The Odyssey of the Shenandoah

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It was just past 1:00 a.m., June 28, 1865, a few tilting spins of the earth beyond the year's longest day. And in the Bering Strait, the hazy rose-colored summer-dawn breaking over the blue-white ice-floes crowding its waters revealed a curious tableau: framed by the dark distant, snow-crowned headlands to the east and west and, at a lower elevation, the two, flat- and sheer-sided Diomede Islands tucked between those mainland heights, rose a forest of masts, sails, and rigging. Closer inspection revealed a listing, three-masted whaleship. Moored to it by a web of radiating ropes bobbed five smaller vessels, the 35-foot whaleboats that, on better days, the whaleship dispatched to harpoon the bowhead whales that brought white men to these remote climes. And, completing the scene, forming its outer perimeter, nine other whaling vessels swung at anchor in the eerily calm waters of this 37°F cloudless Arctic morning. A day earlier, the winds that often slice through this storied, icy gut dividing North America and Asia had roiled those waters; swells had blown the Brunswick—the now-listing ship from New Bedford, Massachusetts—against one of the ice floes. During the summer, these chunks of ice drift northward from the Pacific to the Arctic through this fifty-mile-wide passage between Siberia's eastern and Alaska's western shores.

The collision stove a hole below the Brunswick's waterline, breaching the wooden planking and the copper-alloy-sheathing of her hull. Afterward, the ship's officers and crew had done their best to still the rush of sea-water into the ship's holds. But the ship's master, Alden T. Potter, knew that, with over a thousand miles of water between them and the nearest shipyard, he and his crew had little hope of repairing the vessel. In the meantime, all he could do was what American captains had always done in such situations: raise Old Glory upside down to signal their distress to any ships that might sail by. This being a busy passage in a busy whaling season, nine other vessels, all flying the U.S. flag, soon lay anchored alongside the crippled Brunswick.

As the other whaling vessels answering the Brunswick's distress flag arrived, each vessel's master—as captains of commercial ships are usually called—came aboard to survey the damage. And each, in turn, concurred that the listing ship was a lost cause. They also agreed with Captain Potter that his only recourse was to fall back on the general custom under the circumstances: condemn the ship and auction off her cargo, whaleboats and whatever gear that could be hauled off the vessel. At the least, the Brunswick's master could reduce some of the losses to his ship's owner and insurers.

Decision made, they set to business and by the early morning of June 28, the auction had concluded. But as accounts were being squared and sailors from the nine other whaling vessels were busy removing barrels and crates from the crippled Brunswick, yet another ship hove into view, from the south. Observing the ship's three masts and the plume of smoke rising from her, the whaling masters immediately concluded that she was an auxiliary steamer—so-called because she was powered by both wind and a steam-engine powered iron-screw propeller. Such vessels were rare, if not unknown, in these waters and, as the ship drew closer and they could see that she was flying a U.S. flag, speculation turned to her identity. Some thought the ship might belong to the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, yet another expression of America's ongoing commercial expansion which continued even as the country was rent by civil war. That year the Expedition was conducting surveys for a cable to be stretched across the Bering Strait; the project sought to create a communications link—by way of Canada, Alaska and Asia—between the United States and Europe.

Still others aboard the gathered whaleships speculated that that the approaching steamer might be the Confederate raider that had, amid great controversy, stopped in Melbourne the previous winter. Over the past four years of war, the Confederates had dispatched at least twelve such cruisers into the world's oceans, charging them with destroying private, unarmed Union merchant, fishing, and whaling vessels. But the war was over. Weeks ago these sailors, when variously docked in San Francisco, Honolulu and other ports, had read in newspapers that the war between the North and the South had ended nearly three months earlier. On April 9, Confederate general Robert E. Lee had surrendered the remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia to Union general Ulysses S Grant at a place called Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

This latter fact dispelled much of the whalemen's anxiety. And who knew? Perhaps the approaching steamer could provide the Brunswick's master and crew with passage out of this icy realm. Captain Jeremiah Ludlow of the Isaac Howland, one of the whaling vessels gathered around the Brunswick, agreed to carry Potter's request to the steamer. Dispatched in a whaleboat, he soon stood on the steamer's deck. Ludlow failed to learn the mystery ship's identity, and his reception by her officers had been a bit frosty. But they seemed to have expressed, albeit in vague language, a willingness to provide passage for Captain Potter and his men.

Later that day, spirits aboard the Brunswick and the nine vessels grouped around her rose still higher. The men had spotted a flotilla of five small boats, dispatched from the steamer, coming toward them. It seemed that the promised passage out of the Bering Strait was about to be delivered. But, as the boats came into clearer view, the sailors gathered on the decks of the awaiting whaleships noticed that the approaching craft carried uniformed Confederate Navy officers. Moreover, almost simultaneously, the whaling seamen heard a warning shot fired in their direction from the steamer, and noticed that the Stars-and-Stripes that had been waving over her foremast had been hauled down. In its place rose the ensign of the Confederate Navy.

When the steamer had come within hailing range, one of the Confederates shouted to the men gathered on the decks of the ten whaling vessels: as of that moment, all of their ships and cargoes were prizes of the CSS Shenandoah. The Confederates ordered the more than three-hundred men aboard the whaling vessels—each carried a crew of up to thirty-five—to surrender and come aboard the Shenandoah as prisoners of war. Failing that, they could go down with their vessels, all of which the Confederates threatened to destroy. Alarm rippled across the decks of the whalers. Officers who had assembled for the auction on the Brunswick's decks rushed back to their own vessels and began ordering their crews to weigh anchor and prepare to sail. Perhaps, they reasoned, if they could reach the nearby Siberian coast, they would find diplomatic sanctuary inside Russian territory.

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