This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Bradley W. Barr, Ph.D.
NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program
During the US Civil War, the Confederacy launched a two-part naval strategy focused on defending key Southern-held ports and commissioning privateers and naval vessels to attack and undermine the economy of the North. While there remains some debate about the ultimate effectiveness of this strategy, through the course of the war the South achieved some of what they hoped to accomplish. A number of Confederate “Sea Raiders” were fitted out: fast and capable ships acquired by the South for the sole purpose of harassing and taking Yankee ships of commerce. It was a bold and desperate strategy by the Confederate Navy, which possessed many fewer ships than the Union, was challenged by diminishing resources and manpower as the war continued, and could not compete with the wartime shipbuilding capacity of the North.
It was the last of these ships, the CSS SHENANDOAH, that arguably had the greatest and most enduring legacy of the Sea Raiders. In October of 1864, the SEA KING was purchased surreptitiously by agents of the Confederacy in England, secretly sailed to the Madeiras where it was armed, provisioned, and manned with confederate officers. Embarking under the new name SHENANDOAH with orders to seize and destroy Union merchant ships, it set off on a voyage that would take it around the globe, leaving devastation in its wake.
Its orders further directed that its ultimate mission was to specifically target the Yankee whaling fleet – whaling being a critically important part of the North’s economy – and that it head for the North Pacific whaling grounds, the epicenter of American whaling in the 1860s. Heading south and east on the first leg of its circumnavigation, the SHENANDOAH seized and burned five merchant ships and one whaler before heading to Melbourne, Australia for repairs. After departing Melbourne – the neutral Australians finding themselves subject to great diplomatic pressure from the US Government for having allowed the ship to enter their port – it headed to Ascension Island where four more Yankee whalers were destroyed. This last of the Sea Raiders was perhaps most notable for its actions in the whaling grounds of the Western Arctic. It was late May of 1865 when the SHENANDOAH reached the Sea of Okhotsk. While the South had already surrendered at Appomattox, the captain, James Waddell, was unwilling to believe the war was over, having received no official reports in this remote corner of the world. He had his orders. Seizing the opportunity to fulfill his mission, Waddell sailed into the whaling fleet there, and over seven days in June, captured twenty-four whaling ships. While four of these ships were bonded and released, twenty were reported to “light up the night sky” of the Bering Strait as they burned to the waterline fueled by the remains of the whale oil that impregnated their decks. Waddell destroyed a little less than half the fleet on the grounds that year. No officer or crew of any of the ships captured was intentionally harmed, and all were released alive, set adrift in whaleboats or bonded vessels that were dismasted. The SHENANDOAH, having quite successfully struck the intended blow, and Captain Waddell finally accepting the war was over, hastily completed the circumnavigation around Cape Horn, evading the Union warships, and surrendered in England, where the fateful journey began. All told, the SHENANDOAH accomplished a circumnavigation of 58,000 miles in less than thirteen months, lost only two crew members (to natural causes), and took thirty-two ships with an estimated value of around $1.1 million in 1865 (equivalent to approximately $1 billion today).
What insights does the compelling saga of the SHENANDOAH offer with regard to maritime cultural landscapes? While the definition and potential criteria for what makes a maritime cultural landscape worthy of preservation are still yet to be determined, the National Register evaluation criteria provide some useful guidance. With regard to determining the “quality of significance in American history,” the Register guidance states, in part, that a property, district, or site should be “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” It has been argued that the SHENANDOAH’s exploits contributed significantly to the demise of the American whaling industry. When taken in context with other major losses to the whaling fleet in the Western Arctic in 1871, 1876, and 1898, it had an undeniable and profound effect on the whaling heritage of the Western Arctic, the United States, and, ultimately, the global whaling heritage landscape. Whaling was becoming economically less attractive with the discovery of petroleum, and whale populations having been seriously depleted in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but may have persisted longer into the twentieth century had these losses not occurred. Certainly, on a global scale, whaling did continue elsewhere in the world, by other countries, and still persists today. However, American whaling was the dominant player in the global whaling trade through the beginning of the twentieth century, and its withdrawal from whaling undoubtedly altered the trajectory of history at this global scale. While it may not have affected the outcome of the Civil War, if it is indeed true that the SHENANDOAH “drove the first nail in the coffin” of American whaling, it could be argued quite convincingly that this was a “significant contribution to the broad patterns” of American history.
As alluded to above, the geographic extent of the significance of an event like the exploits of the SHENANDOAH has some influence over the appropriate boundary that might be drawn around a maritime cultural landscape. In this instance, various potentially relevant maritime cultural landscapes might be identified based on the significant influence that an event or events had on the cultural landscape at various geographic scales. The maritime cultural landscapes incorporating the story of the SHENANDOAH might be a global landscape, encompassing the entire circumnavigation, to the discrete parts of the story located in the cultural landscapes of places like the Western Arctic. Clearly, a reasonably compelling argument could be made for this event significantly influencing the history of American whaling, which has relevance to both the United States and globally, given the prominence of Yankee whaling around the world in the nineteenth century. However, the voyage of the SHENANDOAH was perhaps also a potentially a somewhat significant event in the maritime history of Australia, Micronesia, and England. The relevance to maritime cultural landscape boundary delineation appears to be that most significant historical events influence heritage landscapes at multiple scales, and selecting one or more most appropriate for preservation may be linked to how much influence, individually and cumulatively, these events had on that landscape, how significant the event or events were in influencing the “broad patterns” of history of that place.
Another, and perhaps most critical, element of determining the significance of a maritime cultural landscape is some evaluation of the integrity of the cultural landscape. The Register criteria state that “integrity is the ability of a property to convey its significance” and identify seven aspects of integrity: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. Few of these aspects seem directly relevant to maritime cultural landscapes, but more generally, the integrity of a maritime cultural landscape might be how comprehensively it integrates the full sweep of significant historical events that occurred in that place through time and across cultures that influenced, and were influenced by, that landscape. Through time, there are likely to have been more than one significant historical event, and more broadly, elements of that place’s history that have significantly influenced what we see there today, and what may be unseen but potentially important in defining that cultural landscape. Therefore, the integrity of a maritime cultural landscape may be the ability of that landscape to convey its cumulative significance, over time and across cultures. An event, like the SHENANDOAH saga, may attract our attention to a place, that event contributing to its historical significance, but this is a snapshot of something important that happened there, and not a full representation of the cultural significance of that place. For example, while the Western Arctic may be a highly significant maritime cultural landscape with regard to Yankee whaling, it also possesses a much longer and arguably equally, if not more important, significance related to the whaling heritage of the native cultures, primarily the Iñupiat and Yupik. It is a place with a long, rich, and compelling history related to Arctic exploration, and below the Strait, important with regard to the maritime history of the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s. Again, while a maritime cultural landscape may have a particularly significant event that calls our attention to this place, such landscapes could be considered to have high integrity when they are found to be more broadly significant through time and across cultures, possessing “cumulative significance.”
The idea of maritime cultural landscapes may be decades old, since Westerdahl first proposed the concept, but how we delineate these places, how we evaluate their relative significance, and how we decide as a society what is worthy of preservation, remains unresolved. Taking a closer look at places like the Western Arctic and its whaling heritage is one way to address this challenge, helping to frame the questions that need answers. Taking a maritime cultural landscape approach to identifying what we believe to be worthy of preservation potentially has much to offer. These landscapes represent a “big-picture” view of what we collectively believe are culturally significant places. Landscapes can contain and integrate more broadly valued cultural elements, and their effective identification and evaluation can help to prioritize our preservation efforts. Like place-based ecosystem preservation initiatives that often are inspired by and focused on a particular “charismatic species,” events like the SHENANDOAH saga can alert us to places that may be worthy of more landscape-level preservation and management. From one perspective, the historical significance of the SHENANDOAH is reasonably clear, but whether the landscape – at whatever appropriate geographic scale – is one we collectively believe to be worthy of preservation depends on how we ultimately define and evaluate maritime cultural landscapes. It may be that resolving how we robustly define “integrity” is the critical, yet elusive, next step.