Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Civil War arrived in Alaska - a bit late

By Ned Rozell

About 150 years ago, a few days after summer solstice, the gray skies above the Diomede Islands were heavy with smoke from whaling ships set ablaze by Confederate sailors who didn't know the Civil War had ended.

"The red glare from the eight burning vessels shone far and wide over the drifting ice of these savage seas," wrote an officer aboard the Shenandoah, a ship commissioned by Confederate leaders to wreak havoc on Yankee whalers harvesting bowhead whales off the western and northern coasts of Alaska.

Though their timing was off -- the Civil War had been over for two months when the Shenandoah reached Alaska waters from England (after an eight-month trip around the southern capes of Africa and Australia) -- the captain and crew of the Shenandoah succeeded in destroying the Yankee fleet, burning 22 whaling ships and capturing two others.

"It was the last hurrah of whaling -- the place where commercial whaling died in the U.S.," said Brad Barr, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in Woods Hole, Mass.