The Stone Fleet

The Stone Fleet headed towards their doom, December 1861

The first Stone Fleet headed towards their doom, December 1861

The Stone Fleet. An Old Sailor’s Lament

by Herman Melville

I 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.”

Captain USN Charles Henry Davis (1807-1877)

Captain USN Charles Henry Davis (1807-1877)

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.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

4 responses to “The Stone Fleet

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Browne,

    I have visited your site previously during research in support of our archaeological project to document the First and Second Stone Fleets sunk off Charleston during the Civil War. Since that time I have completed extensive historical research of the individual vessels comprising the stone fleets. In reading your paragraph about Ezra Weston, King Caesar, and his not owning any of one or more of the stone fleet vessels, I believe that he did previously own one–the brig, later bark Messenger. The brig was built at Duxbury in 1834. According to William T. Davis in his book “Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian,” pp. 214-215, claims Weston built and owned the brig. This assertion appears to be corroborated by an 1835 advertisement in the Boston Daily Advertiser about applying for freight to E. Weston, and a later advert that year that Messenger and others were built for the present owner, E. Weston. The name Weston, either E. Weston & Sons, or A. B. Weston, continues to be associated with the brig until 1845. The brig was listed for sale in 1846 at Boston and that may be when the vessel changed out of the hands of the Westons. Although the brig retains the “of Duxbury” three years before being sold to a Salem merchant. The brig was sold in 1854 and became a whaler, still homeported at Salem, and cruised in the South Atlantic Ocean and Western Indian Ocean hunting for sperm and right whales. The vessel was sold to the U.S. government in mid-November 1861 as part of the second contingent of vessel ordered by Welles. The stone-laden vessel was sunk at the entrance to Maffitt’s Channel in January 1862. So yes, technically Weston didn’t own any of the vessels at the time of their sinking, he did however have one of them built and employed for his commercial activities until sold. If you, however, have any information that may contradict this information, please inform me as I would like to compare notes. Thanks and I enjoyed your blog article.

    Jim Spirek
    South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology
    University of South Carolina

  • Patrick Browne

    Mr. Spirek,
    This is some absolutely fascinating research you’ve done! There were two things that threw me about the Messenger as listed in the Stone Fleet newspaper articles of the time. First, the brig/bark matter seemed a contradiction. That a mast would be added to a small brig and an old vessel thus reconfigured seemed unlikely. However, if there is any rule to historical research, I imagine it would be “never say never.” Further, perhaps the use of the term bark was either an error or a more general term. Second, I could not at the time link the ownership of the vessel from 1849 to 1861…which it appears you’ve done brilliantly. I have record of a notation (which I’m in the process of confirming with the archivist of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society…I no longer work there) written by Alden B. Weston indicating the Messenger was sold to Robert Brookhouse of Salem on January 15, 1849. This would seem to be consistent with your findings. If you have specific mention of Brookhouse in your records of sale, it would bolster your findings. I imagine this will be of keen interest to the folks in Duxbury. I certainly think it’s exciting! It would be, I believe, the only Weston vessel whose wreck will have been, to some degree, located.
    Coincidentally, I was just in Charleston for the first time three weeks ago. Beautiful city!
    Best,
    Patrick

  • Anonymous

    Patrick,

    Yes, Robert Brookhouse, of Salem, purchased the Messenger (of Salem, late of Duxbury) in 1849. The brig undertook five voyages to ports on the west coast of Africa from February 1849 to October 1853. Messenger entered the whaling business and embarked on its first voyage as a whaler In June 1854.The Salem Register reported on the departure from Salem of the “barque (late brig) Messenger.” During that interval between the last commercial and first whaling voyage the vessel was converted from a brig (presumably with two-masts) to a bark-rig with three masts per the vessel’s register.

    I have found that several of the stone fleet vessels that were originally brigs were converted to bark-rigs, usually after they were purchased for the whaling business. For example the two-masted brig Tenedos, became a three-masted bark prior to its first whaling voyage. Although one brig was converted to a bark during its commercial career. As you, initially I was thrown for a loop when all of sudden a brig became a bark, or a ship became a bark, especially with many vessels bearing the same name, and of course, arriving/departing at the same port, typically at New York City or Boston. I am assuming that the added mast was to increase the amount of sail on the vessel, and with a larger whaling crew able to handle manning the lines, etc. to increase cruising speed. I havent really found a good contemporary source describing the process or the rationale for the additional mast.

    Interestingly, in January 1849, the Daily Atlas reported the sale of the brig Messenger for $7,000 and fitting out at Boston to carry emigrants to California during the Gold Rush. But for whatever reasons, the brig did not go to California, but instead to Africa.

    If you do find a source about the sale from the Weston’s to Brookhouse I would be interested in some of the details. Alternately, if there are documents related to the brig Messenger at Duxbury, I would appreciate the name of the person to contact to learn more about them. Thanks.

    At this point in the project, which is in the report writing phase now, we only found 10 of the 13 vessels comprising the Second Stone Fleet. This obstruction was created differently than the First Stone Fleet (n=16 vessels) which was sunk in a cluster or a plug at the bar of the Main Ship Channel, whereas the Second Stone Fleet was sunk in a scatter, like an obstacle course, for quite some distance. So we hope to find the remaining three at some point in the near future. Then the difficulty lies in identifying each of the shipwrecks, for example Messenger, although the sizes of the sites, such as amount of the ballast, will assist in positing potential candidates.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed Charleston and its a great place to commute from when headed out to sea to work.

    Jim

    • Patrick Browne

      Well, I think you’ve nailed it. Very impressive research. The “late brig” parenthetical is a key piece of evidence. Interesting, I’ve heard of many conversions going from square to fore-and-aft rigged but adding a mast is new to me. I suppose the addition of a small fore-and-aft rigged mizzenmast would not be that arduous.
      I’m amazing to hear about the locations of the vessels. What an incredible project! I’ll look forward to reading more. And I’m still stunned that a Weston vessel actually was in the Stone Fleet. I’ll have to update my article.

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