Thinking Aloud: War’s Ragged End

Apr. 6, 2015 by Darius

Later this week, much will be made of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  However, that’s not the whole picture.  April 9 will mark the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, which effectively ended the majority of the fighting but it did not end the war.  Lee’s was not the final surrender of a Confederate combat unit.  That honor belongs to the CSS Shenandoah, a Confederate naval vessel that fought on for another seven months, finally surrendering in November 1865.

During the Civil War, the Union generally enjoyed complete naval superiority, imposing a blockade on the Confederacy.  However, some Confederate ships attempted to inflict misery on Union shipping thousands of miles from the fighting.  One of these was the Shenandoah.  Built in Britain, the Shenandoah was purchased by the Confederacy, re-outfitted, and launched on a clandestine mission in October 1864.  Its target: the American whaling fleet in the far North Pacific.  The Shenandoah captured six merchant ships on its way to the North Pacific, and, after stopping in Australia for repairs, reached the whaling grounds in May 1865—well after the Confederate armies back home had surrendered.  Over the next month, the Shenandoah captured or destroyed dozens of Union merchant vessels, almost all whaling ships.  June 28, not April 9, marks the final fighting of the Civil War.

On August 2, the Shenandoah, en route to attack San Francisco, encountered a British ship carrying proof the Confederacy was finished.  On November 6, 1865, the Shenandoah slid into Liverpool’s harbor.  It lowered its flag, becoming the last Confederate unit to surrender.

Wars often have messy endings.  The staged surrender ceremony at Appomattox Court House might be forever enshrined in the history books, but reality, as always, is more complicated.

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