The American Civil War in the Pacific

The American Civil War reached into every major ocean. After the most successful Confederate raider of U.S. merchant shipping, the CSS Alabama, was sunk by the USS Kearsage off Cherbourg, France, in June 1864, The C.S. Navy hurriedly and secretly commissioned the CSS Shenandoah to attack merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Yankee whaling fleet in the Pacific. The Shenandoah sailed from Glasgow in October 1864 under the command of James Iredell Waddell of Pittsboro, NC (no apparent relation to Scott Waddle, the commander of the nuclear sub, USS Greenville, that sank the Japanese training ship, Ehime Maru, off Honolulu in 2001).

Although she was a steam ship with a retractable propeller, almost her entire voyage would be under sail. Her general mission was to capture and destroy American merchant ships. Her specific orders were to find the American whaling fleet operating in the Arctic Ocean and destroy it. It was hoped that this action would propel the owners of the vessels to lobby President Lincoln for an end to the war. The Confederacy was in a difficult position by this time and its leaders were looking for options other than a complete surrender. In order for the Shenandoah to locate the whaling fleet, she first had to secure whaling charts. These were the highly prized charts kept by whaling ships showing the location of whales sighted and hunted. The charts changed as the whales changed routes and new locations of whales were found. Captain Waddell knew he needed to locate current whaling charts to pinpoint the location of the whaling fleet.

Sailing into the Pacific, the Shenandoah learned that several whaling ships were at anchor in Pohnahtik Harbor, Pohnpei, Caroline Islands. The Shenandoah immediately sailed to Pohnahtik, arriving there April 1, 1865. There were four whalers at anchor when the Shenandoah arrived. All were headed for the Arctic whaling grounds and had stopped for reprovisioning and repairs. The Shenandoah sent boarding parties in small boats to each whaler, capturing all four vessels, and set about stripping the ships of anything of value including the coveted whaling charts. The four ships were burned between April 1 and April 15 and with the whaling charts the Shenandoah left the harbor and sailed to the Arctic Ocean. She located and destroyed 40 vessels, nearly the entire American whaling fleet out that season. All of these ships, including those at Pohnahtik, were captured after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, signaling the effective end of the Confederate States of America. It was not until August, 1865, that the crew of the Shenandoah learned of the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the official end of the war. Rather than surrender in some American port, Captain Waddell decided to return the ship to England and sailed around Cape Horn, thus circumnavigating the globe.

The extract above is from the website of the L.J. Skaggs and Mary D. Skaggs Foundation, which funded an “off-beat grant” to archaeologists at the University of Hawai‘i to salvage the ships sunk in Pohnpei. (The latest off-beat grant is to the University of Iowa to support the production of The Devil’s Rope, a documentary video on the history and development of barbed wire. Take it away, Regions of Mind!)

MacKenzie J. Gregory and the Naval Historical Society of Australia have fuller accounts of the exploits of the Shenandoah and other Confederate merchant raiders, the French Cannings genealogical website has extracts from the ship’s logs and other documents pertaining to the Shenandoah, and the Hawaii School Reports website has an essay on the impact of the Civil War on the whaling and the sugar industries in Hawai‘i, citing Mark Twain’s reports published in the Sacramento Daily Union in 1866.

Twain points out that Louisiana plantations produced at most 1,500 pounds of sugar per acre, while in Hawaii the average production was 10,000 pounds per acre. Writing in 1866, Twain also noted how much money was spent on customs duties to import sugar into the U.S.

The Civil War sealed the fate of the American whaling fleet, and threatened the economy of Hawaii. That war also sparked a demand for sugar and Hawaiian planters responded. Sugar growing rapidly replaced supplying the whaling fleet as the business of Hawaii. The high duties on sugar also created a reason for planters to want Hawaii to become part of the United States.

Hawai‘i sugar production soared from 5 to 10 to 15 to 27 million lbs. from 1863 to 1866, while the number of whaling ships wintering in Hawai‘i dropped from as many as 400 during the 1840s to fewer than 100 in 1866. Although Twain doesn’t mention it, the long-term decline of the whaling industry owed less to the temporary effects of the War and more to the rapidly growing supply of petroleum after the War.

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  1. Pingback: Hawaiians in the American Civil War | Far Outliers

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