150 Years Ago This Week: Target, San Francisco

July 1865

On Monday, July 24, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14 by John Wilkes Booth, was rented by the U.S. government for $1,500 a month from John T. Ford. After the assassination of the president, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the theater closed indefinitely; he determined that the theater would never again be used as a place of entertainment. The building was later purchased by the government in July 1866 for $88,000, and used as offices of the U. S. Army’s Adjutant General’s department.

The USS Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, the ship carrying the four remaining Lincoln assassination conspirators, arrived at Fort Jefferson on the same July 24. The four were transferred to the prison commandant, and Cmdr. William Budd turned his ship for home. From this island baking under a tropical sun, there was no possibility of escape. Samuel Mudd was assigned to a casemate cell on which some previous occupant had painted above the door, “Leave hope behind all who enter here.”

At hard labor the four men would toil until pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on Feb. 8, 1869; in July 1867, Capt. George Crabbe returned to Fort Jefferson from a furlough in Havana with a mild case of deadly yellow fever. The mosquitoes fed on his infected blood; within two weeks of the captain’s return, an epidemic of yellow fever spread the disease to 270 of the 300 inhabitants of the fort.

The epidemic lasted until September 1867, when a shift in winds blew away the mosquitoes. The prison doctor died from the disease, and Mudd offered his services as a physician, even as he himself was afflicted with a mild case of the disease. The last case was recorded on Nov. 14, 1867, and for his work in tending to the sick, the officers of the fort signed an appeal to President Johnson, asking that Mudd be pardoned. In February 1869, three of the four prisoners were released; in late July 1867, Michael O’Laughlen died from the disease and was buried in one of the sand-key graves that yellow fever had filled.

The Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah left the waters of the Bering Sea on July 25, still unaware that the war had ended and all of the Confederate armies in the field had surrendered. After decimating the New England whaling fleet, and wreaking havoc on the economic wealth of the Northern economy dependent on whale oil for lamps and other commodities, Lt. James Waddell, the ship’s commander, headed the Shenandoah south in the Pacific towards the coast of California.

Based on the Northern newspapers captured from the whaling ships, Waddell knew that San Francisco was lightly defended; there was no reason why his highly armed ship could not sail into San Francisco harbor and force the city to surrender with a substantial payment of a monetary contribution to the Confederate government.

USS Camanche was the sole U.S. Navy vessel guarding San Francisco since the collapse of the Confederate civil and military authorities. Waddell was familiar from prewar days with the ship’s somewhat timid commander, Charles McDougal. Waddell believed that any officer of the Shenandoah was more than a match for McDougal. He believed that if the Shenandoah entered the harbor after nightfall and intentionally rammed the Camanche, and if his crew could spring onto the decks of the Union ship and keep the hatches closed with her crew inside, no lives would be lost. Since it had been weeks since he had seen a Northern newspaper, Waddell deemed it prudent to communicate for the latest war news with a ship recently sailed from San Francisco before attempting his bold undertaking.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.