the war on June 22, 1865.

At the time, the Shenan­doah was de­stroy­ing the Yan­kee whal­ing fleet in the Bering and Arc­tic seas. Of­fi­cially, the Civil War had ended months ear­lier; pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln had been as­sas­si­nated and Con­fed­er­ate pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis had been in­car­cer­ated.

Ap­par­ently un­aware of these his­toric events, CSS Shenan­doah, un­der the stoic com­mand of Cap­tain James Ire­dell Waddell, was still at war, fly­ing the rebel bat­tle flag. How the war­ship came to be in these wa­ters, lay­ing waste to the Amer­i­can whal­ing fleet, is the sub­ject of Smyth’s en­joy­able book.

The Amer­i­can Civil War is of­ten as­sumed sim­ply to have been a bat­tle be­tween op­pos­ing armies fight­ing on land. While bloody en­coun­ters across the Amer­i­can land­scape, from An­ti­etam to Get­tys­burg to Vicks­burg and be­yond ul­ti­mately de­ter­mined the Union’s tri­umph, naval strat­egy played a piv­otal role.

As de­vised by Gen­eral Win­field Scott in the Ana­conda Plan, the south’s ports were block­aded and the rebels de­nied diplo­matic and ma­te­rial con­tact with the out­side world. In re­ply, the Con­fed­er­acy chal­lenged the block­ade, ei­ther by di­rectly con­fronting the su­pe­rior United States Navy, or by en­cour­ag­ing block­ade run­ners to de­liver vi­tal war ma­teriel by stealth. Fi­nally, the Con­fed­er­acy sanc­tioned pri­va­teers to raid and de­stroy US mar­itime com­merce. The three most fa­mous Con­fed­er­ate raiders were Alabama, Florida, and Shenan­doah.

Smyth de­tails Shenan­doah’s con­ver­sion from the Bri­tish cargo ves­sel Sea King to a for­mi­da­ble fight­ing ship. This was the prod­uct of the labours and cre­ativ­ity of the Con­fed­er­ate agent in Bri­tain, James Bul­loch, whose con­stant diplo­matic strug­gle with the US am­bas­sador to the Court of St James, Fran­cis Adams (son and grand­son of US pres­i­dents), is an en­gag­ing mi­nor thread in Aus­tralian Con­fed­er­ates.

Shenan­doah could travel ei­ther by sail or by steam. But there was one se­ri­ous prob­lem for the rebels. The ves­sel was chron­i­cally un­der­manned. Waddell needed con­tin­u­ally to re­cruit ex­tra men for his crew.

Af­ter a re­fit­ting in the Azores, Shenan­doah be­gan the jour­ney to Mel­bourne, cap­tur­ing or burn­ing US ships en­coun­tered on the way. Wher­ever pos­si­ble, sailors from cap­tured Amer­i­can ves­sels were en­listed into ser­vice.

On Jan­uary 25, 1865, Shenan­doah ar­rived in Mel­bourne, to rest and re­fit. While nei­ther Bri­tain or France recog­nised the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica, Bri­tain had ex­tended bel­liger­ent sta­tus to the rebels. Shenan­doah was en­ti­tled to a brief stay in the Aus­tralian port, but not to re­cruit Bri­tish sub­jects for war ser­vice.

How­ever, there was no doubt­ing the strength and warmth of Mel­bourne’s welcome. The ship’s as­sis­tant sur­geon, Fred McNulty, re­mem­bered: “Never was con­quer­ing flag at peak hailed with half such hon­ours as we were given upon that bright trop­i­cal morn­ing. Steamer, tug­boat, yacht —— all Mel­bourne, in fact, with its 180,000 souls, seemed to have out­done it­self in welcome to the Con­fed­er­ates. Flags dipped, cannon boomed, and men in long thou­sands cheered us as we moved slowly up the chan­nel and dropped an­chor.”

In­deed, while there were scep­ti­cal and crit­i­cal voices raised, Mel­bourne’s re­cep­tion of Shenan­doah and its crew was over­whelm­ing. In­vi­ta­tions to ev­ery kind of so­cial event were ex­tended to Waddell and crew. They were feted and os­ten­si­bly ob­served all of the colony’s laws and cus­toms. But qui­etly they had a se­cret ob­jec­tive, run­ning in par­al­lel to re­fit­ting and re­fur­bish­ing: re­cruit­ing Aus­tralian man­power.

Smyth can­vasses the rea­sons for Vic­to­rian sym­pa­thies rest­ing with the Con­fed­er­ates. Per­haps there were en­dur­ing mem­o­ries of the de­fi­ant Amer­i­can dig­gers at Eureka, or it was a just a mat­ter of sid­ing with the un­der­dog. Per­haps Bri­tain’s diplo­matic an­tipa­thy to­wards the US coloured the colo­nial per­spec­tive. Smyth also sug­gests the racism in­her­ent in the prac­tice of “black­bird­ing” for the Queens­land cot­ton and su­gar­cane fields may have en­cour­aged a broader ac­cep­tance of the “pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tion” of the Amer­i­can south.

Smyth writes with an easy hand and Aus­tralian Con­fed­er­ates moves along con­fi­dently and clearly. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the au­thor de­scends to a col­lo­quial style that is less than con­vinc­ing, such as when the US con­sul, Wil­liam Blan­chard, is “fit to be tied”.

Af­ter con­sid­er­able diplo­matic ma­noeu­vring, Shenan­doah de­parts Mel­bourne. Mag­i­cally, its man­power woes ease. Smyth writes: “As the Shenan­doah rolls into in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, the ship’s com­ple­ment sud­denly in­creases by 42. From their cramped hid­ing places in the hol­low bowsprit, the wa­ter tanks and the lower hold, the Aus­tralian re­cruits emerge and muster on deck.” Thus, the Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tion to the doomed Con­fed­er­ate war ef­fort be­comes sub­stan­tial.

This book is a well-crafted ac­count of a largely un­known chap­ter in Aus­tralia’s mar­itime history and a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to our un­der­stand­ing of Aus­tralian in­volve­ment in Amer­ica’s blood­i­est con­flict. It ap­pears un­de­ni­able that the Amer­i­can Civil War is the only ma­jor war in which some Aus­tralians and most Amer­i­cans were on op­pos­ing sides.

CSS Shenan­doah at an­chor in Port Phillip Bay and, above, its cap­tain James Ire­dell Waddell

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