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The Last Shot by Lynn Schooler

Review of: The Last Shot
Book:
Lynn Schooler

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On February 24, 2015
Last modified:February 21, 2015

Summary:

The Last Shot is the story of the Confederate privateer, the CSS Shenandoah. But this book will appeal to an audience beyond that of Civil War enthusiasts. Before the Shenandoah ever fires a shot, the story teems with intrigue. Confederate agents, Union spies, evasive British officials and angry Union officials are among the characters who scuttle across Schooler’s first 40 pages.

Last ShotThe Last Shot

by Lynn Schooler

The Last Shot is the story of the Confederate privateer, the CSS Shenandoah. But this book will appeal to an audience beyond that of Civil War enthusiasts. Before the Shenandoah ever fires a shot, the story teems with intrigue. Confederate agents, Union spies, evasive British officials and angry Union officials are among the characters who scuttle across Schooler’s first 40 pages.

While discovering how the Sea King, a former British troop carrier and merchantman, became the Confederate raider CCS Shenandoah –in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of British neutrality–readers glimpse the political and economic factors that made the transformation possible.

Although England was officially neutral in the American Civil War, it was not a policy Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Palmerton was enthusiastic about enforcing where it could plausibly be avoided. The Union blockade of Southern ports was damaging to more than the Confederate cause.

Blockading more than 3,000 miles of coastline was a colossal task, but the effort was largely successful and quickly began to have effects far beyond America’s borders. In England, where 80% of the cotton consumed in that country’s massive textile industry came from the Southern states, thousands of unemployed mill workers were thrown onto the streets….Within months the looms of England and France slowed nearly to a halt.

British merchant ships regularly ran the blockade, smuggling in much needed supplies to the Confederacy and being remunerated in cotton. But the blockade-runners could not supply enough cotton to feed Europe’s idle mills or feed the families of the vast numbers of unemployed and demonstrating workers.

Unable to defend its ports and commerce from Union blockade, the Confederacy sought other means.

Large and powerful as the federal Navy was, it did not have enough ships to maintain the blockade and protect its own trade routes. To exploit this weakness, Confederate leaders developed a plan to obtain and arm a number of raiders, ferocious fast-moving predators meant to swoop down on slow-moving Yankee merchant vessels and sink them.

Not only would the raiders disrupt the Yankee economy and force the Union to divert important fighting ships to chase the raiders, it would make the coastline porous for smugglers.

However, the Confederacy lacked the fighting ships to put the plan into effect as well as shipyards capable of building them. Enter James Dunwoody Bulloch,* the Confederacy’s chief foreign agent in England in 1861. His orders were to find British shipyards to build the raiders, assemble an entire Navy from scratch, and pay in cotton promises instead of currency.

Bulloch was competent, determined, and hardheaded, perfect for the job. He managed to build two ships (the Florida and the Alabama) and buy a third (the Fingal) before both avenues were closed to him.

Bulloch’s raiders burned and sank dozens of commercial ships. America’s Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, was furious. This brilliant son and grandson of presidents was no less determined to stop the Confederacy from acquiring more ships than his nemesis, Bulloch, was to find a way of obtaining them.

The British were not eager to seize Bulloch’s ships when legal excuses for ignoring them could be found. But there was a limit to what Palmerton could do without risking war with America. Inundated with complaints from Adams, British shipyards were forbidden to build more Confederate ships and British citizens were barred from selling existing ships to the Confederacy.

Bulloch was only temporarily thwarted. He contrived to buy and outfit British ships beyond British jurisdiction. With the help of a prosperous and sympathetic Liverpool businessman who, not incidentally, had substantial investments in cotton, Bulloch organized the purchase of the Sea King. Large and fast, little more than a year old, possessed of sturdy boilers for steam locomotion and a remarkable 24-hour cruise range; she was ideal for Bulloch’s purpose.

Papers were fabricated and rumors circulated that the King would embark on a coal run to India. Owned by a British citizen and carrying no arms, there was no evidence the Sea King was anything other than she appeared to be.

In reality, the Sea King was headed to the Madeira Islands to be “sold” to the Confederacy, thus preserving the subterfuge of British neutrality. She would rendezvous with the Laurel, another of Bulloch’s acquisitions. The Laurel carried guns, ammunition and supplies to transform the Sea King into the CSS Shenandoah. With the exception of the Sea King’s master, who was in on the ruse, her crew of British seamen knew nothing of these plans, nor did the Laurel’s crew.

But Adams and his spies were not fooled; yet they could do nothing except track the ship’s whereabouts and hope to catch her with proof of illegality aboard. What ensued was a serious game of hide-and-seek. The Sea King slipped in and out of British ports, loading and unloading fake cargo to maintain her merchant ship charade. It was a game full of uncertainty and close calls, but one that Bulloch would win.

The British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 forbid any British subject from serving in a conflict in which Britain was neutral. Thus, no British national could serve on the CSS Shenandoah lest Adams and his spies find out and present the British with legal cause to seize the ship.

To crew the ship, it was necessary to supply Confederate seamen with bogus papers and assumed names so they could enter England and, at a future date, be transferred to the Shenandoah.

All were Confederate officers or carefully selected men. None carried anything in their hands. Nor did any know the purpose of their mission or their ultimate destination. They knew only that before coming to England they had received instructions to pack enough personal gear for a two-year voyage into a wooden crate, label it with a with “peculiar marks”, and give it to a waiting porter to be taken away.

Soon a small but steady stream of men found their way to Liverpool and eventual transfer to the raider. Among them was James I. Waddell, a mariner for over 20 years, for whom the CSS Shenandoah would be a first command. Waddell was mercurial, lacking in warmth and often indecisive, but he was an extraordinary seaman with remarkable navigational skills.

From the beginning Waddell had known that the Shenandoah must begin her cruise short-handed. A vessel of her size would require a crew of nearly 150 to be properly sailed and fought, but there had been no way to recruit so many Southerners; … In addition it would have been impossible to keep so many men hidden in England while the plot to obtain the Sea King and Laurel was organized.

His plan, to induce a large number of the Sea King’s and Laurel’s British crews to sign on to the Shenandoah, proved unrealistic. Totally lacking in anything even approaching charisma, almost every British sailor turned him down.

Of the150 men Waddell needed to handle his sails, he had 42 – 9 English volunteers, 10 veterans from the Alabama, and 23 officers of all grades.

He was screwed.

His Executive officer was William Conway Whittle Jr., who served aboard the first Confederate vessel to run the blockade, described as a man of action. As the story unfolds he is also revealed as a loyal and conscientious officer doing his best to buffer the crew’s dissatisfaction’s with the often-irascible Captain Waddell.

The ship’s company included Lieutenants John Grimball, Francis Chew, Sidney Smith Lee (related to Robert E. Lee) and Dabney Scales; surgeon Charles Lining, Assistant Surgeon Fred J. McNulty; ships carpenter John Lynch; Acting Master Irvine Bulloch, related to James. D. Bulloch and in charge of Master’s Mates Cornelius Hunt, Lodge Colton, and Joshua T. Minor. The lowliest members were the midshipmen, O.A. Brown and John Thompson Mason. Not all would survive the voyage but, given the length and dangers involved, a surprising majority did. Through Schooler’s citations of the diaries, letters and journals of various officers, readers learn almost as much about officers and crew as of their amazing voyage.

Before that voyage ended, the Confederate raider Shenandoah captured or sank thirty-eight ships. All told, she took more than a thousand prisoners, both civilians and seamen, who were later released at an Australian port where the ship put in for repairs. Some of the prisoners are also profiled, as are the seamen who, either under duress, promises of shared prize money, a taste for adventure or lack of better prospects, signed on to the under-manned Shenandoah.

Most of her activities took place in the waters east of Alaska where 24 whaling vessels were captured, plundered for supplies, burned and sunk in less than a week, striking a serious blow to the American whaling industry.

Doing the research for accounts of the destruction of Union merchant and whaling ships allowed Schooler, in his words, “to better understand what life was like for the men who beat their lives out on sailing ships or chasing whales during the Civil War.” Due to the author’s skill in weaving the details of the men’s lives into the drama of events, readers are able to share some of that understanding.

And there is plenty of drama to relate. The Shenandoah ended her voyage “by sailing from the Aleutians halfway around the world to England without ever sighting land. It took 122 days to make the trip–over twenty-three thousand miles of thick weather, blazing tropics, freezing latitudes, and hot pursuit by Union war ships.”

She was the only Confederate vessel to circumnavigate the globe and the last Southern military force to lay down arms, more than two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. “Contrary to contemporary belief, it was not on the battlefield in Virginia, but high in the Arctic, where the last shot of the American Civil War was fired.”

The Shenandoah’s captain did not learn of the end of the war for many weeks and, when he did, was uncertain of the veracity of information received from captured Union officers. Once that information was verified, the ship was stripped of armaments and course set for England, where the Shenandoah’s officers hoped to avoid prison or worse on charges of treason.

The book concludes with an account of what happened to the Shenandoah and her men after England. For this reader, that was the perfect ending to a remarkable and absorbing story.

Now for a caveat or two. Schooler is not a historian, nor does he claim to be one. The book lacks an index and the usual reference notes important to serious readers and historians, a deficit he admits. That is unfortunate and frustrating, but his research into the Shenandoah is prodigious and he credits his mostly original sources.

Reviewers knowledgeable about the Civil War also take issue with some minor factual errors ascribed to “an uncritical reading of flawed sources.” However, in this reader’s experience, some professional historians tend to be especially critical of writers who don’t belong to the academic guild.

As for this reviewer, these deficits detract neither from the authenticity nor the enjoyment of this book. Because Schooler lives in Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and surrounding waters are all well known to him. His knowledgeable descriptions of this little known part of the world greatly enrich his account of Shenandoah’s adventures there.

The author is an award-winning photographer and writer, and a sailor, and it shows. Readers are beneficiaries of his encyclopedic knowledge of things nautical, often found in footnoted explanations of archaic terms or little known curiosities having to do with the sea and ships.

Perhaps most important to readers, Schooler has written an engrossing adventure story while bringing an important chapter of American history to vibrant life.

*According to Wikipedia: Bulloch’s half-sister Martha was the mother of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and grandmother of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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