Prince Greer: Slave, Freedman, and Entrepreneur

Prince Greer

One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.

Slaves burying the Union dead at Antietam

What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.[1]

One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer.  He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee.  Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor.  Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted.  Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward.  He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.[2]

William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms.  He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia.  He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:

                        I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and   employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the  Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates.  I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché.  The latter  had his head shot clear off.  I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time.  After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.[3]

Staged Union embalming enterprise

The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington.[4] Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:

Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself  became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it.  It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone.  He was always careful, always . . .  coming to me in a                         difficult case.  He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.[5]

Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.[6]

Horses & Carriages in front of C. W. Franklin Funeral Home

The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.



[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


Fortress Washington, Part II

Barton S. Alexander

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Steve T. Phan to continue his discussion of Fortress Washington. You can find his first post here.

In the late afternoon of July 21, 1861, Captain Barton S. Alexander, U.S. Army Engineers, described the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia’s fight along banks of Bull Run in a message to the War Department in Washington D.C. The future chief engineer of the Department of Washington’s communique was concise and alarming:

General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centreville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army. All available troops ought to be thrown forward in one body. General McDowell is doing all he can to cover the retreat. Colonel (Dixon S.) Miles is forming for that purpose. He was in reserve at Centreville. The routed troops will not reform.[1]

The disquieting report stirred the War Department into action. Ever the stalwart, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott responded to the Federal defeat with the steadiness and bearing expected of a fifty-year military veteran. He dispatched reinforcements to the front and called upon support in the immediate region, notably Baltimore, the Shenandoah Valley, and Pennsylvania. When Brigadier General Irvin McDowell informed Scott that he intended to make a stand with the remnants of his army near Centreville, Scott supported with reinforcements from Alexandria. McDowell’s stand was short. The beleaguered field commander, advised by the commanding general to “return to the line of the Potomac,” moved the army ingloriously back to the confines of the city.[2] Despite the serious threat of a Confederate incursion, the Union infantry continued to comprise the frontline defenses of the capital but not for long. The die had been cast before McDowell’s army on Henry House Hill.

General Winfield Scott

Prior to their fight along the banks of Bull Run Creek, McDowell’s raw soldiers initiated the construction of fortifications after crossing the Potomac south into Virginia in late May and early June 1861. Following the bombardment Fort Sumter and subsequent call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the War Department strained to shift the war machine into full motion. The timely arrival of reinforcements, both regular and volunteer regiments, secured the capital.

General Scott then looked to his native state before issuing his next decree. Virginia’s protracted debate over adopting an ordnance of secession delayed any concerted forward movement by the US Army. Scott nonetheless prepared for the worst. He ordered a reconnaissance of the ground directly around the city in preparations for an advance. The task fell to the Department of Washington’s commander, Colonel Joseph K. Mansfield.

A grizzled old army veteran of nearly forty years, Mansfield took command of the department in the final days of April 1861. In his May 3 report to the general-in-chief, Mansfield dutifully noted that the ground east of Washington overseeing the Naval Yard across the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River) “can readily be fortified at any time by a system of redoubts encircling the city.”[3] He was confident ample troops in the city could be directed in that direction.

The issue, Mansfield contended, was the direct threat to Washington (Georgetown and the Federal city) from the Virginia shoreline. The heart of the government—the White House, Capital building, departments, arsenal, and aqueduct—was a mere “two and a half miles across the river from Arlington high ground, where a battery of bombs and heavy guns, if established, could destroy the city with comparatively a small force after destroying the bridges.”[4] In order to prevent the city’s “bombardment at the will of an enemy,”[5] Mansfield proposed that the army seize the initiative. He recommended “that the heights above mentioned be seized and secured by at least two strong redoubts, one commanding Long Bridge and the other the Aqueduct Bridge, and that a body of men be there encamped to sustain the redoubts and give battle to the enemy if necessary.”[6]

Mansfield as a Maj. Gen. in the Civil War.

The soon-to-be brigadier general realized such a move might “create much excitement in Virginia,” but there could be no greater cause of tension than an enemy occupation and bombardment of Washington across the Potomac.[7] Mansfield ended the report by informing Scott that his engineers, most notably his chief, Major John G. Barnard, were “maturing plans and reconnoitering further.”[8] The department commander consulted heavily with Barnard, whose services were critical to the development of the Defenses of Washington in the coming weeks.

The army moved swiftly after Virginia’s vote for secession on 23 May 1861. The next day, General McDowell’s forces crossed the Potomac and occupied Arlington Heights and Alexandria to the south without a fight. McDowell assumed formal command of occupational forces in Alexandria four days after its fall. He reported to headquarters that, despite “a want of tools” and transportation to move troops at the Alexandria wharf to the hills overlooking the city, “defensive works [were] under construction.”[9]

The hills were fortified to secure the army’s occupation of the city. The army also begun erecting two major forts. The first “main work cover[ed] the Aqueduct and ferry opposite Georgetown,” which “was in a fair state,” stated McDowell.[10] Soldiers of the famed 69th New York Infantry constructed the strategic work that protected both Aqueduct Bridge and Mason’s Island (present day Theodore Roosevelt Island). As common practice, the men named the fort in honor of their commander, Colonel Michael Corcoran.

To the southeast, Federal troops constructed the largest defensive earthwork in the Defenses of Washington: Fort Runyon. Brigadier General Theodore Runyon of the New Jersey militia commanded a division in McDowell’s army, and his men wasted no time breaking ground on the fort. Once fully completed, Runyon’s pentagonal perimeter measured 1,500 yards, mounted 21 guns, and was garrisoned by nearly 2,000 men. It strategically guarded the south approach to Long Bridge, directly linked to the Federal city, and was positioned at the Columbia Pike and Alexandria Pike crossroads.

A sketch of Fort Runyon, guarding the road to Alexandria, occupied by the Twenty-first Regiment, New York Volunteers, August 1861.

More works were added to complement the original two: Fort Ellsworth due west of Alexandria and Fort Albany, built to protect Runyon’s vulnerable flank along the Columbia Pike. These foundational sites were erected to secure Federal presence in Northern Virginia, providing a springboard for the army’s offensive operations against Confederate forces reported to be operating to the southeast. If necessary, they provided a fallback and rallying point if McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia happened to be driven back to the gates of Washington. Following the army’s ill-fated baptism of fire at Manassas two months later, soldiers converted these temporary positions into permanent, fortified structures.

The preliminary Defenses of Washington provided a formidable fall back and concentration point for McDowell’s dispirited army. Upon hearing disastrous reports of the army’s defeat, headquarters ordered General Mansfield at 2:30 am on July 22 to “man all the forts and prevent soldiers from passing over to the city” to prevent widespread panic.[11] The high command believed Mansfield “need[ed] every man in the forts to save the city.”[12] Their sentiment was well-placed.

Colonel William T. Sherman reported to headquarters later that morning that the army suffered “a terrible defeat and has degenerated into an armed mob.”[13] To reform the broken command, he proposed “to strengthen the garrisons of Fort Corcoran, Fort Bennett, the redoubt on Arlington road, and the block-houses.” The brigade commander was supported by McDowell, who formally requested further reinforcements to maintain his position south of the Potomac. Three artillery companies of Regulars manned earthworks while additional troops were needed to garrison Fort Corcoran.

A map of forts near Alexandria, including Fort Ellsworth

General Scott responded to his commanders’ requests accordingly. He called upon the reserve division at Alexandria under Runyon to enhance the defenses, with instructions to consult engineers and “strengthen the garrisons of Forts Ellsworth, Runyon, and Albany.”[14] Another fifteen infantry regiments accompanied by artillery attachments were directed across the river. The general-in-chief then ordered a general withdrawal of “all the remaining troops and all the wagons and teams not absolutely needed”[15] by McDowell to the army’s camps around Washington, “protected by the forts.”[16] The army’s resolute determination to secure the capital after the battle appeared to have stymied any serious threat from the victorious enemy. Simon Cameron was convinced. On the same day of Sherman’s grim report, the Secretary of War declared to Republican colleagues that the “works on the south bank of Potomac are impregnable, being well manned with re-enforcements. The capital is safe.”[17]

General Scott was confident of the city’s safety but needed assistance to reinvigorate the army. Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant-General U.S. Army, carried orders for Major General George B. McClellan one day after Manassas that circumstances in Washington made his “presence necessary.”[18] The rising star, fresh from victories in western Virginia, dutifully turned over command of his forces and proceeded directly to his new station. On July 25, McClellan assumed formal command of “Division of the Potomac, comprising the Military Department of Washington and Northeastern Virginia. Headquarters for the present at Washington.”[19] The young general’s ascendance marked a momentous transformation in the evolution of the Defenses of Washington. McClellan’s guidance determined the shape of Fortress Washington and other critical defenses of the capital.

Steve T. Phan is a historian and park ranger for the National Park Service (Civil War Defenses of Washington). He received his MA in history at Middle Tennessee State University, BA in history at the University of Northern Colorado and participated in the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College.


     [1] The War of The Rebellion: Original Records of the Civil War (Columbus: Ohio State University); digitized from original, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (70 vols. in 128 parts; Washington, 1880–1901), Serial 002, Chapter IX, 747, accessed; hereinafter cited as Official Records.

     [2] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 747.

     [3] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 618.

     [4] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 618-19.

     [5] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [6] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [7] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [8] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [9] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 653.

     [10] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 653.

     [11] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 754-55.

     [12] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [13] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [14] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 753.

     [15] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [16] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 754.

     [17] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 756.

     [18] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 753.

     [19] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 766.

An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.


[2] Ibid.

Symposium Spotlight: Edward Alexander

One of our afternoon speakers for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium is Edward Alexander. Our Symposium Spotlight introduces us to this presenter as well as his topic, Grant Crosses the James.Certainly there were turning points during the war that occurred off the battlefield. Returning to a political turning point, this week’s Symposium Spotlight features Rea Andrew Redd and his preview of the 1864 election. If you still have not purchased your tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, they are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.

Confederate resistance brought the Union army’s promising Overland campaign to a bloody stalemate at Cold Harbor in the first week of June 1864. Ulysses S. Grant nevertheless decided to continue his offensive and crossed the mighty James River to focus on Petersburg, even though that meant the unpopular reality of turning his back on the Confederate capital at Richmond. Grant’s stubborn determination forced Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into a defensive posture where the audacious Confederate commander was stuck. Though poor leadership doomed the initial assaults on Petersburg, Grant’s logistical advantage placed northern forces into positions from which they would ultimately win the war.

Edward Alexander

Edward Alexander is author of Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865. He has worked at as park ranger and historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park and Pamplin Historical Park and is on the board of the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation. He is a contributor and former board member of Emerging Civil War and is editor and cartographer of the Emerging Civil War Digital Shorts. Edward has a bachelor of arts degree in history from the University of Illinois and currently resides in Richmond, Virginia.

Confederates Invade San Francisco?

NH 66710 Commander James Iredell Waddell, CSN

James I. Waddell

Shortly before his death in 1886, James I. Waddell, former captain of the CSS Shenandoah, wrote in his memoirs: “I had matured plans for entering the harbor of San Francisco and laying that city under contribution.”[i]

Waddell never did pass through the Golden Gate, but he came close. He and his ship were notoriously hated in the city by the bay; San Franciscans tried and partially succeeded in exacting revenge.

Shenandoah was one of the most successful of Confederate commerce raiders, the only one to circumnavigate the globe. While the war struggled to conclusion and the nation began to bind its wounds, these Rebels invaded the north—the deep cold of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia—and captured 26 Yankee whalers. It was June 1865.

They fired the last gun of the Civil War, ten weeks after Appomattox, set the land of the midnight sun aglow with flaming enemy vessels, and almost became trapped by ice. This was an unprecedented accomplishment that a few months before would have been greeted with jubilation in the South and despair in the North. Waddell crammed all the hundreds of men from the destroyed ships onto four of the oldest and slowest whalers and sent them off to San Francisco.

Confederates also captured newspapers from San Francisco via Hawaii dating as late as the previous April 17, informing them of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination. The Southern government had fled Richmond said some papers, but others stated that Lee had joined General Johnston in North Carolina for an indecisive battle against General Sherman.

The news also carried an impassioned proclamation by President Davis—issued on the run from Danville, Virginia—announcing that the war would be carried on with renewed vigor and exhorting his people to bear up heroically. Months later and half a world away, Shenandoah Rebels took this to heart. They were very worried, but not about to believe all the Yankee propaganda, that their cause was lost, and their sacrifices for naught.

First Lieutenant William Whittle had anticipated the loss of Charleston and Savannah, and even the evacuation of Richmond once Wilmington was gone, but not Lee’s reported surrender. “All this last I put down as false….  I do not believe one single word.” Ship’s Surgeon, Dr. Charles Lining: “I was knocked flat aback. Can I believe it? And after the official letters which are published as being written by Grant & Lee, can I help believing it?”[ii]

Shenandoah Painting

CSS Shenandoah pursuing and burning whalers.

By mid-July, Shenandoah was finally headed south, bowling along eight hundred miles out in the Pacific near the latitude of San Francisco. The captured newspapers had reported only one warship present in the bay: the USS Comanche, a Passaic-class monitor armed with two powerful XV-inch Dahlgren smoothbores.

Comanche had been constructed in New Jersey, disassembled, shipped around the Horn in a sailing ship, and reassembled. She was the only ironclad on the coast. The remainder of the sparse Pacific Squadron was spread up and down the rim of Central and South America, primarily protecting the approaches to Panama. In his memoirs, Waddell described his plans.


USS Comanche, 1864 (LOC)

Comanche was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Charles J. McDougal, an “old, familiar shipmate” of Waddell from before the war. McDougal was “fond of his ease.” He was no match for any Shenandoah officer “in activity and will.”

It would be easy enough, continued Waddell, to enter the harbor at night, ram a surprised Comanche, overwhelm her decks and hatches with armed borders, and take control without loss of life. “E’er daylight came, both batteries could have been sprung on the city and my demands enforced.”[iii]

The practicality of such a scheme can be seriously doubted; San Franciscans were not known for shyness in the face of a good fight. But whatever Shenandoah’s captain was thinking at the time about invading the city, he apparently did not share these ideas with his officers. Other than the final writings of an ageing warrior, this plot is nowhere mentioned in contemporary sources, including several detailed officer cruise journals, letters, memoirs, and Waddell’s own extensive, immediately post-war report.

Waddell did claim in his post-war report an intention to run along the coast with the north wind sweeping down Lower California, keeping a sharp lookout for enemy cruisers and for gold packets on the Panama to San Francisco run. Some of his officers were itching to take a fat clipper on its way to or from the Orient.

However, as Midshipman Mason confided to his journal, Shenandoah’s actual course took them too far off the coast to meet mail steamers and nowhere near the San Francisco to Hawaii and China trade routes. Waddell seemed determined to get around the tip of South America as quickly as possible without seeking more captures, which would be just a matter of luck along this track. “The skipper of course must know best, but I think we might make the attempt.”[iv]

The denizens of San Francisco, meanwhile, were very aware and acutely worried about the Rebel raider, but they had no idea where in the wide ocean she was. They had heard nothing since Shenandoah’s visit to Melbourne six months previously.

Then on July 20, the old whaler Milo staggered through the Golden Gate with two hundred refugees from the Bering Sea. “Wholesale Destruction of American Whalers,” trumpeted the San Francisco Bulletin. “Probable Destruction of Another Fleet of Sixty Whalers.” “The most extensive and wholesale destruction of American shipping yet committed by any rebel pirate since the beginning of the war.”

Golden Gate 1865

Union soldiers at West Battery, Point San Jose military reservation, (now Fort Mason) overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate strait. (photo circa 1865) (

“Great apprehensions felt by mercantile community of San Francisco,” reported the commandant of the Mare Island Navy Yard to Navy Secretary Welles. Merchant ship owners and underwriters requested authority to charter, arm, and man the fast Pacific Mail Company steamer Colorado–the only available vessel capable of catching the swift Rebel–to pursue Shenandoah. (They would receive the authority a month too late.)[v]

On July 22, the Sacramento Daily Union reported a conversation in a bar with sailors of the American bark Mustang, which had recently returned from Melbourne. On a quiet night the previous February, Shenandoah had been lying placidly at anchor in the dark Australian harbor.

These sailors had, so they said, rowed a boat silently over to the Rebel vessel until the huge black hull, towering masts, and tracery of rigging loomed above, blotting out shore lights. At the end of a line behind the boat floated a cask containing 250 pounds of black powder with a cocked revolver and cord attached.

Only occasional soft voices and steps of the watch on deck disturbed the sleeping vessel. The intruders secured the cask to the hull with a chain and rowed away, intending to pull the cord and detonate the deadly device from a distance. But the chain broke, aborting the operation.

Had this attempt to blow up the warship with a “torpedo” succeeded, the irony would have been manifest as one of the Confederacy’s most innovative weapons was turned against it. Given Shenandoah’s high state of alert at the time against just such dangers, one can question that the affair occurred exactly as related. But the sentiment was genuine and this or something like it must have been contemplated by more than one group of enraged Yankees.[vi]

On August 2, Shenandoah encountered the English bark Barracouta, thirteen days from San Francisco bound for Liverpool with newspapers only two weeks old confirming that their country had been overrun, president captured, armies and navy surrendered, the people subjugated. “The darkest day of my life,” wrote Lieutenant Whittle in his journal. “The past is gone for naught—the future is dark as the blackest night. Oh! God protect and comfort us I pray.”[vii]

Waddell struck the guns below, assumed the guise of an unarmed merchantman, and began a long run around the Horn. November 6, 1865: Shenandoah limped into Liverpool. Captain Waddell lowered the last Confederate banner without defeat or surrender and abandoned his tired vessel to the British.

Hatred for James Waddell in San Francisco lingered long after the war. By 1875, he had resumed full American citizenship and was engaged by the same Pacific Mail Company to command its newest liner, the 4,000-ton steamer City of San Francisco on its maiden voyage from that city to Sydney via Honolulu.

San Francisco papers carried angry editorials decrying the potential presence of a Confederate marauder in the city. Mobs of whalemen threatened violence over losses suffered a decade earlier. Amidst the uproar, City of San Francisco sailed with a substitute captain. Waddell assumed command on a later voyage.

James Waddell and the people of San Francisco were not fated to meet either as enemies or as countrymen, but they certainly influenced each other.

[i] James D. Horan, ed., C.S.S. Shenandoah: The Memoirs of Lieutenant Commanding James I. Waddell (New York: Crown Publishers, 1960), 175.

[ii] Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 170.

[iii] Horan, ed., C.S.S. Shenandoah, 175.

[iv] Hughes, A Confederate Biography, 185-186.

[v] McDougal to Welles, July 23, 1865, in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 3, 1:571.

[vi] “Sacramento Daily Union,” Volume 29, Number 4472, July 22, 1865.

[vii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 182.

Symposium Spotlight: Doug Crenshaw

There is little question of Robert E. Lee’s impact on the Confederate war effort. As we welcome you back to yet another installment of the 2018 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight, preview Doug Crenshaw’s talk The Rise of Lee: Richmond 1862. If you have not purchased your tickets for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium, you can find them, and all information about the symposium, here.

In late May 1862 the Confederacy seemed on the brink of defeat. Numerous strategic setbacks in the West were combined with the loss of most of the North Carolina coast and a significant portion of Virginia. George McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac was at the very gates of Richmond, and he planned to bring up heavy siege artillery to drive the Confederates from the capital. This would be a catastrophic loss, as Richmond was not only the seat of government, but was also a major manufacturing center. However, in a short span of time McClellan would retreat to the James River and the Confederates would be on the offensive. While this was a major turning point in the war, it was not the only one resulting from the Seven Days Campaign. Come and join Doug Crenshaw as we walk through this amazing period.  

Doug Crenshaw

Doug Crenshaw studied history at Randolph-Macon College and the University of Richmond. A volunteer for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, he is a member of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable, and is a speaker, presenter and tour leader. His book, Fort Harrison and The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, was nominated in the nonfiction category for a Library of Virginia Literary award. Doug has also written The Battle of Glendale: Robert E. Lee’s Lost Opportunity, and It Shall Not Be Given Up!  a survey and tour of the Seven Days campaign. He is currently working with Drew Gruber on a similar book on the Peninsula Campaign for the Emerging Civil War series.