The CSS Shenandoah: Victoria’s link to the American Civil War.

CSS Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

On 25 January 1865 a large foreign warship unexpectedly dropped anchor in Hobson’s Bay off Melbourne causing considerable consternation in the colonial government.    The ship proved to be the 1160-ton, eight-gun auxiliary steamer CSS Shenandoah of the Confederate States of America and had pulled in to make urgent repairs.  

Five years earlier the Southern states had ceded from the Union over the question of slavery and the country had been embroiled in a brutal civil war ever since.   The Shenandoah had been particularly busy in the three months before arriving in Australian waters.   It had captured or sunk no less than 11 merchant ships belonging to the United States and was holding some of the sailors prisoner.  

Britain and by extension, the colonies in Australia had declared strict neutrality in the hostilities between the North and the South.    The arrival of an armed warship posed a delicate diplomatic problem for the Victorian Governor, Sir Charles Darling and his administration.  

Some of the 12,000 visitors on the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Immediately on arrival the Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, sent an officer ashore seeking permission to make repairs to his ship’s propeller which had been damaged during a recent storm.   He also sought to take on coal and other supplies and to land his prisoners.   

One thing he did not ask permission for was to recruit replacement sailors though he was determined to do so while in port.

Governor Darling allowed the Shenandoah to undertake essential repairs and take on supplies thinking the ship would be gone within a couple of days.   However, after the propeller and shaft had been inspected, it was found the ship would have to be slipped to repair the damaged machinery and that would take time.

Conscious of their obligations of neutrality the colonial government decided that “no other work should be performed on the vessel than absolutely and necessarily required,” to allow the Shenandoah to safely go to sea.  

While the government struggled to meet the requirements of Britain’s proclaimed neutrality, the wider public was far less concerned.   The arrival of the Southern warship caused a sensation.   During the first weekend the Shenandoah was in port more than 12,000 people went out to visit it, which was around 10 per cent of Melbourne’s total population.    Captain Waddell and his officers were wined and dined and made as welcome as anyone possibly could be.    A ball was even held in their honour in nearby Ballarat.  

Ballarat Ball for the officers of the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Meanwhile, as the bunkers were filled with coal, supplies loaded onboard and repairs were progressing, Waddell’s officers began surreptitiously recruiting seamen from Melbourne’s docks.    It was rumoured he was offering those willing to sign on £6 per month, an £8 sign-on bounty and a share of any prize money.  

When the authorities learned what was going on they had no choice but to act.   A warrant was issued to search the ship for British subjects that were alleged to be on board.   By now the repairs had been completed but the Shenandoah was still high and dry on the slip ready to be relaunched.  

A standoff ensued with Waddell refusing the police or any other government officials to board his ship while the police effectively barred it from being launched.     In correspondence to the Governor Captain Waddell denied that any British subjects were on his ship.   However, shortly after four men were discovered leaving the ship and promptly arrested by the police.   Waddell feigned ignorance of their presence and claimed they had been stowaways.  

The Shenandoah was soon after allowed to leave.  In a parting shot at the Victorian authorities, Waddell wrote that he felt he and the Government he represented had been insulted by the affair and he would be informing the Confederate Government of his ill-treatment at his earliest opportunity.2

Captain Waddell. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Despite Waddell’s protestations, the Shenandoah sailed from Port Phillip Bay on 19 February with some 40 newly recruited sailors from the colony.  

In the final months of the American Civil War the Shenandoah ravaged the United States’ North Pacific whaling fleet before hostilities final came to an end with the surrender of the South.

Britain would later pay the United States millions of dollars (billions in today’s money) in compensation for losses to Union shipping caused by three Southern raiders.   It was proved they had received assistance from Great Britain despite its proclamation of neutrality.   One of those ships was the Shenandoah.

1.      The Herald, 31 Jan 1865, p. 2.

2.      See exchange of correspondence between the Shenandoah and Victorian officials published in the Argus 18 Feb 1865, p. 5.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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