If you ask a Virginian where and when the Civil War ended, she’d likely tell you about Appomattox Courthouse and General Lee’s surrender. If you ask a Mississippian the same question, however, you’d likely hear that the War Between the States ended the day that native son Jefferson Davis was captured. And if you ask a Texan, he’ll likely tell you --- at length --- that the last battle of the Civil War took place in Texas, down in the Rio Grande Valley and that the Confederates, under Major “Rip” Ford, whipped the Union forces at Palmito Ranch.
But it’s not likely that anyone, North or South, would tell you that the last shot of the Civil War was fired in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of present-day Alaska. It’s all too unlikely. Alaska wasn’t even American territory at the time --- “Seward’s Folly” wouldn’t be negotiated until after the war. The idea that a Confederate naval craft would even be in that part of the world at that time sounds more like a particularly imaginative “alternate history” novel than a real part of our history.
The unlikely --- but real --- story of the CSS Shenandoah is the subject matter of LAST FLAG DOWN by John Baldwin and Ron Powers. Baldwin is the descendant of Confederate naval officer William Conway Whittle, executive officer aboard the Shenandoah. Powers is the co-author of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, a retelling of the Battle of Iwo Jima. And while the fighting aboard the Shenandoah isn’t anywhere near as intense, the storytelling is still sharp.
LAST FLAG DOWN starts in England, where the government is officially neutral to both North and South, but still desirous that the Union blockade of Confederate ports be broken so that Southern cotton can make its way to English mills. Accordingly, the Crown clandestinely transferred several merchant ships to the Confederacy to serve as raiders on Union commerce.
One of these ships, a fast “tea clipper” named Sea King, was rechristened the CSS Shenandoah in October 1864, off the coast of the Azores. From there, it circled the globe, seeking to wreak havoc on the Northern economy by sinking or burning its seagoing commerce.
The voyage of the Shenandoah might have vanished from the historical consciousness if it were not for a diary kept by Lieutenant Whittle, a young man who combined an instinctive gift for naval tactics with the high-flown romantic literary stylings common in the period. Baldwin and Powers crib liberally from Whittle’s log, which is marked by mooning over an absent love, concern for family and friends facing the privations of war, and hatred of the implacable Yankee enemy. Whittle is an engaging character, blessed with the sort of initiative that makes for great naval action. But as he --- and the reader --- will soon learn to regret, he is not the commanding officer.
The commander of the CSS Shenandoah was one Lieutenant James Waddell, and as LAST FLAG DOWN makes its way through the Atlantic and the Pacific, the conflict between North and South begins to take second place to the conflict between Whittle and Waddell. It is Waddell who directs the ship to go after whaling ships in the North Pacific, leaving the rambunctious Whittle to chafe below decks as the long journey passes.
Unsurprisingly, Baldwin and Powers take Whittle’s side, ascribing dark psychological motivations to Waddell’s conduct. If the authors’ narrative is biased towards Whittle’s side of the conflict, it is certainly understandable. What is more difficult to grasp is that they seem to have contracted a good bit of Whittle’s unbounded enthusiasm for the Confederate cause, as well as no small part of his over-the-top writing style. While Southern readers will gloss over the authors’ frequent references to “The Cause” --- or, Providence help us, “The Lost Cause” --- those more sympathetic to the Union point of view should expect the occasional wince.
But anyone seriously interested in the naval history of the Civil War, or just a good sea story, will fall on this book with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Harry Truman once said that the only thing "new in the world is the history you don’t know." LAST FLAG DOWN is a story that almost nobody knows, and has all the virtues of newness and originality.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 30, 2010