With Last Flag Down, their fast-paced Civil War naval history, John Baldwin and Ron Powers add to the recent flotilla of books on the Shenandoah, the daring Confederate raider that preyed on Yankee whaling and merchant ships as far away as the Indian, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Baldwin and Powers' account draws heavily and creatively on the logbook of Baldwin's relative, the Shenandoah's 24-year-old executive officer, Lt. William Conway Whittle.
The Shenandoah has always held a certain mystique for Civil War buffs. Launched in Scotland in 1863, the sleek, black, three-masted racing clipper, christened the Sea King, departed London in October 1864, allegedly as a British transport. Surreptitiously, however, the industrious Southern purchasing agent James D. Bulloch had acquired the vessel for the Confederate navy. Off Madeira, beyond the purview of the U.S. and royal fleets, Rebels converted the Sea King into the armed cruiser Shenandoah. Equipped with a hoisting propeller, a lowering smokestack and eight guns, the swift ship then commenced a year-long world cruise that covered more than 58,000 miles. It then decimated the U.S. whaling fleet in the cold waters of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.
Baldwin and Powers suggest that to a certain degree, the Shenandoah became the South's last-gasp secret weapon. Under the command of Lt. Cmdr. James I. Waddell, it successfully roamed international waters in search of Yankee whalers, ultimately bagging 38 prizes. However, the Shenandoah accomplished too little, too late.
After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army in April 1865, the Shenandoah remained on the prowl in the North Pacific, capturing and burning U.S. ships. Not until August 1865 was Waddell convinced that the Confederate cause had indeed been lost. Unsure of the legal status of himself and his crew, he disarmed the Shenandoah and sailed nonstop to Liverpool, England, arriving in November 1865. The crew lowered the Confederate flag for the last time and awaited their fate.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.