The Confederate States of America tottered to its political and military demise during the spring and summer months of 1865. The South’s economy was in shambles, two-thirds of its wealth was disappearing, mostly in the value of slaves. Inflation had become a major economic problem primarily due to the Confederacy’s dependence on printed currency. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worth only 1.5 cents in gold.
During its short existence, the Confederate government had been able to raise a sizable military force, numbering 460,000 at its height. In total, more than a million men served in the Confederate armed forces. Desertions, however, increased rapidly as the Confederacy suffered military defeats and lost territory. During the final months of the war, many of its armies literally melted away.
Driven out of the Richmond defense lines, Gen. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Gen. Johnston surrendered the forces under his command in North Carolina on April 26. The troops commanded by Gen. Richard Taylor in Alabama, Mississippi and eastern Louisiana laid down their arms on May 4. The forces under Gen. Kirby Smith in the trans-Mississippi region surrendered on May 26. Out the Indian Territory, Gen. Stand Wati (also the chief of the Cherokee Nation) waited until June 23 to call it quits. The fleeing Confederate government went out of existence when President Jefferson Davis and other officials were captured in Georgia during May.
The last Confederate flag was struck on November 6, 1865 when the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah capitulated in Liverpool, England. A product of the Confederate naval effort to have ships built in England and France, the Shenandoah was one of the vessels that managed to elude the U.S. government’s diplomatic and other efforts to thwart the program. Commissioned in October 1864, the ship had a retractable smokestack and a propeller that could be raised into the hull when under sail.
The heavily armed Shenandoah’s mission was to “seek out and destroy commerce in areas yet undisturbed.” As it hunted for U.S. merchant ships, it became the only Confederate warship to circumnavigate the globe. During her sea travels, the Shenandoah captured 38 ships, sinking 32 of them. She took 1,053 seamen as prisoners. No lives were lost in combat, the Shenandoah never fought an engagement with any of the U.S. warships hunting for her.
Uncertain that the war had ended, in May and June 1865, the Shenandoah inflicted a massive amount of damage to the New England whaling fleet operating in the Bearing Sea. The losses to the whaling fleet came at a time when kerosene was beginning to replace sperm whale oil as an illuminant. The New England whaling fleet had peaked at 199 ships in 1858. By 1860, it had dropped to 167 ships. Due to the losses inflicted by the Shenandoah and the slackening demand for whale oil, after the war in 1866, only 105 ships went to sea. The fleet continued to dwindle, down to 39 ships in 1876 as kerosene steadily took over the lighting market.
In August 1865 off the California coast near San Francisco, a passing British vessel told the Shenandoah’s crew that the war was definitely over. The Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, feared being charged with piracy if he sailed into an American port or was captured by the U.S. Navy. Wishing to avoid the risk, he decided to return to England. After blandly accepting the ship’s surrender, the British released the crew after they were summarily cleared of suspicion of piracy charges. After some delay, the Shenandoah was handed over to U.S. authorities. After an attempt to return the ship to the states failed in bad weather, it was eventually sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar.
During the war, Confederate commerce raiders destroyed 257 ships and whalers, triggering a shift in the national makeup of the ships serving American ports. In 1860, two-thirds of the vessels transporting cargo to the port of New York were American. By 1863, when the losses from Confederate commerce raiders had caused insurance rates to jump, 75% of goods moved on foreign vessels. By the end of the war, 715 American merchant ships had sought the safety of neutrality by switching to British registration. Although Confederate sea raiding had its psychological effects, it didn’t do a great deal to impede the Union war effort. It did ensure that Britain would dominate oceangoing commerce for many years.