150 Years Ago This Week: The last flag down

August 1865

As August 1865 began, the country, north and south, was still coming to grips with four intense years of bloody warfare, with the uneasy peace and beginnings of Reconstruction. Out in the vast Pacific Ocean and far to the west of the battlegrounds and desolate cities suffering from the costliest war in American history in terms of casualties, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah cruised south, unaware that the war had ended months before, until the winds and ocean currents brought her course parallel to the California coast.

The CSS Shenandoah
The CSS Shenandoah

The crew kept a sharp lookout, both for a vessel heading away from San Francisco, as well as for the Union warships known to frequent those waters. Lt. James Waddell, the Shenandoah’s commander, had in mind a bold plan to sail into San Francisco Bay after nightfall, ram the only Union warship known to be guarding San Francisco, capture her crew and force the city to surrender with a substantial monetary payment to be made to the Confederate government.

Waddell thought it prudent to communicate with a commercial vessel known to have just left San Francisco, and obtain the latest news of the war before beginning Shenandoah’s bold undertaking. On Wednesday, Aug. 2, Waddell ordered steam to chase a ship seen off the port bow.

Shenandoah approached the British bark Barracouta, 13 days out of San Francisco, and Waddell sent his crew aboard the bark. The British crew shared the most recent newspapers with Shenandoah’s crew. Lt. Dabney Scales, Shenandoah’s officer of the watch, recorded in the Confederate ship’s log: “Having received from the British bark Barracouta the sad intelligence of the overthrow of the Confederate Government, all attempts to destroy the shipping or property of the United States will cease from this date, in accordance with which First Lieutenant Wm. C. Whittler, Jr. received an order from the commander to strike below the battery and disarm the ship and crew.”

With the news that the Confederacy no longer existed, Waddell knew that he, his crew and ship were considered to be pirates to any Union vessel taken and destroyed after the end of April. He made the decision to end the Shenandoah’s last voyage at Liverpool, a distance of some 17,000 miles around Cape Horn and into the Atlantic, and surrender to British authorities.

Carefully avoiding all ships they encountered, the voyage lasted until Nov. 6, 1865, when the Shenandoah docked in Liverpool next to HMS Donegal, commanded by Capt. James Paynter of the Royal Navy. Waddell surrendered the Shenandoah to Paynter, who received the surrender on behalf of the British government. On board Shenandoah, Waddell ordered the Confederate flag to be lowered for the last time, the last flag down.

On Shenandoah’s cruise between Oct. 19, 1864 and Nov. 6, 1865, she had traveled 58,000 miles without an accident, captured 38 vessels and destroyed 32 of them valued at $1.172 million (in 1865 dollars), and had taken 1,053 prisoners.

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.