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A Confederate ship in Melbourne: The Shenandoah’s last voyage

Evidence suggests Dabney Scales was a prolific journal writer, and certainly an avid reader, as his journal consistently reveals. Scales had kept journals after his training at the American naval academy in Annapolis, and subsequently after joining the Confederate navy and being stationed in England and France over 1863–64 while awaiting a naval posting.

His later career included time in Mexico, involvement in the Spanish-American War, and a career in law in Memphis, Tennessee, before involvement in politics with his election to the Tennessee State Assembly in 1895. Some papers survive from this later period but not all his journals.

At 144 pages and nearly 40,000 words his Shenandoah journal makes for fascinating reading. A slightly soiled, buff-coloured foolscap journal on lined paper, in remarkable condition after 150 years and a circumnavigation of the globe, the journal begins one month after the Shenandoah has departed Melbourne and in a true writer’s fashion he explains why:

March 23d. 1865 — At Sea — South Pacific Lat 5 °43’ S Long 175°40’ E. My last blank book (containing my journal from 1864 to 13th Feb 1865) gave out today, and as I had no other, Grimball kindly offered me this one, captured with the Yankee whaling bark Edwards, off Tristan da Cunha, on the day following the last date on the other page. At present I am very much behind with my journal, and am now copying from notes made at Melbourne. The last page of my other volume leaves the ship on the patent slip at Williamstown, near Melbourne, Australia —

Thus the journal begins (the previous volume not surviving) with Dabney Scales documenting the Shenandoah’s last five days in Melbourne from 13 February until its departure on 18 February 1865. Scales has a sense of humour and titles this new journal the ‘Confederate States Ship Shenandoah, cruising for Yankees’, echoing the previous log page of the whaling ship Edwards and its page title entries ‘The log of the barque Edwards, cruising for right whales’.

Departing Melbourne
The Shenandoah departed Melbourne on 18 February, heading for the Pacific. The ship’s complement had been illegally enhanced by over 40 Melbourne stowaways they had concealed before she left port, and it was a sufficient number of able seamen to enable the Shenandoah to operate effectively in the long voyage ahead.

By 29 June the Shenandoah had reached the Arctic Ocean and Bering Straits battling with floating ice and biting cold. On 2 August the crew learnt from an English ship they had pursued that the Confederate States no longer existed. The news plunged Scales near to despair and occupied his thoughts and reflections about the future. In the hastily convened officers and crew conference that followed it was decided by the Captain to make for the nearest English port, and for the next three months the Shenandoah headed towards Liverpool. The final voyage of the CSS Shenandoah was a remarkable feat.

Its stopover in Melbourne for repairs and the gaining of additional crew enabled the vessel to continue its raiding mission and lay claim to the firing of the last shot of the American Civil War in pursuit of the Union whaling fleet and its oil, so vital to the industrial state. That technically the continuation of its mission was an act of piracy was legally debated and finally arbitrated through the combined Alabama Claims and settlement at Geneva in Switzerland in 1871.

The Shenandoah arrived in Liverpool on 6 November 1865, hoisting the Confederate flag as they sailed into the Mersey River off Liverpool, then lowering the flag, and so performing the last act of the American Civil War. Lieutenant Dabney Scales’ reflections on his voyage, on the many indigenous peoples he encountered, and the events that took place over 10 months at sea constitute a unique and enduring record of both his and the Shenandoah’s time in Melbourne, their voyage through the Pacific, and nautical feat of circumnavigating the globe in a time of war.

Help SLV secure this unique diary

State Library Victoria is asking for the public for donations to help purchase Lieutenant Dabney Scales’ unique diary.

The CSS Shenandoah at work capturing Union ships. Courtesy SLVIC, ID IAN23/02/66/1.
The CSS Shenandoah at work capturing Union ships. Courtesy SLVIC, ID IAN23/02/66/1.

Read the full story of the Shenandoah‘s voyage – from a diplomatic tussle on-board in Melbourne to Scales’ account of the destruction of Union vessels in the Pacific – in the Winter 2016 edition of Inside History magazine, out now.


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