With his army surrounded, his men weak and exhausted, Robert E. Lee realized there was little choice but to surrender his Army to General Grant. On April 9, 1865, in the village of Appomattox Courthouse, the two men met and effectively brought the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history to an end.
The Shenandoah had started her career at Glasgow, Scotland, as the civilian steamer Sea King. After the Confederate Navy secretly purchased her, she put to sea in October 1864 under the cover that she was headed for India on a commercial voyage. When the Sea King neared Madeira, she rendezvoused at sea with another ship which transferred Confederate Navy officers, crew members, and heavy guns, and refitted her as a warship.
With James Iredell Waddell on board as Commanding Officer, she was commissioned as the CSS Shenandoah on 19 October, 1864. Waddell sailed his ship south through the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, and captured nine U.S. flag merchant vessels between late October and the end of 1864. All but two of these were sunk or burned. In late January 1865, the Shenandoah arrived at Melbourne, Australia, where she put in for repairs and provisions and recruited forty “stowaways” to fill out her short-handed crew. Following three weeks in port, the cruiser put to sea, planning to attack the American South Pacific whaling fleet.
When Waddell discovered that his intended targets had been tipped off to his plans, he headed north. He stopped in the Eastern Caroline islands at the beginning of April, where he seized four Union merchantmen and commandeered their supplies to stock up for further operations. About this time the Confederacy collapsed, but the news would spread very slowly through the distant Pacific. The Shenandoah headed for the Sea of Okhotsk, where she took one prize and the crew gained considerable experience in ice navigation, then moved on to the Bering Sea. There, in late June off the coast of Alaska, the Shenandoah captured two-dozen more Union vessels, destroying all but a few.
On June 27, 1865, Captain Waddell learned of General Lee’s surrender from a prize, the Susan & Abigail, when her captain produced a San Francisco newspaper reporting the flight of the Confederate Government 10 weeks previous. As the paper also contained Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s proclamation after Lee’s surrender, that the “war would be carried on with re-newed vigor,” Waddell proceeded to capture 10 more whalers in the space of 7 hours. The Shenandoah then headed south towards San Francisco, which he believed would be weakly defended against his cruiser’s guns.
On August 2 the Shenandoah encountered the Liverpool ship Barracouta and learned of the final Confederate collapse and the capture of Jefferson Davis. At this point Captain Waddell and his crew knew that their privateering careers had come to an end. Captain Waddell struck the Confederate flag. The CSS Shenandoah was dismantled as a man-of-war; her battery was dismounted and struck below, and her hull repainted to resemble an ordinary merchant vessel.
What should they do with their ship? Returning to a US port would mean facing a Union court and the risk of being tried in court and hanged as pirates. Waddell considered heading for Sydney, or New Zealand, or perhaps Cape Town.
The crew started clamoring for their Captain to give them a firm commitment; he responded that he would take the ship into the “Nearest British port.” After several weeks sailing, the crew was still muttering amongst themselves, just what did the Captain mean by the “Nearest British port.”
The CSS Shenandoah then sailed from off the west coast of Mexico via Cape Horn to Liverpool, a voyage of three months and over 9,000 miles, being pursued the whole way by Union vessels.
When the CSS Shenandoah finally anchored at the Mersey Bar, she was flying no flag. The pilot refused to take the ship into Liverpool harbor unless they flew a flag. The crew proudly raised the Confederate banner one last time as The CSS Shenandoah sailed up the River Mersey.
The British warship HMS Donegal happened to be anchored in mid-river. Captain Waddell manoeuvred his ship near to the British man-of-war and dropped anchor. The stainless banner was lowered again for the very last time and Captain Waddell surrendered the CSS Shenandoah to Captain Paynter of HMS Donegal on November 6, 1865.
In the very last act of the Civil War, Captain Waddell walked up the steps of Liverpool Town Hall and presented a letter to the mayor officially surrendering his vessel to the British government.