The Stone Fleet. An Old Sailor’s Lament
by Herman MelvilleI have a feeling for those ships, Each worn and ancient one, With great bluff bows, and broad in the beam; Ay, it was unkindly done. But so they serve the Obsolete— Even so, Stone Fleet! You’ll say I’m doting; do but think I scudded round the Horn in one— The Tenedos, a glorious Good old craft as ever run— Sunk (how all unmeet!) With the Old Stone Fleet. An India ship of fame was she, Spices and shawls and fans she bore; A whaler when her wrinkles came— Turned off! till, spent and poor, Her bones were sold (escheat)! Ah! Stone Fleet. Four were erst patrician keels (Names attest what families be), The Kensington, and Richmond too, Leonidas, and Lee: But now they have their seat With the Old Stone Fleet. To scuttle them—a pirate deed— Sack them, and dismast; They sunk so slow, they died so hard, But gurgling dropped at last. Their ghosts in gales repeat Woe’s us, Stone Fleet! And all for naught. The waters pass— Currents will have their way; Nature is nobody’s ally; ’tis well; The harbor is bettered—will stay. A failure, and complete, Was your Old Stone Fleet.
On November 20, 1861, a fleet of old whaling ships, 24 in number, departed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The old vessels which had once brought fortune to their owners in the form of whale oil and whale bone were now quite obsolete. Past their prime. But they nonetheless had one last duty to serve…this time as part of a war effort.
Before their departure, holes had been drilled in their hulls just above the water line and temporarily plugged. They were laden with granite stones, gravel and dirt. During their final voyage, they would be crewed by the New England men who had run them as whalers. But there would be no return trip. These vessels were going to their graves.
The whole concept of the Stone Fleet was cooked up by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Confederate blockade runners from Charleston and Savannah had become a vexing problem. If the main channels of these harbors could be blocked, the problem might be solved. The Confederates saved him some trouble by sinking their own hulks in Savannah to protect the city from Union assault by sea. And so the U.S. Navy focused on Charleston.
The naval officer in command of the operation was 54 year-old Captain Charles Henry Davis of Boston. Davis would go on to become perhaps the most accomplished naval officer from Massachusetts during the Civil War, responsible for the Union victory during the Battle of Memphis (while in command of a river flotilla) on June 6, 1862. By 1863, he would be promoted to Rear Admiral. He did not, however, regard the sinking of the Stone Fleet as one of his more glorious moments.
“This is a disagreeable duty,” Davis wrote his wife, “and one of the last I should have selected…The pet idea of Mr. Fox has been to stop up some of the southern harbors. I had always a special disgust for this business…I always considered this mode of interrupting commerce as liable to great objection and doubtful success.”
This was well before the days of the concept of “total war.” The notion of destroying, perhaps forever, the navigability of a major port was seen as a barbarous act at this time…something beyond the rules of “civilized” warfare. British diplomats would rail at this action, requiring Secretary of State Seward to do some agile tap-dancing to avoid increased hostility, stating that there were no plans to do such a thing again. French diplomats would call it, “vindictive vandalism,” while Prussian officials would condemn it as “a crime and outrage to civilization.”
Predicting this reaction, Captain Charles Davis did not relish his task. But he went about it methodically and professionally nonetheless. By the time the fleet reached him outside Charleston Harbor, they were nearly ready to sink on their own, having suffered a long, difficult voyage from New Bedford. Commanding the operation from the USS Wabash, a steam screw frigate, Davis oversaw the placement of the old whalers in a “checkerboard” formation of three lines. This was viewed as the most likely pattern to prevent the opening of new channels by the tide and to encourage the creation of new shoals that would block the harbor. Beginning on December 19, 1861, the first of the whalers, the Tenedos, was sunk in the main channel within sight of Fort Sumter.
A correspondent from the New York Times described the scene as the plugs were knocked out and the vessels sunk one by one:
Who could help feeling melancholy at the reflection that the poor old vessels, which had traversed so many thousands of miles of ocean…through long years of dreary, tedious whaling voyages, were to be relentlessly destroyed? How venerable the doomed things now appeared! Short, broad, square-sterned, bluff-bowed…Queer old tubs, with queer fittings up, and quaint names set in elaborate beds of quale-carved work. Yet many of these fossil vessels were celebrated in their time…But away with sentiment. The old vessels are to be destroyed in the performance of a patriotic duty, and even when they are gone, their usefulness survives.
A second channel leading into Charleston was blocked by another Stone Fleet in January 1862, this one consisting of 20 old whalers. Although all went according to plan with both fleets, the effort sadly turned out to be pointless. The harbor was blocked for a time, but the ocean is simply too mighty to be long deterred by some old wooden hulks. The Stone Fleets were soon pulverized by the tide, their timbers washed up on the shores of Charleston and were used for firewood.
The pointlessness of it caused Herman Melville to write the Old Sailor’s Lament above. “Currents will have their way…A failure and complete was your Stone Fleet.”
The primary museum at the historical society where I work is known as the “King Caesar House.” It belonged to Duxbury shipping magnate Ezra Weston II, or “King Caesar.” When I first started working there, I learned of a persistent myth which was, I believe, even included in the house tour scripts at the time. It was often told that several of King Caesar’s vessels were part of the Stone Fleet and met their fate in the sands of Charleston Harbor.
It was a dramatic notion that I fancied at the time. And a plausible one. King Caesar was not involved in whaling (and he was almost 20 years in the grave by 1861), but many of his merchant vessels had been sold off to New Bedford whalers when he was finished with them. And several of the Stone Fleet vessels did indeed share the same names as some of King Caesar’s vessels. A bit of research, however, showed that the names are just coincidence. The stats on the vessels do not match. None of them were King Caesar’s.
Just another bit of disappointment associated with the poor, old Stone Fleet!
[Sources: "The Sunken Fleet," The New York Times, December 26, 1861; Jamie L. Jones, "The Navy's Stone Fleet," The New York Times, Opinion Pages, January 26, 2012; Harper's Weekly, December 14, 1861, p. 786; Eric J. Dolan, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, (2008), p. 310-315; Greg Bailey, "Gideon Welles Blockades Charleston Harbor," America's Civil War, January 26, 2011.]