James Iredell Waddell (1824-1886)

Written By Andrew Duppstadt

Many North Carolinians influenced the course of the American Civil War, but none so uniquely as did James Iredell Waddell.  One of the most successful Confederate commerce raiders, much like Raphael Semmes and John Taylor Wood, Waddell spent much of the conflict overseas and left a controversial legacy behind.

From his earliest days, the native North Carolinian seemed destined to have a naval career.   James Iredell Waddell was born on July 13, 1824 in Pittsboro, North Carolina.  His grandparents adopted and raised him (the reason is unknown), and he attended Bingham’s School in Orange County.  Via the recommendation of respectable family friends, Waddell secured a Midshipman’s appointment in the U.S. Navy in September 1841.  Following his service on a number of vessels, he attended the Naval School (later the United States Naval Academy) in 1847 and received a lieutenant’s commission.  

He did not stay away from sailing the seas for long, however.  He returned to service for a South American tour, and after his return he was appointed Assistant Professor of Navigation at the Naval Academy.  He served two more tours at sea with the U.S. Navy.  While returning to the United States from his last tour in 1861, he attempted to resign his commission; though Waddell was not an ardent secessionist, he was unwilling to bear arms against his family and home state.  Rather than accept his resignation, the Navy dismissed Waddell in January 1862; knowing or suspecting that southern officers were resigning to cast their fortunes with the Confederacy, the Navy Department typically dismissed resigning officers, possibly as a way to disgrace them. 

As a Confederate naval officer, Waddell soon witnessed battle and was chosen to command an important vessel that was being built in England.  Secretary Stephen R. Mallory appointed Waddell as Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy in March 1862 and assigned him to the uncompleted ironclad CSS Mississippi.  He spent his first month in New Orleans.  During the Battle of New Orleans in April, Waddell burned and scuttled the vessel to prevent its capture.  Waddell then performed artillery shore battery duties at Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina.  In March 1863 the navy department sent him to England.  Due to the lack of shipbuilding materials and facilities in the South, the Confederate Navy hired private contractors in England to build its fleet.  To oversee contracts and be in command of the ships from day one, a number of Confederate naval officers and civilian authorities and their spouses, including Waddell and his wife, Ann Sellman Inglehart, resided in England.

Waddell’s chance to command came in October 1864, when Commodore Samuel Barron selected him to captain the CSS Shenandoah, originally a Scottish merchant steamer named Sea King.  In secret, the Confederate Navy purchased the vessel and put it to sea. At Madeira Island, off the coast of Portugal, it rendezvoused with another ship that carried Confederate officers, sailors, guns, and other equipment to outfit the Shenandoah as a warship.  It was commissioned on October 19.

Waddell docked the ironclad in the Melbourne, Australia harbor in January 1865 for repairs and provisions.  Its presence raised many questions regarding Australia’s neutrality.  The United States’ delegates and friends in the country tried in vain to have the ship retained and the officers and crew arrested.  Many of Melbourne’s elite, however, invited the officers into their homes and hosted galas in their honor.  Meanwhile, the addition of approximately forty so-called stowaways to the Shenandoah crew added to the controversy; international maritime law prohibited the recruitment of crew members while in a neutral port, and American officials had suspected that Confederate officer had recruited the so-called stowaways.  After three weeks in port, Waddell put the ship back out to sea to menace the United States’ North Pacific whaling fleet.  

After Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, Waddell continued fighting the United States.  Unaware that the war had ended, the Shenandoah and its crew captured twenty-four American vessels in late June before changing course to attack San Francisco.  Although the crew heard reports of the war’s end, Waddell did not receive a confirmed report until August 2.  The crew disarmed the ship and the officers decided to sail for England, hoping to receive favorable treatment from its government.  The Shenandoah, the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, arrived in Liverpool by early November.  The officers, including Waddell, turned themselves over to English authorities.  

Fearing prosecution by the United States government, many officers fled to South America, but Waddell and some remained in Europe after their release.  Waddell and his wife were both excluded from amnesty, and Waddell’s wife was imprisoned for a brief time by order of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  She was released only after she pledged to avoid contact with her husband.  Soon after docking in Liverpool, Waddell fell seriously ill and almost died.  Within two months he had recovered and continued residing near Liverpool.  His employment there remains a mystery.

Waddell returned to the United States in 1875 and continued his maritime career.  The Pacific Mail Line hired him to captain the steamer, City of San Francisco.  He returned to the east coast in the 1880s to work for the Maryland State Fishing Force to fight illegal oyster fishermen.  Waddell died at Annapolis, Maryland on March 15, 1886.  

Waddell’s legacy, and that of all Confederate commerce raiders, is controversial because the legality of commerce raiding is questionable.  Waddell’s career is especially notorious, for the Shenandoah continued battling the U.S. even after the war’s official end. For some, Waddell and his crew were pirates and traitors and should have been tried accordingly.  Others argue similar to the Shenandoah’s officers: the Confederate captain fulfilled a patriotic duty in mid-1865 with what knowledge he had.  No serious attempt was ever made to prosecute Waddell or any of his subordinates.