Blume on Curry, 'The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah'

Author: 
Angus Curry
Reviewer: 
Kenneth J. Blume

Angus Curry. The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. xiv + 428 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2943-6.

Reviewed by Kenneth J. Blume (Department of Arts and Sciences, Albany College of Pharmacy) Published on H-Maritime (May, 2007)

Conflict and Tensions on a Confederate Cruiser

In October 1864, a refitted Scottish steamer was rechristened CSS Shenandoah and embarked on a thirteen-month, 58,000-mile cruise from Liverpool to the North Pacific and back as a warship of the young but fading Confederate States of America. Her mission was straightforward: engage in economic warfare by destroying the Union's North Pacific whaling fleet, thereby putting a critical industrial lubricant in short supply and crippling the Union's industrial capacity.

Much of the story of the warship and its cruise is well known and has been told many times. The Shenandoah destroyed some $1.4 million in ships and cargo and probably gained the distinction of firing the Confederacy's last shot. Ironically, nearly half of the vessel's cruise occurred after the defeat of the Confederacy, a turn of events that complicated the mission and legal status of both the Shenandoah and her officers and crew. It is a fascinating story that has attracted a half-dozen studies in the past fifty years, including four in just the past two years: Lynn Schooler's The Last Shot (2005), D. Alan Harris and Anne B. Harris' edition of executive officer William C. Whittle's journal, The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah (2005), Tom Chaffin's Sea of Gray (2006), and now Angus Curry's The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah.

Curry's book began as his 2002 La Trobe University dissertation, Echoes of Civil War: The CSS Shenandoah and Her Officers. I have not had the opportunity to compare this published version with the dissertation, so I cannot comment on what might or might not have changed from one version to the next, but the book does have the "feel" of a former dissertation. It is meticulously researched, painstakingly documented, exhaustingly detailed, and at times self-consciously revisionist in its focus. Those qualities can be either strengths or weaknesses, depending on one's preferences.

It is evident, for example, that Curry has turned every page and opened every collection of letters relevant to the Shenandoah, and then some. His list of sources includes British Parliamentary Papers, manuscript papers of Confederate participants, published primary accounts, and virtually every extant sentence published by the officers of the Shenandoah, including of course the ship's log and various sea diaries. Since one of his goals is to differentiate the published and unpublished versions of the story, he has retrieved every recollection, every private account, and every letter that can be found at this point a century and a half after the fact. In addition, of course, he has reviewed a thorough selection of the relevant secondary material about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the Shenandoah, and history theory (particularly discussions over the past several decades about the role of "memory" in reconstructing past events). Curry has produced a masterly synthesis out of this material that can be tracked in his endnotes: 1,957 of them for 320 pages of text, or around six notes per page.

What is the result of all of Curry's hard work, and is the work a success? Certainly, what we don't need is just another narrative of the cruise of the Shenandoah and the exploits of her crew, and Curry understands that. He establishes early in the book that he has different goals. For one thing, he proposes "to explore the causes behind the sharp tensions that emerged between the CSS Shenandoah's officers and their commander" (p. xiii). In addition, his goal is to explain why the ship's officers made "little mention of the personal conflicts that beset them during the voyage in their postwar accounts," why there was a distinct "disparity between the officers' private war diaries and journals, and their public accounts after the Civil War" (p. xiii). His overall purpose, therefore, is "not principally a narrative of the CSS Shenandoah's cruise, but more an examination of the experiences of the Southern naval officers who served on board the commerce raider" (p. 10). As such, then, the book has the potential of making a significant contribution to our understanding of the social history of American naval officers (in this instance, Confederate officers) during the Civil War.

In that sense, the book is a success. We gain a clear understanding of who these Confederate officers were, where they came from, what their "world view" was, and what their concerns were during the cruise. Curry can speak with authority on these subjects because he has indeed examined the officers and their letters and diaries more closely than previous writers. The officers had similar backgrounds in that most had been trained at the Naval Academy and had come from the Southern elite. They shared "social and professional expectations and aspirations" (p. 318) in that they had all yearned for duty on a commerce raider and all hoped for a share of prize money and personal glory. They were all committed to the Confederate States of America, and they were all devoted to a concept of honor and duty that sometimes conflicted with the realities of what they had to do.

Curry tries to make a case that these officers were unique. "This was not just a naval experience, it was also a 'Southern' experience," he writes (p. 74). He also emphasizes that even within the range of "Southern" naval experiences, these officers were different. "The most defining similarity between the officers was their being sent on overseas service to Europe in 1863. The unique nature of this duty isolated the officers from the effects and progress of the Civil War. In consequence, the officers were subjected to a frustrating wait for active service on a Confederate cruiser" (p. 318). This latter point is well taken and is probably one of the more significant insights of the book. But in making this assertion Curry is ignoring what the other part of his story illustrates: they were typical Confederate officers in their backgrounds, devotion to Southern conceptions of "honor," and ethical flexibility when it came to the cause for which they were fighting.

But aside from the "Southern" characteristics that shaped their cruise aboard the Shenandoah, other factors, admittedly, made their experiences unique. Their cruise was longer than a typical cruise--which meant that they were away from land, and their families, for greater stretches of time than typical sailors. For large portions of the cruise, their commander did not permit them to know their destination: either the North Pacific whaling areas, or, at the other end of the cruise, Liverpool. Moreover, while commanders frequently come into conflict with their subordinates shipboard, the situation was magnified aboard the Shenandoah because of the quirky views and erratic behavior of Commander James Iredell Waddell.

At the same time, although Curry tries to emphasize the uniqueness of these officers and their experiences, they were, in certain aspects, representative of the experiences of many American naval officers in the middle third of the nineteenth century, and particularly during the Civil War. Naval officers, especially those trained at the Naval Academy, tended to come from elite backgrounds and consequently shared a common world view.[1] Furthermore, many a young Union naval officer expressed "great expectations" for personal glory and prize money. In the North Pacific part of the cruise, according to Curry, "the Confederate officers were caught in an emotional pendulum, swinging between mind-numbing boredom and wild excitement, which only served to increase the tensions among the officers" (p. 200). But many Union naval officers on blockade duty experienced similar highs and lows, moments of breathtaking action interspersed with weeks of unremitting boredom. As one historian wrote, "The monotony of this continual and watchful existence was broken by the frequent chasing and occasional capture of blockade-runners."[2] Summer blockade duty off the Gulf Coast could be a dreary and risky business for a naval officer. Blockade duty off the Texas coast was, according to Alfred Thayer Mahan, "the end of nowhere" and "desperately tedious," and his biographer Robert Seager notes that, as a result, "morale in the vessel was terrible."[3] Nor could the tedium of the long Shenandoah cruise or the frequent disciplinary problems be described as unique. One need only read accounts of nineteenth-century American naval exploration in the Pacific to see similar issues. The main difference has to do with the inability of Shenandoah's commander to deal effectively with the continual breakdown of discipline.

The book has, effectively, three parts: the first several chapters that set the stage; the middle seven chapters, which provide a narrative of the cruise itself; and the final two chapters, which explore the post-Shenandoah lives of the officers. The introduction and first two chapters of the book explore some of the overriding issues and questions that Curry hopes to answer in the course of his narrative. The introduction provides an excellent overview of Confederate naval goals and activities. It might not provide any new information for the specialist, but it does a good job in putting the story together. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the backgrounds of the officers of the Shenandoah, much of which is based on standard sources, for example Charles Torodich's study of the antebellum Naval Academy.[4]. The second chapter sketches the officers' wartime experiences prior to their service on the Shenandoah. Together, then, the first sixty-five pages do a good job in setting the stage for what was to happen between October 1864 and November 1865.

Chapters 3 through 9 form the core of The Officers of the Shenandoah, covering the cruise itself. Here, in true dissertation style, Curry seems determined to demonstrate that he has ferreted out every possible detail about the officers, their actions, and their thoughts, during these thirteen months. In some instances the detail gets repetitious and would have benefited from the work of a ruthless editor. Although the excruciating detail does not necessarily provide the psychological profile that Curry thinks he is offering, the detail does document the realities of a long cruise under a problematic commander. In that sense, Curry is to be commended for bringing all of this together to preserve the story of a remarkable cruise.

The final fifty-seven pages of text examine the lives of the officers after the cruise. "What most distinguishes the return of the CSS Shenandoah's officers to the United States," Curry argues, "is the brief duration of their exile" (p. 281). Simply stated, they wanted, desperately, to return home to their families and delayed doing so only so long as there was some possibility that they would face legal recriminations for their actions. "Unlike the 'irreconcilable' Southern exiles, who could bear neither the Confederacy's defeat nor the reconstruction of the South, these naval officers had no ideological qualms about returning to the United States" (p. 282). They returned to their families, and for the most part they remained publicly silent about the Shenandoah.

But toward the end of the century, a number of the officers began to publish accounts of their experiences. Curry is interested in why the published versions differ from the unpublished accounts found in letters and diaries and logs. He argues that previous studies of the Shenandoah have had "serious weaknesses" not only because of their "very limited" "research into the lives and backgrounds of the central participants" but also, "the overuse, and often misuse, of the Confederate officers' published postwar recollections" (p. 9). As Curry points out, quoting David Thelen on the subject, "individual memory 'is constructed, not reproduced,'" and therefore it's important to acknowledge that these published accounts were written for a "public audience" (p. 9).[5] This is not a surprising discovery, of course, and perhaps Curry is overstating the novelty of his conclusions. Nevertheless, it is worth being reminded that unpublished recollections are likely to be more honest than those written for publication, and it is particularly interesting to see the multiple versions put side by side, as Curry has essentially done in his narrative.

The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah, then, provides us with an enhanced understanding of one chapter in Civil War naval history. Two of its dissertation-related weaknesses could easily have been remedied. The excess detail, for example, could have been pruned. And the self-consciously revisionist tone could have been modulated simply be removing a number of obvious phrases: "largely overlooked or undervalued by historians" (p. 248), or "historians have failed to invest much interest in … " (p. 270), or "historians have failed to consider … " (p. 36), for example.

Although for the most part Curry has a sure hand with his facts and interpretations, there are a number of odd statements or misstatements. For example, in describing the initial reaction of residents of Melbourne, Australia, to the Shenandoah, Curry writes that "The Melbourne community's interest in the affairs of the United States and the Civil War can in part be explained by the close ties that existed between the nations" (p. 134). In support of this statement he cites the 1850s gold rush that brought American immigrants to Melbourne. That might be so, but it is a bit of an exaggeration to say that there were "close ties" between the United States and Australia. The United States had minimal ties--either official diplomatic or commercial--to virtually anywhere in the Pacific world at this point in the century. Perhaps this is the Australian writing about American affairs.

Another odd assertion, also in reference to the visit of the Shenandoah to Melbourne, Australia, is the following: "The maintenance of the colony's neutrality was not the responsibility or duty of the Confederate officers. Compliance with the laws of the port was simply a matter of form. As one naval historian pointed out, 'naval zeal was incompatible with neutral rights'" (p. 165). Of course Stuart Bernath, whom Curry is quoting in that statement, is correct. But the leap of logic that Curry (not Bernath) makes that naval officers were therefore not obligated to attempt to observe commonly accepted international laws and customs with regard to neutrality flies in the face of the history of naval diplomacy. There are many examples of American naval officers, including Civil War naval officers, who were criticized or chastised or reprimanded by their civilian (and sometimes military) leaders for breaches of international law, including laws of neutrality. In this instance, Curry--despite his painstaking immersion in the primary sources--is misunderstanding one of the complex roles and responsibilities of a naval officer.

Basic factual errors in the book tend to be minor. For example, in a paragraph that opens with a statement about the officer's experiences "in the South's coastal defenses," the second sentence says: "By the spring of 1862, the south had already lost the ports of Memphis (Tennessee) and Norfolk (Virginia), and the Confederate Navy's efforts to protect the rest of the coastline did not inspire much confidence" (p. 44). Of course, Memphis is a port on the Mississippi river, but it would usually be included in a discussion of riverine "coastal" operations.

All in all, The Officers of the Shenandoah is a worthwhile contribution to the literature. Together with the other recent volumes on the subject, we probably now have all we need to know about the ship and the men who fired the last shot on behalf of the Confederate States of America.

Notes

[1]. On this see Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (New York: The Free Press, 1972).

[2]. Francis Trevelyan Miller, ed., The Photographic History of the Civil War: The Navies (1911; reprint New York: Castle Books, n.d.), 120.

[3]. Robert Seager II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 38.

[4]. Charles Torodich, The Spirited Years. A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy (Naval Institute Press, 1984).

[5]. David Thelen, "Memory and American History," Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (March 1989): 1118-1119.

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Citation: Kenneth J. Blume. Review of Curry, Angus, The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah. H-Maritime, H-Net Reviews. May, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13123

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