War put civilian merchant ships at risk as the opposing side sought to disrupt commerce. The Confederate raiders terrorized Yankee shipping on the high seas. The JOSEPH PARK of Searsport was burned by the Confederate privateer SUMTER.
A sister ship from Searsport, the DELPHINE with Captain William Greene Nichols and his wife Lillias aboard, was taken by the SHENANDOAH in the Indian Ocean on December 29, 1864. Lillias fought the Confederate’s fire with a tongue-lashing of her own. A newspaper article commemorating Lillias’ 90th birthday tells the tale:
The SHENANDOAH lulled her victims into a false sense of security by flying the English flag. Seeing another ship on the broad ocean provided crews and captains with a chance for a social call, and as Captain Nichols saw SHENANDOAH approach, he drew closer for a chat. Once in range though, the SHENANDOAH fired a blank shot and then began clearing away her two forward guns, which caused Captain Nichols to hove to. Lieut. Waddell of the SHENANDOAH informed Nichols that the vessel would be sunk, to which Nichols informed him that his wife was aboard and she was a delicate and nervous woman who would not survive the transfer to the Confederate ship. Waddell seriously considered allowing the DELPHINE go, but had the ship’s surgeon check on Mrs. Nichols, who turned out to be a robust woman with strong nerves and an acid tongue.
The transfer of Lillias, her son Phineas aged six, and the steward’s wife was effected by a bosun’s chair from the SHENANDOAH. Lillias insisted on bringing her canary bird in its cage and with perfect self-possession ordered the sailors of SHENANDOAH when to raise and lower the chair. Once aboard the Confederate vessel, she inquired of Lieut. Waddell what he intended to do with them and where they would be landed. When Waddell informed her they would be landed on the island of St. Paul, an inhospitable volcanic rock in the South Indian Ocean, she replied; “Never, I would rather stay with you.”
The SHENANDOAH set fire to the DELPHINE, and she drifted out of sight with her sails ablaze, a mass of flame and smoke. Capt. Nichols took the loss hard, and as he was pacing a Lieut. Chew of the SHENANDOAH tried to comfort him saying “Captain, just think that if at daylight this morning you had changed your course a quarter of a point, you would have passed out of our reach and sight.” To which Nichols replied: “That shows how darn little you know about it. This morning at daylight I just did change my course a quarter of a point and that’s what fetched me here.”
The SHENANDOAH took the prisoners to Hobson’s Bay in Australia near Melbourne. The books Lillias had brought onboard were returned to her, except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was tossed overboard and Capt. Nichols ship’s chronometer was kept. Lillias’ reaction was “If those chronometers and sextants were mine, I guess I’d make them give them to me.” Her last words to the SHENANDOAH crew were “I wish that steamer may be burned.”