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!
Herman Melville, “The Stone Fleet”
In July 1861, the Blockade Strategy Board suggested to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles the most obvious method of halting Confederate commerce was by putting down material obstructions, and, “the most convenient form of obstruction, for transportation and use, is that of old vessels laden with ballast…sunk in the appropriate places.”[i]
Welles instructed agents to purchase such a fleet, not less than 250 tons each, “as secretly as possible, before any knowledge is obtained that Government is in the market.” In just a few weeks that fall, forty-five mostly old whalers were acquired in New York City and New England ports including Boston, New London, and Mystic.[ii]
Unnecessary articles were unloaded and sold, leaving an anchor and chain along with necessary sails and gear aboard; pipes and valves were fitted in the hulls to let in water, and holds were loaded deeply with granite, sand, and dirt. Officers and seamen were contracted to sail the ships to their destination.
The first group of twenty-five sailed for Savannah. Seventeen arrived near Tybee Island on December 5 to the discomfort of the senior officer present, Commander J. S. Missroon, who had no instructions concerning them. Missroon reported to Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Port Royal, SC, that the ships were “all badly found in every respect,” several in sinking condition.
The Archer struck bottom three times off Savannah Bar Shoals, was taking on water, unfit to go to sea. The Meteor parted her anchor chain and went ashore on the south side of the channel. The Lewis also was grounded and bilged. The Phoenix struck entering the harbor, losing her rudder and leaking badly. The commander had her towed out of the channel to sink where she would make a good breakwater and bridge for landing on the island. “This large and unexpected accumulation of ships” rendered the anchorage unsafe for the squadron in the event of storms from north and northwest. “Their early disposition on that account would be very desirable.”[iii]
Du Pont ordered Captain Henry Davis to move remaining vessels to Charleston and sink them there, which he accomplished in good weather with little difficulty by December 21. Over several days, a few small steamers towed sixteen ships to the entrance sand bar and placed them in staggered lines blocking any direct course up the channel. Davis theorized that natural forces of wind, tide, and current forming the bar itself would also hold the stones in place as hulls broke up. The staggered formation would not seriously impede water flow—which otherwise would just scour a new channel—and would create eddies, whirlpools, and counter currents hazardous to navigation, or so he thought. Several warships provided cover for the operation, but the enemy kept his distance.[iv]
A Harper’s Weekly correspondent observed from the steam tug Pocahontas and reported with typical Victorian hyperbole: One “trembling old bark” moved slowly onto its assigned spot and struck bottom. “Her anchor dropped for the last time in the water, the chain rattling out as cheerfully as any chain might which had made its last run, and the old bark settled down into its own grave. The plug had been knocked…and the water rushed madly and wildly in,” while crewmen scrambled into boats and the sun went down.
The sun would rise again in the morning, but the old ship was to, “waste away and go to pieces under the combined action of the elements which it had braved so long and so well. Alas! that a vessel, worn-out in the service of its owner, should be sold and come to such an ignoble end.”[v]
Pocahontas towed the next ship in. She, “sank slowly and in a dignified manner, rocking uneasily, to be sure, as the water poured in, but going down with every rope and spar in place, as a brave man falls in battle, with his harness on.” The harbor was dotted with whaleboats transferring officers, sailors, and baggage to nearby warships; other boats visited the sunken ships to secure flour, potatoes, onions, rope, furniture, and other items.[vi]
The next day, the ships were dismasted. “Braces and shrouds on the weather [upwind] side were cut by the sharp axe of the whaleman, and the tall masts, swaying for an instant, fell together with a loud crash, the sticks snapping like brittle pipe-stems close to the deck, and striking the water like an avalanche, beating it into a foam and throwing the spray high into the air. For an hour or two this crashing, smashing sound was heard on every side, and one after another ship became a mere hulk upon the waters.”[vii]
They lay in every possible position across the channel, on port or starboard sides, under water forward or aft. The sea swept over some; others stood on upright keels and spouted water from their sides as heavy swells raised and dropped them heavily upon the sand.
Seeing this fleet blockading the channel, “leading to what was once a thrifty city, but what is now the seat of rebellion, and an object of just revenge…within sight of the rebel flags and rebel guns, is really an unalloyed pleasure. One feels that at least one cursed rat-hole has been closed, and one avenue of supplies cut off by the hulks….”[viii]
Gen. R. E. Lee, then commanding the Southern Military Department and superintending coastal defenses, wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin: The stone fleet was sunk in the main ship channel, but North Channel and Maffitt’s Channel remained open. “This achievement, so unworthy any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice and revenge of a people…. It is also indicative of their despair of ever capturing a city they design to ruin….” Because Yankees were trying so hard to blockade the port, the general concluded they were not planning to attack it, and he must prepare against assaults elsewhere on the coast.[ix]
Major Thomas M. Wagner, CSA, commanding Fort Sumter, also reported: “The vessels commenced to settle immediately, and at the end of a week but little was to be seen of any of their hulls. They have now entirely disappeared. Large portions of the wrecks have from time to time come ashore. The position of the blockading squadron has, however, prevented any accurate survey being made.” On January 20, 1862, the enemy sank another fourteen barks and brigs in North and Maffitt’s Channels, the locations of which Wagner carefully noted on the harbor chart. “The operations on both occasions were superintended by six armed steamers and a sailing frigate.”[x]
But the Hartford Courant (CT) pronounced the operation a failure on February 15, 1862: “It is still quite an easy matter to sail or steam into or out of the passage in which the stone vessels are placed!” They were sunk far apart and some were too deep, with six or eight fathoms of water (thirty-six to forty-eight feet) between their rails and the surface. Blockade runners could steer between or over them.[xi]
Tidal currents and Gulf Stream soon swept sunken ships away. The blockade could only be maintained the old-fashioned way with warships manned by vigilant officers and men off the harbors. Herman Melville mourned what he viewed as a wasteful failure in his poem. The final stanzas:
To scuttle them—a pirate deed—
Sack them, and dismast;
They sunk so low, 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.
[i] Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), 1:19.
[ii] Welles to Morgan, October 17, 1861 in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), (Hereafter cited as ORN), 1, 12:416-417.
[iii] Missroon to Du Pont, December 5, 1861, ORN, 1, 12:419.
[iv] Davis to Du Pont, December 21, 1861, ORN, 1, 12:422-423.
[v] Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1862.
[ix] R. E. Lee to Benjamin, December 21, 1861, ORN, 1, 12:423.
[x] Wagner to Walker, February 12, 1862, ORN, 1, 12:423-424.
[xi] The Hartford Courant, February 15, 1862.