October 10, 2012
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – A whaling ship built by a former slave was sunk during 1865 in the Bering Sea by a Confederate raider in what could arguably have been the last engagement of the American Civil War. The ship was carrying its registration papers signed September 1, 1862 by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The story gets even better – those original registration papers are in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, and have recently been added to a global effort to document Lincoln's life and career.
“This is not a new discovery, but it was previously unknown to our project,” said Daniel Stowell, Director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, the group conducting a monumental worldwide search for documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln. “We continue to be amazed at the places on this earth where original Lincoln documents surface. We are thrilled that the Australian National Maritime Museum shared with us a scan of the document so it could be included in our ongoing documentary project. This brings to four the total number of documents in Australia that we have identified thus far.”
In July, Stowell presented a paper to the Australian Historical Association about Australian views of Lincoln and was also invited to speak to American Civil War Round Tables in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane about the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Following the presentation in Brisbane, a member of the audience informed Stowell about a Lincoln document at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney that was unknown to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The document is a ship’s passport, or registration papers, for the Jireh Swift, designed and built by a former American slave. The Australian connection is a fascinating journey back to 1865.
The Jireh Swift was built in 1853 by African American shipwright John Mashow (1805-1864), who was born into slavery in South Carolina. Freed in 1815, Mashow made his way to New England and became a well-known and respected shipbuilder who designed more than 100 ships and built about 60, including 14 whaling ships such as the Jireh Swift. Many of these American whalers found their way to the Pacific, drawn to the abundance of whales, the shipyards, and the trading opportunities.
The passport for the Jireh Swift is in four languages and was used to confirm the nationality and legitimacy of the vessel and its crew. The document includes the statement “the vessel Jireh Swift… is of the United States of America, and no subject of present belligerent Powers have any part or portion therein…” The passport is dated September 1, 1862 – a year after the beginning of the American Civil War, exactly three weeks before President Lincoln announced his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and less than three years before the assassination of the president whose signature it bears.
When the Civil War began, the Confederacy had almost no naval strength. Rather than engage the Union in a naval battle, it employed a different tactic – seek and destroy as many merchant ships as possible to cripple the Northern economy and force the Union’s powerful navy out to sea. The Confederate ship Shenandoah, captained by the charismatic James Waddell, was part of this strategy. It was a fast, iron-framed clipper ship with auxiliary steam power. Waddell took command of the ship in October 1864, and within six weeks had captured eight merchant and whaling vessels, most of which he destroyed.
In January 1865, Waddell directed the C.S.S. Shenandoah to the Australian port of Melbourne for repairs. Over the complaints of the U.S. Consul, the Australian authorities allowed the Shenandoah to enter the port and restock, mindful of Great Britain’s commitment to a neutral stance in the American Civil War. The Shenandoah was an instant sensation. News of Waddell’s raids had reached Australia and people turned out by the thousands to tour the “pirate” ship and a gala ball was held to host the ship’s officers. When the Shenandoah left Melbourne in February 1865, Waddell rejected a number of offers from locals who wanted to join him despite the desertion of 17 of his own crew while in the Australian port; Waddell did not want to run afoul of the Foreign Enlistment Act that prohibited employing British subjects. Once the Shenandoah was out to sea, however, about 45 Melbourne stowaways emerged from various crevices in the ship and Waddell allowed them to enlist.
After leaving Australia, the Shenandoah made its way to the Bering Sea and captured 38 more ships, released six on bond, destroyed 32, and took 1,053 prisoners, all without the loss of a single life. On June 22, 1865 the Jireh Swift was destroyed after leading the Shenandoah on a chase through the ice fields of the Bering Sea. It is likely that the last shots of the Civil War were fired that day, directed at Jireh Swift as neither Waddell nor the captain of the Jireh Swift, having been away from America for many months and lacking fresh news of the war, was aware of its conclusion weeks earlier.
In early August Waddell learned of the surrender of the Confederate forces and also discovered that he and his crew were being hunted as pirates by the U.S. Navy. Waddell suspected that surrendering in an American port meant death, so he stripped the ship of all weaponry and lowered the steam engine’s stack to give the Shenandoah the appearance of a regular merchant ship. The ship made it to England without being recognized and, after a brief detention, the captain and crew were released.
A tribunal was set up in Geneva in 1871 to assess the United States’ claim against Britain for damages inflicted on American shipping by British-built or assisted Confederate ships. In the case of Shenandoah, the tribunal found Britain responsible for all acts committed by the ship after leaving port in Melbourne, including the destruction of Jireh Swift.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is a long-term documentary editing project dedicated to identifying, imaging, transcribing, annotating, and publishing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865). The project is administered through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (www.presidentlincoln.org), and is cosponsored by the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield and by the Abraham Lincoln Association.