The little-known story of Melbourne's involvement in the American Civil War

Did you know that Melbourne has a strong link with the American Civil War? I certainly had no idea of this connection until State Library Victoria launched an appeal recently to raise money for the purchase of a diary written by a crewman on the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah, which docked in Melbourne for repairs in 1865. In his diary, Lieutenant Dabney M. Scales, known as 'Dab', chronicles the ship's arrival in Port Phillip Bay, tensions with the local authorities, and his observations and illustrations of Melbourne and its people.

Last week I went along to an event held at the library to find out more about this story and have a sneak peek at the diary itself, which was on display. Author Robyn Annear facilitated an in-depth discussion between historian Dr Angus Curry and journalist Terry Smyth, both of whom have researched and written about the ship and its crewmen. The discussion ranged from the experiences of the men on board the CSS Shenandoah, the part they played in the Civil War and what happened to them thereafter, and what new information the diary has revealed.

I was particularly interested to hear that the diary is not only a window into the stories of the ship's crew and the history of the American Civil War, but also reveals much about Melbourne in 1865 from the perspective of a foreign visitor. Melburnians were apparently thrilled by the ship's arrival, whether they took the side of the Confederates or not. Captain Waddell and his crew were welcomed into Melbourne society, given free railway passes and thrown a lavish ball in Ballarat during their stay of more than three weeks. Victorian women proudly wore gold buttons gifted to them by affectionate soldiers. Every inch of the ship was picked over by thousands of eager Melburnians keen for a gander. Forty-two men even managed to 'stowaway' on the ship and enlist with the Confederates, although the panellists pointed out that there was a secret, illegal recruiting campaign going on in Melbourne before the ship left.

The panel discussion was punctuated by readings from the diary, performed by 2014 Creative Fellow James Saunders. It was very evocative to hear him bring the words of Lieutenant Scales to life, and in a most authentic Southern accent! Saunders also read from some of the media reports published at the time, which illustrated just how the Shenandoah's arrival had both thrilled and divided Melbourne society.

Jo Ritale, Head of Collections at State Library Victoria, explained how the diary came to be made available. Kept in the family of Lieutenant Scales for 150 years, it finally came up for sale at an auction, and was purchased by an Australian buyer who recognised its significance. This buyer has offered to sell the diary to State Library Victoria, which through this appeal aims to raise $100,000, some of which will go to the preservation of other significant collection items. 

It was wonderful to get a quick look at the diary after the event, after hearing so much about it. Mercifully, Scales' handwriting is beautifully clear and easily legible - much appreciated by those of us used to slowly and patiently wading through difficult handwriting in early historical records! Here's hoping the library's appeal will be successful and the item will be permanently preserved in its collection, as well as digitised, for the benefit of researchers of the American Civil War and Melbourne's early history alike.

If you're interested in learning more about the CSS Shenandoah, the event was filmed and is available on YouTube. It's worth a look, even just for James Saunders' wonderful readings (and impressive Southern drawl!) You can also learn more about the story on Lucy's blog, History Bites.

Fiona Poulton

All images courtesy State Library Victoria