Dec. 5, 2010

In October 1864 a tall, fit-looking young man appeared in the restaurant of a hotel
in central London with a newspaper under his arm. Taking a seat, he inserted the corner of a napkin in a button hole in his coat and began scanning the headlines.
A stranger, dressed in business garb, approached.

“Is this Mr. Brown?” the stranger asked.

“Yes,” replied the young man. “Is this Mr. Wright?”

In what might seem a clich├ęd scene from a modern spy novel, the two breakfasted together and then repaired to one of the hotel rooms where they mapped out an elaborate scheme to sneak a fast merchant ship from under the nose of the British authorities and turn it over to the Confederate States of America.

The 23-year-old man was not “Mr. Brown,” but Lieutenant William Conway Whittle Jr. of Norfolk, son of a prominent naval officer. Whittle had already gained a reputation as a daring blockade runner.

What was to become his home on West Freemason Street in Norfolk is one of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture in the nation. Now occupied by the Junior League of Norfolk-Virginia Beach and the Norfolk Historical Society, the Taylor-Whittle House will be the scene of an open house next Sunday, Dec. 12, from noon to 5.

Just before the Sea King, a 230-foot, three-masted clipper ship, was to set sail, ostensibly to deliver coal to Bombay, Whittle, acting like a drunken sailor, stumbled down to the pier and clambered aboard. Those watching the piers were none the wiser.

Then, in a series of audacious moves, the Sea King rendezvoused with another ship loaded with small arms, munitions, powder and stores in the Madeira Islands off Africa, and within days the men had transformed the black-hulled merchant vessel into armed, lightning-fast raider and rechristened it the CSS Shenandoah. Its orders were to strike a blow at the North’s industrial might by destroying its whaling fleet.

Under the command of North Carolinian James Waddell, with Whittle serving as executive officer, the Shenandoah sailed halfway around the world to the Gulf of Alaska, taking merchant ships almost at will, acquiring a multi-national crew. Then, with unflagging efficiency, the Shenandoah seized and sank dozens of whaling ships. By the time they were through, they had seized or sunk 40 ships and suffered not a single casualty – or barely even a scratch.

But what Waddell and Whittle did not know –and could not because of their isolation – was that the war had ended months before. Just as they began their prodigious shipwrecking campaign, Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox.

The Shenandoah had received conflicting reports of the war’s last days and chose to ignore them. Lee would never surrender, Whittle believed.

He was a bit of a zealot, spewing venom on “those miserable Yankees in his journal. “I regard them individually and collectively as a pack of scoundrels consummated in every variety to rascality.”

In the Pacific again and headed south, Captain Waddell even considered bombarding and subduing San Francisco, but decided he’d make sure there was still a cause to fight for.

“On Aug. 12 …we saw a vessel, a sailing bark, which we chased under steam and sail, and overhauled and boarded her at 4 p.m.,” Whittle recalled. When asked about the war, “the English captain said. ‘What war?’” It had ended in April.

The realization that they had spent all this time destroying vessels of a peaceful nation, and that they were probably then and there being hunted by that nation’s warships struck like a thunderclap.

“We were bereft of country, bereft of Government, bereft of ground for hope or aspiration, bereft of a cause for which to struggle and suffer,” he moaned.

The crew immediately began disarming the by-now notorious raider, loading the ship’s guns in the hold for ballast. But what would they do? Where would they go? To whom would they surrender? Would they be tried as criminals and, most likely, convicted and hung for piracy? Could they make it safely to a neutral country?

They were thousands of miles and months away from knowing.

Next Sunday: The end of one of the strangest voyages in naval history

William Conway Whittle Jr, lieutenant in the Confederate Navy, was an 1858 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy -- at the age of 18. Courtesy of the Junior League of Norfolk-Virginia Beach.