Captain James I Waddell - The Man Who Fought the Civil War in Alaska

A Civil War Battle fought in the Arctic

According to the history books, the American Civil was a war between the Northern States and the Southern States with most of the states involved and most of the fighting taking place in the eastern half of what is now the United States.

There was some fighting in the western part of the nation but these were mostly skirmishes.

Texas is generally considered a part of the old west but it sided with the Confederacy.

Similarly, California and Oregon are two far western states which sided with the Union but were separated from the rest of the nation by territory controlled by the United States, most of which would not be admitted to the union as states until well after the Civil War.

A Distant Naval Engagement

California had been admitted to the Union a decade before the start of the war but Oregon did not join the union as a state until 1859 just before the war started.

Most Civil War Battlefields are found in the eastern half, or more specifically the southeastern quadrant of what is now the United States.

Captain James Iradell Waddell
Captain James Iradell Waddell

There are a few places in the west where skirmishes were fought between Union and Confederate forces - Picacho Peak in Arizona, and Glorieta Pass and Valverde in New Mexico, to name three.

The last place most people would expect to find a Civil War battle would be Alaska. Alaska is not only the northernmost state in the Union and, with the exception of Hawaii, the westernmost state but it also was not even a part of the United States until it was purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867 after the Civil War had ended.

However, it was in the waters just off the coast of St. Lawrence Island in Alaska that the final shots of the Civil War were fired. The naval engagement involved the Confederate naval cruiser CSS Shenandoah attacking American whaling ships, flying the Stars and Stripes of the Union side, fishing in the Alaskan waters.

Whale Oil Was the Oil of the 19th Century

Whaling was a big business in those days as our main source of oil was whale oil which was used mostly for burning in lamps to light homes and businesses. The mission of Captain Waddell and his crew was to cause economic harm to the Union side by attacking a major source of the Union's whale oil supply.

Unfortunately, Captain Waddell and the CSS Shenandoah did not begin the mission until October 1864, not too many months before the war ended with General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Diorama showing Captain Waddell on board his ship in Corrington's Museum in Skagway, Alaska
Diorama showing Captain Waddell on board his ship in Corrington's Museum in Skagway, Alaska
Corrington's Alaskan Ivory and Museum in Skagway, Alaska.  Museum houses the Captain Waddell exhibit.
Corrington's Alaskan Ivory and Museum in Skagway, Alaska. Museum houses the Captain Waddell exhibit.

A Twenty-Thousand Mile Journey from Atlantic Coast to Alaska via Indian Ocean

Waddell and his crew set sail into the Atlantic where they had some success attacking Union merchant ships in that area before sailing around the tip of Africa, through the Indian Ocean and finally into the Pacific where they headed northeast toward their target which was the waters around Alaska.

The mission was successful in terms of the destruction of a number of Union whaling vessels (these were privately owned commercial ships, not war ships - but this was war, one tactic of which is to cripple your foe by damaging their economic base).

The final engagement took place near St. Lawrence Island on June 22, 1865 almost three months after the formal surrender of the Confederacy and cessation of hostilities. It was after this battle that Captain Waddell learned from a passing British ship of General Lee's surrender almost three months earlier.

Unlike General Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 - a battle that was fought weeks after a peace treaty ending the war had been signed in Europe - Captain Waddell was not hailed as a hero as a result of his victories but rather had to flee Union Naval patrols in the Pacific that were out to get him for his actions.

While Andrew Jackson had defeated an attacking army and defended American soil, Captain Waddell had been attacking unarmed fishing vessels which, while the war was in progress was expected. However, by mistakenly continuing his fight after the war was over and being on the losing side in the war, Captain Waddell and his crew were none too popular with the victors. Also, Waddell and his crew were attacking unarmed (or lightly armed) commercial vessels and not fighting off an attacking army like Andrew Jackson was at the Battle of New Orleans.

Chased by American Navy, Waddell and Crew Sail to England and Surrender to Queen Victoria

Realizing that he and his crew were not popular in the eyes of the victorious Union side, he turned his ship westward and retraced his original route back through the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Atlantic Ocean.

However, as the Confederate States of America no longer existed as a separate nation and the states that comprised it were again a part of the Untied States, Waddell, with an American warship closing in on his vessel, steered his ship to Liverpool in England where he docked and surrendered to the Queen of England.

England was a logical choice for refuge as Queen Victoria's government had been openly sympathetic to the Confederate cause and it was her government which secretly channeled funds to private British interests who had purchased the British steamer the Sea King which had been turned over to the Confederate States of America who renamed it the CSS Shenandoah and placed it under the command of Captain James Waddell.

After a few years passed and passions cooled, Waddell was able to return to the United States from Britain. By the time he returned, America had purchased Alaska (in 1867) from Russia making it an overseas American possession.

Alaska is Purchased by United States

In his own small way Captain Waddell may have played a role in Russia's decision to sell Alaska to the U.S. Russia at that time was financially and militarily strapped and Alaska was both too far away and of marginal importance to Russia for her to be able to devote the resources necessary to adequately defend it.

The fact that American and nationals of other nations easily fished, trapped and mined for gold in Alaska with little or no interference from the Russian authorities was one indication of Russia's loose hold on the area.

When Captain Waddell was able to fight in Alaskan territorial waters and only had to worry about Union naval vessels and not Russian patrols that was another indication that Russia did not have much control over the area.

However, Russia's big worry was England which had defeated her in the Crimean War some years earlier and which controlled Canada and the growing colony of British Columbia which bordered Alaska.

Fearing that Britain or some other nation would capture Alaska in some future war the Russian Czar decided to try to sell it thereby bringing cash to his cash starved treasury and eliminating a costly liability at the same time.

When Britain showed no interest in purchasing Alaska the Czar turned to the United States and got us to purchase Alaska.

Antique Ivory Scrimshaw of the CSS Shenandoah in Corrington's Museum.
Antique Ivory Scrimshaw of the CSS Shenandoah in Corrington's Museum.

© 2009 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 7 comments

Brian Weekes profile image

Brian Weekes 4 years ago from Queensland, Australia

Interesting article. I wonder what would have been the fate of Alaska had the British made the purchase. I guess it would most likely just be a part of Canada. This would have made the cold war interesting, bringing Canada and Russia that much closer together. A good hub.


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Good Info. I lived there (Alaska) for 30 years and never heard of Captain Waddell. I feel better now.


melpor profile image

melpor 6 years ago from New Jersey, USA

This is a good hub. I forgot about Captain Waddell's military action off the Alaska coast.


Nan 6 years ago

Execellent article, and Texas is a confederate state, they still fly the Confederate Flag. You bring out true facts. The confederates were world conquerors, way up in Alaska, making a deal for oil. The 13 states that were the confederates, still celebrate Confederate Day. The South lost all of their money and were not happy!


vijaylvs 6 years ago

What a knowledgeable article it is! It serve the students as online education.


Mac Mission profile image

Mac Mission 6 years ago from bangalore

Nice really nice ....


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Very Interesting. Good hub.

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