Lecture No. 25 – September 2015


Little known tales of the Civil War

Jim Russell, Lecturer
Jim Russell, Lecturer

[dropcaps] T [/dropcaps]his year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of our Civil War. The month of April 1865 saw the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Va. Before the month was over, President Jefferson Davis was in custody and virtually all Confederate forces had surrendered. The first assassination of an American president had occurred.

“Smithsonian” magazine published an article in its April edition titled “Beyond Gettysburg.” The article, by Jamie Malanowski, recounts seven events from the war that are little known and seldom if ever taught in school. I have selected two for your edification this evening. And I have an additional story that I remember reading decades ago.


John-S-Mosby-Brady-HandyThe first occurred at Fairfax, Va. Confederate Lt. John Singleton Mosby, aka “The Gray Ghost,” led a sneak attack of 29 rangers through Union lines on the morning of March 9, 1863. Their mission was to capture a Union colonel who had made some disparaging remarks about Mosby and his rangers and who was supposedly staying in the home of Dr. William P. Gunnell.

Regretfully, the colonel had gone to Washington. But his place had been taken by Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton. Far from the front lines, the general felt safe and had not posted guards. He was peacefully sleeping when Mosby slapped him on the back and asked, “General, you ever hear of Mosby?” The general replied, “Yes. Have you caught him?”

Missing out on the colonel was a disappointment, but Mosby and his 29 rangers returned to their headquarters with one general, two captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses. When the loss was reported to President Lincoln, he was asked about the loss of the general. Lincoln is reported to have said, “I can make a better general in five minutes, but those horses cost $125 each.”


bennet-hendeerson-youngStory No. 2. Growing up, I believed that Confederate military activity had been confined to no farther north than central Pennsylvania, a little north of Gettysburg and south of Harrisburg. Then I read about St. Albans.

St. Albans was and still is a sleepy little Vermont town just 15 miles south of the Canadian border. The town has a central park known as Taylor Park and, in that park ,there is a historical marker. According to the marker, it was Oct. 19, 1864 when Bennett Young rode into town, dismounted from his horse in front of the American House Hotel, drew a pair of Colt revolvers and announced, “Gentlemen, I am a Confederate officer, and my men have come to take your town. Anyone who resists will be shot.”

Young had spent several months in Canada, recruiting escaped Confederate POWs to raid supposedly safe Union towns along the Canadian border. The raiders rounded up everyone they could and held them in Taylor Park. They then took $208,000 from the town’s three banks and traded gunfire with a few resisters before trying to burn down the town and making their escape back across the border.

The fire bombs that the raiders used failed to burn the town, thus allowing the townsfolk to organize a posse and follow the raiders back to Canada. Canadian authorities, with the help of the townspeople, rounded up most of the raiders, returning what money they could recover and charged Young and four others with violating the Canadian Neutrality Act. One townsman and one raider died during the raid.


My final story was not covered in Mr. Malanowski’s article, but I do remember it appearing in “American Heritage” magazine sometime in the late 1950s.

The Confederate Navy had a small-but-quite-active fleet of what were called commerce destroyers. These consisted primarily of fast ships, usually a combination of sail- and steam-powered vessels. Some were built in European ports under heavy veils of secrecy and renamed once they had been launched and put out to sea. Several others were captured Union ships renamed and refitted after capture.

This story concerns the firing of the last shot of the Civil War. The incident took place about 5,000 miles away from Richmond in the Bering Sea. The C.S.S. Shenandoah was taking whalers and merchant ships in an effort to hinder the Union war effort. On June 27, 1865, she fired a shot across the bow of a whaler off the coast of Alaska.


After boarding the whaler, the Shenandoah’s captain learned of Lee’s surrender but also learned of Davis’ statement made shortly after the surrender, that the war would continue. In the next seven hours, the Shenandoah captured 11 more whalers before heading south to attack San Francisco. While in route, they learned of the capture of Davis and the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces.

Not wishing to appear before a Union Navy Board, the captain, C.S.N. Lt. Comm. James Waddell, changed course and headed for Liverpool, England. The Confederate Naval Ensign was lowered, the guns were stored below deck, the deck was painted and the rigging changed to make the ship appear to be a merchant vessel.

Arriving in the Mersey River at Liverpool, Waddell requested a pilot and permission to dock. The pilot refused to guide any ship with no flag flying. Waddell raised the C.S.N. flag, and the pilot then guided the ship to a berth.

Upon tying up, Waddell surrendered the ship to the British authorities, striking the C.S.N. flag. The British government determined the crew had committed nothing outside of usual war activities. The ship was ruled to be the property of the United States and was subsequently sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar and, several years later, was severely damaged in a hurricane.

The C.S.S. Shenandoah was the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe. The Battle Ensign is on display in a Confederate museum in Richmond. The Shenandoah never engaged a U.S. Navy vessel but, during her short career of 12 months and 17 days, captured 38 American ships, mostly whalers and merchant ships, costing the Union approximately $1.4 million (over $21 million today). She took more than 1,000 prisoners without inflicting any casualties. Only two of her crew died, both of illness.

There is some question about the last shot fired by the Confederacy. Texans claim it was May 13 at the Palmito Ranch. Others claim the Palmito Ranch event wasn’t a battle but just a skirmish in which Confederate forces carried the field, and the last battle was really the Battle of Columbus, Ga., on April 16. The final shot was really fired in the Bering Sea on or about June 27, 1865, and the last Confederate force to surrender was the crew of the Shenandoah, Nov. 6, 1865.