The Glare of Duty

Captain of the warship Shenandoah titled his log entry for August 2, 1865: “The darkest day of my life.”

James Waddell had accepted his commission from the Confederate States of America to search out and destroy all Union merchant vessels within range of his cannons. After sinking or capturing over a dozen Yankee ships in the warm waters of the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, the Shenandoah sailed to the Pacific and up the Inside Passage where unarmed American vessels hunted whales off the coast of Alaska.

Along the Aleutian Islands and north to the Bering Sea, Captain Waddell burned and plundered every American ship he encountered. These were remote Russia-controlled waters, and most vessels were whalers, ready to deliver their precious oil to buyers in the Hawaiian Islands.

The Confederacy’s plan to cripple New England’s commercial whaling and shipping economy was succeeding. 

After one particular violent engagement, Captain Waddell discovered startling news about the War Between the States. The captain of his captured trophy the Susan & Abigail, pressed Waddell with proof that the Civil War had ended months earlier! The vanquished captain of the Susan and Abigail produced an outdated newspaper showing Waddell that Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox!

Unfortunately, Waddell also spotted a newspaper quote from the leader of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis, who vowed to fight on.

Rabidly devoted to duty, Captain Waddell continued his campaign in Alaska waters, without confirming the progress or outcome of the Civil War. He destroyed 10 more whaling vessels in the following seven hours, then sailed south, intent upon attacking San Francisco. By chance, the British intercepted the Shenandoah, and informed her captain of his embarrassing blunder before he arrived at San Francisco Bay.

The following year, the victorious Union fleet hunted the Shenandoah, seeking to hang captain and crew. Sinking commercial ships in the theater of war was “acceptable,” but despoiling defenseless whalers in Alaska waters after the war had ended, chained the Shenandoah to disgrace. Waddell and his crew were branded as pirates, abhorred by all Americans. The fugitives escaped to Liverpool and surrendered their ship to the British Admiralty, becoming despised exiles in Great Britain.

Captain James Waddell’s passion for duty had clouded his judgment. His misguided resolve ruined his reputation — a lesson that steers men and women of faith toward cautious restraint, patience, and just plain common sense.

We must be on guard that the glare of duty never blinds us to compassion and wisdom. 

I Thessalonians 5:21

Test all things; hold fast what is good.

Prayer: Father, I admit my impulsive, self-centered ways at times. As I face decisions I’ll seek guidance through your word, the Bible, and confirm my choices with Christian counsel. Open my eyes to your plans.


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