The Guardian • Issue #2058

Costly friendship: Australia and the US Civil War

US soldier in Shoalwater Bay during Talisman Sabre 2011.

US soldier in Shoalwater Bay during Talisman Sabre 2011. Photo: Michele Desrochers – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0).

With the AUKUS agreement, the United States military build-up in Australia and the upcoming Exercise Talisman Sabre war games, between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the US military, it is worth considering the long history between our two countries. It is a relationship that has been friendly and at times fraught with conflict, when Australia did not come out on top faced against our far superior military partner.

The first Americans came to Australia in 1770, as crewmen on Captain James Cook’s Endeavour. The colony of New South Wales soon developed trade links with North America, before the 1776 War of Independence strained the friendship. Since then, Australia and the USA have had a long-intertwined history, from American whalers using the colonies for resupplies, to Americans coming to Australia during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Australians even fought and died in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865).

By 1901, the year of Federation, there were 7448 US-born citizens living in Australia. Many American-Australians worked in the labour movement, helping to form trade unions and the Australian Labor Party, hence the American spelling of “Labor.” In 2018, Australia and the US celebrated the 100th “Anniversary of Mateship,” commemorating fighting side by side at the Battle of Hamel, France.

Many Australians have American ancestors and still maintain connections across the Pacific. During the Civil War my distant cousin, William Pavey, left Melbourne to join a New York army regiment and died in North Virginia. In the 1870s, my mother’s family, the Sargents, migrated from New York to settle in Melbourne, the colony of Victoria.

The Confederate raider CCS Shenandoah, an iron-rigged, teak planked screw steamer, arrived in Hobson’s Bay, Melbourne, on 25th January 1865, 15,000 kilometres from the Confederate States. Queen Victoria had proclaimed the Confederacy a power “belligerent” to Britain, though officially the Australian colonies were neutral in the war. Neutrality meant that the colony could not provide aid and support to either side. Commander James Waddell, from North Carolina, had received orders to load coal in Melbourne and then head to the Pacific whaling grounds. Whale oil was used in lighthouses, making it militarily useful. The ship’s eight heavy guns with a 5 km range could have bombarded the capital, if the colony had refused assistance.

A large number of Victorians strongly sympathised with these Confederate visitors. Leigh Goodall, former chairman of the Williamstown Maritime Association, found that many of those “cheering the rebels were sent out here in chains or in forced labour. Many were Irish. They obviously hated the Brits at the time and were therefore on the side of the rebels.” Ship surgeon Charles Lining wrote in his journal: “Steamer, tug-boat, yacht – all Melbourne, in fact, with its 180,000 souls seemed to have outdone itself in welcome to the Confederates.” The officers showed over 7000 visitors over the ship, such that there was “standing room only” on deck. The crew was besieged by invitations to socialise and entertain, with Ballarat, the site of the 1854 Eureka Stockade rebellion, welcoming them as heroes.

The US consul to the colony, William Blanchard, convinced that the Shenandoah was a pirate ship, asked the colonial governor, Charles Darling, to seize the ship and arrest the crew. Instead, Governor Darling granted Waddell permission to make repairs at the Williamstown dry dock. The US consul learned that Waddell had recruited at least 20 men, in violation of England’s neutrality law. On 14th February, 200 policemen and 50 soldiers were dispatched to search the ship. When Waddell refused the search, Governor Darling demanded that the ship leave port immediately.

The Shenandoah sailed out of Port Phillip Bay four days later. On board were fresh supplies, coal and 42 men who had signed on to the Confederate cause. The steamer sailed to the whaling grounds in the Bering Sea, near Alaska, where there were 48 US whalers. The Shenandoah captured twenty. On 3rd August 1865, Waddell learned of the war’s end from the Liverpool barque Barracouta, making the Shenandoah the last Confederate ship to fight in the Civil War.

In 1872, an international court ordered Britain to pay £2 million pounds in damages to America for “improperly allowing” the CSS Shenandoah to increase her crew and gain coal supplies. The British colony of Victoria paid the war debt, a fortune at the time.

Barry Crompton of the American Civil War Round Table in Australia argues that the Shenandoah had a huge impact on Victoria. “Melbourne scaled-up its defences because of the Shenandoah. Cannons were installed in 1867 on the shore line and an ultra-modern ship was commissioned to represent Victoria’s sea power.” The two-turreted ironclad Cerberus patrolled Port Phillip Bay from 1870. Its wreck can be seen, and swum around today from Black Rock in Melbourne

This largely forgotten incident remains a sharp reminder of how the US treated Australia in the past. Today Australia still has very limited bargaining power with the military juggernaut. Being a partner in its anti-China stand can only end in disaster. The US military is using Australia as a depot for its nuclear submarines, a technology beyond our technical capacity. Can we risk Australia’s future by being a lackey to US governments?

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