Chasing the Shenandoah

Juneau author chronicles the little-known story of the Confederate ship that led the Union on a wild goose chase

Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2005

Juneau author Lynn Schooler was an Anchorage teenager in 1970 when he read a brief Robert DeArmond article about the Confederate ship Shenandoah, "War's End in Bering Sea," in the July 1937 issue of "Alaska Sportsman."

The 220-foot ship received orders in the fall of 1864 to destroy the New England whaling fleet, at that time a major source of income for Union forces. The Shenandoah captured or sank 38 ships, but did much of its damage after the war was over. At that point, the members of the crew were considered pirates, and most of North America was in pursuit.

The Shenandoah fled to a neutral port, leading Union warships on a 27,000-mile goose chase from the Bering Sea, down the West Coast of the Americas, around Cape Horn and back to Liverpool, England. The wild journey took almost five months, and eventually most of the crew slipped away.

Schooler, a fisherman, shipwright, seaman, photographer and guide, was reminded of the Shenandoah's story years later, when his interest in whaling and the Aleutians led to more mentions of the ship, as well as another encounter with DeArmond's article.

Over the course of three years, Schooler followed the trail of the Shenandoah around the world, from England to Australia to the Deep South and Little Diomede. HarperCollins has just released the results of his research, "The Last Shot: The Incredible Story of the CSS Shenandoah and the True Conclusion of the American Civil War," and Schooler will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Nugget Mall Hearthside Books to talk about his work.

"I was never a real history buff before I started, and I wouldn't say I'm much of a Civil War buff now, per se," Schooler said. "But this really made history come alive for me.

"It took a lot of guts to do what they did, and the amazing thing was, they were almost all teenagers," he said. "Some of the crew members were manic depressive and had petty arguments. Some were braves, some were crooks and some were incredibly outstanding, upstanding people. I just found it to be a fascinating story."

Schooler's research began in England, and then turned to Australia, where the Shenandoah was once hauled out for repairs. There, as opposed to the United States, the ship's story is common knowledge.

"They made quite a hit in Australian society," Schooler said. "The crew cut a pretty wide swath through the Aussie gals, and people down there still name their boat the Shenandoah. The Aussies were very sympathetic with the Confederacy because they felt like they were a bit under England's thumb."

Schooler fell in with a network of Civil War re-enactors, who were of particular help. At one point, he found himself dressed like a Yankee soldier in 100-degree weather in the Outback.

"They had an obsession for accuracy, which is great for somebody doing something like this," he said. "For the general public, this is something that took place in the Deep South and they don't really dwell much on the global repercussions that it's had. But that's one of the things that grabbed my interest: what far-reaching effect the American Civil War had on the rest of the planet and is still having."

The original crew of the Shenandoah was made mostly of Southerners with little or no experience in Arctic conditions. The ship was also understaffed, with just a quarter of the men needed to sail a 220-foot ship. Amazingly, the ship was eventually fully staffed, with most of its volunteers coming from the Union boats it sank or captured.

"In those days merchant seamen were pretty cosmopolitan," Schooler said. "They came from every country of the world. They didn't have a lot of allegiances to the Union. Even some of the Yankee-born people were more interested in having a job, and the Shenandoah was a pretty good job. And also, there was something really charming about a lot of the crew. Everywhere they went they would end up on great terms with the people."

Book signing

when: 7 p.m. tuesday.

where: nugget mall hearthside books.

book: "the last shot"

At one point, the Shenandoah made plans to capture San Francisco and hold the city for ransom. They eventually backed out because of a lack of intelligence.

When the war ended, the Shenandoah had no way to get the news. The crew didn't find out until a British merchant ship told them, three months after General Lee's surrender.

After the war, President Abraham Lincoln granted clemency to most of the Confederacy, but exempted the crew of the Shenandoah. The crew sailed miles to Liverpool in the days before global positioning systems or any sort of modern aids. Navigation was done with complicated geometrical calculations and calculus, double-checked with passing ships.

"If they had taken time to port anywhere in North America, they would have been hung as pirates," Schooler said. "They had to take extreme efforts to avoid every other ship in the ocean.

"It was kind of a surprise for England to wake up and find the Shenandoah on its doorstep," he said. "It was a complete diplomatic embarrassment, because England was on pretty thin ice itself with the United States. Eventually, England let them slip away. Some of the officers went to South America, some went to Europe and some went to Germany.

"Over the next decade or so, as the acrimony between the North and South decreased, most managed to slip back to the States, and most of the men died in their beds."

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