Two years before the United States purchased Alaska, and almost two months after the Confederate Army stopped fighting on land, the last gun of the Civil War was fired in the Bering Sea.
In late spring 1865, a Confederate ship named The Shenandoah had slipped into Alaska waters in search of whalers. The commerce raider’s mission was to cripple the whale oil industry, which was essential for modern life in the nation’s growing cities. America ran on whale oil back in the day, so it would be like destroying petroleum tankers today.
Not knowing that the war had ended in Appomattox 74 days earlier, Capt. James Waddell, commander of the English-built vessel, fired upon several whalers near St. Lawrence Island on June 22. Vessels flying British, French and Hawaiian flags were inspected and let pass, but American whalers were seized.
For several days, The Shenandoah captured many American ships. The captain put the prisoners into small whaleboats, tied the boats end to end, hooked them to The Shenandoah and then pulled them along behind him.
On June 28, he hit the mother load when they came across a whaler that had crashed into ice. It was surrounded by about a dozen other whalers participating in an auction of the valuable whale oil and bone on board the stricken ship.
Waddell burned all but two of the ships, which he left intact to carry all his prisoners. The whalers’ captains showed Waddell newspapers that announced Robert E. Lee’s surrender and told him the war had ended in April. But Waddell presumed the war was continuing on other fronts.
The Shenandoah then sailed down the Aleutian Chain and set a course for the coast of California. On Aug. 2, just 13 days out of San Francisco, she overtook the English bark Barracouta. That’s when the crew learned that Lincoln was dead, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a prisoner and the war really was over.
Waddell also learned that most rebel soldiers had received a pardon, but he and his crew were to be caught and hung for decimating the American whaling industry and causing insurance rates for American shippers to skyrocket. Many went out of business. British shippers bought up American cargo ships for pennies on the dollar and ruled the waves until the age of U-boats.
Capt. Waddell managed to escape the noose with his ship and crew intact. With every navy in the world looking for him, he still managed to race across three oceans without being detected and dropped anchor in Mersey off Liverpool, England, on Nov. 6 – 123 days after leaving the Aleutians – and thus escaped prosecution.
During its 13-month saga with the Confederate Navy, The Shenandoah covered around 60,000 miles, captured and burned dozens of Yankee ships, including 25 after the war was over, and captured more than 1,000 sailors. And all without a single casualty on either side!