As the Confederacy felt itself slipping beneath the Union juggernaut in late 1864, the South launched a desperate counteroffensive to shatter the U.S. economy and force a standoff. Its secret weapon? A state-of-the-art raiding ship whose mission was to prowl the world’s oceans and sink the U.S. merchant fleet. The raider’s name was Shenandoah, and her executive officer was Conway Whittle, a twenty-four-year-old warrior who might have stepped from the pages of Arthurian legend. Whittle would share command with a dark and brooding veteran of the seas, Capt. James Waddell, and together with a crew of strays, misfits, and strangers, they would spend nearly a year sailing two-thirds of the way around the globe, destroying dozens of Union ships and taking more than a thousand prisoners, all while continually dodging the enemy.
Then, in August of 1865, a British ship revealed the shocking truth to the men of Shenandoah: The war had been over for months, and they were now being hunted as pirates.
What ensued was an incredible 15,000-mile journey to the one place the crew hoped to find sanctuary, only to discover that their fate would depend on how they answered a single question. Wondrously evocative and filled with drama and poignancy, Last Flag Down is a riveting story of courage, nobility, and rare comradeship forged in the quest to achieve the impossible.
From the Hardcover edition.
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John Baldwin, a relative of Conway Whittle, is a magazine writer, lecturer, and the author of two novels. At seventeen, Baldwin was apprenticed to the ship’s carpenter on a merchant vessel sailing the ports of Africa.
Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the author or coauthor of twelve previous books, among them the number one bestseller Flags of Our Fathers and the acclaimed biography Mark Twain, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Noble Cause bleeding to death, starving to death. The Northern aggressors with their dirty heels in the sacred ground of Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia; his generation largely in its graves, or soon to be. And here he was watching the empty horizon from a coal-laden merchant steamer off the coast of West Africa. Three decks below him, his crew bent to dismal duty, the drudgework of the high seas. They were securing the ship’s bunker coal—her fuel supply—and preparing her cargo, of yet more coal, for heavy weather. The description given to those sweating wretches who had to carry it out said it all: “coal heavers.”
A mundane cargo for this fine fast ship running now in front of the wind, racing for her life, almost due south, and almost diametrically away from the Confederate States of America. Within her, a cargo weighing almost as much as the ship itself and a valuable cargo indeed: 800 long tons of almost smokeless Welsh coal. A cargo so expensive its owners had sent a man on the voyage to look after it, to see it wasn’t pilfered for fuel, to see it was delivered as planned. A cargo almost as mundane as the young “coal agent’s” undercover alias: “George Brown.”
To be hauling coal, not Enfields, at this moment of the Confederacy’s most parlous plight: Atlanta, proud citadel of the Confederacy, lost to Sherman; Lee in the trenches at Richmond since June; Sheridan’s cavalry chasing Jubal Early’s ragged men up the Shenandoah Valley, burning the fields and barns and mills behind them.
Norfolk, Virginia, or those remnants that had not been burned, was now under martial law; indeed, the homes of “Brown’s” family, the Whittles, the Sinclairs, the Pages, those still standing, were occupied by Federal troops. The South that the young man had known as a glittering nation unto itself, a kingdom of honor and deep traditions, where family names reached back in time until they seemed to merge with the land itself—this Old South was now a scorched, bleeding thing, its armies ground up by the cold advancing Union machine. The war was in its brutal, inexorable end-game.
Sea King, since leaving London days ago, seemingly irrelevant to it all, had plodded toward the southern seas with a consignment of coal. Simply a modern merchantman going peacefully about its business.
Or so the slim boyish “George Brown—coal agent” had hoped any dangerous adversary in the vicinity of the London docks would believe— falsely. When he left the Thames on Sea King, he had staked his life, the life of a Confederate spy, on that risk. Any hostile interception, any “search and seizure” of that vessel and her stores, would have guaranteed his imprisonment, even death. But Sea King was gone now, reported lost, in reality sold to the Confederacy, renamed and reflagged.
“George Brown” had, for the first eleven days, risked only his own life, but now there were others, a new crew, and soon he would be risking these men’s lives as well. Any hostile interception of this once-peaceful vessel now would be an act of war.
And war was his profession.
He was in fact an experienced and dangerous warrior of the sea: Lt. William Conway Whittle, CSN. And this risk was only the first in a Homeric voyage that promised more, and ever more terrible, risks.
What a busy day these twenty-four hours have been. Thank God we have a fine set of men and officers, and, although we have an immense deal to contend with, we are industrious and alive to the emergency.
Just the sort of mild pleasantries (aside from that “emergency”) one might expect from the mind of a slightly built twenty-four-year-old with narrow, sloping shoulders; a high, almost scholarly forehead crowned by a severely combed pompadour; narrow-set, vaguely disapproving eyes; and a small mouth that gave no hint of the eloquent mind inside. He could have been a schoolmaster or an assistant bank clerk. But on this day—October 26, 1864—young Lieutenant Whittle commenced the log of an odyssey that would take its place among the most evocative testimonials produced by the Civil War.
Sea King’s cargo of coal had been a ruse. The emergency was real. The coal had been the final camouflage in a desperate, nonesuch skein of conspiracy conceived and carried out over many months by Whittle and senior agents of the Confederacy working discreetly in London and Paris late in the Civil War: a scheme to obtain this speedster of a ship—this Sea King—from the English merchant navy with the quiet consent of Queen Victoria herself; load up a cargo of the black, fumy stuff; and, keeping her disguised as a harmless freighter, ease her out of the harbor at London, down the Thames into the English Channel, and from there toward her destiny as a killer of Yankee vessels. She would be met by her Rebel crew and her supply of armaments somewhere on the open ocean, far from the prying eyes of Yankee spies. Sea King’s cover story was virtually airtight. There was only one tie to the Confederacy when she finally left England, in fact there was only one Rebel on board at all, and he was undercover: Lt. William Conway Whittle, CSN, also known as “Mr. Brown.”
Conway Whittle was an ideal figure for this mission. But for his youth and paucity of experience as a commanding officer, he might well have been tapped to command the raider. As it was, he’d been personally selected by top Confederate operatives in Europe to be the ship’s executive officer, second in rank only to the captain. On the heels of his dashing exploits as a blockade runner, Whittle had been secretly summoned to Paris in September 1864. There he met with Commodore Samuel Barron, a lifelong friend of Whittle’s father, Commodore W. C. Whittle, and one of young Lieutenant Whittle’s primary mentors. Commodore Barron was also one of the key figures in the Confederacy’s hopes to patch together a navy from a European base. Barron handed young Whittle a letter that contained his instructions. He was to make his way via Liverpool to London and check into the fashionable Wood’s Hotel under the “Brown” alias. On the Friday morning of October 7, carrying a newspaper and dressed in unobtrusive business attire, the young man was to take a seat in the hotel dining room, pull the corner of his napkin through a buttonhole in his jacket, and await a stranger who would ask him, “Is this Mr. Brown?”
This figure would be Richard Wright, an elderly Liverpool businessman who’d become wealthy through his investments in Southern cotton. It was Wright who had discreetly purchased the ship then known as Sea King and was in London to arrange its transfer to the Confederate Navy. After the Wood’s Hotel rendezvous, Wright took “Brown” toward the East India Dock, so that the younger man could get a covert glimpse of the exquisitely built black, three-masted extreme clipper he would board before dawn the next day. Then, in his final act as the ship’s owner, Wright took Whittle to a safe house where he introduced him to Capt. Peter S. Corbett, Sea King’s interim captain, and formally gave Corbett power of attorney to sell the ship at any time, to any suitable offer. As all three knew, it was an offer already accepted.
At 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, October 8, “Brown” performed the final act in the elaborate ruse concocted for him. He checked out of the hotel and headed for the waterfront, stumbling and reeling like a drunken man. At the dock, he gazed upward at Sea King’s bowsprit, then pretended to steady himself for what would appear to be any old besotted sailor’s last-minute return on board after a night of AWOL pub- crawling. No one moved to stop him. Still, rather than risk the conspicuous gangway, he crawled over Sea King’s low-slung hull near the forerigging. Within moments the ship cast off and began to idle her way down the Thames—the first small leg of a voyage that would take her around the world.
Sea King’s slow passage toward the Atlantic was excruciatingly hazardous, a gauntlet that could doom her at any moment. Both Yankee and Rebel spies (and counterspies) prowled the docks at London and Liverpool, the eyes and ears of both the embattled governments across the sea. From the first days of secession, the officially neutral Great Britain had been frantically courted by American diplomats from both the North and the South. Even at this late stage, her two great shipyards held the potential to turn the war one way or the other. Thus, hardly any ship moved in and out of either port city without scrutiny and rapidly relayed comment.
The Confederacy needed Britain far more than the Union did. Southern strategists dreamed of giant ironclads and took steps to have them built at Liverpool; ironclads that could steam west across the Atlantic, smash the Union blockade, reestablish the cotton trade with Britain, and even perhaps move up the Atlantic coast and the inland waterways, shelling Northern cities as cannonballs bounced helplessly off their plated sides. British merchants, long since grown fat on the slave-harvested Dixie cotton spun into textiles in their mills, heavily favored an economic/military alliance with the South.
The industrial Union, by contrast, competed with England for the South’s raw materials, had little to offer England in the way of lucrative trade, and in fact suffered British ill will that still lingered from the unpleasantness involving General Cornwallis, Yorktown, and the Declaration of Independence. And then of course the War of 1812. Lord Palmerston, the head of the British government, could hardly hear the words “American democracy” without harrumphing.
Thus a British-Confederate alliance, in the war’s early weeks and months, seemed to need just the formalizing strokes of a few pens....
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Book Description Random House Audio, 2007. Audio CD. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0739342940