A Poet’s Perspective: Melville and The Stone Fleet

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!

It was apparent from the beginning that the Civil War was not going to be a swift or bloodless conflict – nor would it be confined to land. The Union began building its famous naval blockade in 1860 in an effort to, as Winfield Scott put it, “squeeze the life out of the Confederacy.” The blockade was an immense task, spanning over 150 Confederate ports along the southern coast from Virginia to Texas. One of the most difficult ports to control was Charleston Harbor, nicknamed “rat hole” because there were so many channels in and out of the area. The Confederates were able to launch several successful blockade running missions in the area even after the North started patrolling the port. This had to be stopped if the Union had any hope of cutting off the South’s supplies.

In December 1861, the North decided to implement a unique and desperate strategy to block access to the Charleston Harbor. The Union gathered a number of ships, many of


A Depiction of The Stone Fleet Making It’s Way to Charleston Harbor

them old whaling ships, and sank them in the harbor. They called it the Stone Fleet.

Several of these ships were quite famous thanks to the colorful history of the North East Whaling industry. Take The Tenedos, for example, which was originally used by merchants sailing from Boston to India and other parts of Asia. By 1840, The Tenedos was recommissioned as whaling ship. The Tenedos was one of the oldest ships in the Stone Fleet. It was somewhat of a legend, similar to The Essex in Moby Dick.

Herman Melville, once a sailor himself, had a deep love for the sea and a particular interest in whaling ships. Melville writes of the demise of The Tenedos and other prized whaling ships in his 1866 poem, The 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.

The ships of the Stone Fleet began their final journey on December 10th, 1861. They were accompanied by a handful of steamships, whose crews would be responsible for sinking the other ships in Charleston’s rat hole. The journey took just over a week. A few ships sank along the way, but at least 16 had arrived in Charleston by December 18th.

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.

The sinking process was rather simple. Each ship was loaded with stone ballast and had a large hole plugged up with a big cork. All the sailors had to do was remove the cork, chop off the masts and rigging, and leave the ship before it filled with water. The operation was completed within two days.

Another legendary ship to become part of the Stone Fleet was The Cerea, which began its life as an arms transport ship for the British Navy. Harper’s Weekly on January 11, 1862 recounted the history of the vessel as part of an article about the Stone Fleet: “During the American Revolution War she came over loaded with supplies for the British Army. A storm coming on, she sought shelter in Long Island Sound.”

The Americans living in the area learned of the ship and were determined to capture it. To do so, they squeezed a group of armed men into the bottom of a modest fishing vessel and sent it out towards The Cerea. The only people on deck were an old man and a young boy.

The Cerea sailed right up to the fishing boat in order to obtain food and supplies. As the British began confiscating fish from the deck of the boat, the Americans exploded from the ship’s hold and easily overtook the enemy.

“This was but the work of a moment, and before the britisher could arm his crew or recover from the surprise the ship was a prize,” recounts Harper’s Weekly. The Americans took The Cerea to their home port in New Bedford, where she was discharged of her stores. It was converted into a whaling ship sometime after the end of the war.

Referring to the fate of The Cerea, Harper’s Weekly continues, “She now goes to assist in sealing up one of the Southern ports. The Cerea was a very fast sailer, and has been ordinarily a very lucky ship. But now her sailing days are over and she will find a white sand bed on which to lie until broken up by the strong waves of old ocean.”

The sinking of the Stone Fleet was painful for sailors who had called those ships home, but they understood the importance of the Union blockade and, in particular, the need to block the Charleston Harbor.

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!


A Depiction of the Sinking of a Ship in Charleston Harbor

Ultimately it was portrayed in the North as a strong defense against the problematic Southern Port. The New York Times, wrote on December 26th, 1861, as the operation was beginning, “Thus another strong blow has fallen upon the headstrong people of South Carolina, the effect of which must be more humiliating than any they have yet received. They have no means of resenting it, and their haughty rebellious spirits must fret and chafe beneath the weight of the heavy hand which has been laid upon them.” It would be though that these words were written in vain.

Unfortunately for the Union, the Stone Fleet operation was not a success. Melville ends his poem by reminding us the mission failed, his words showing clear disdain for the waste of the ships:

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.

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2 Responses to A Poet’s Perspective: Melville and The Stone Fleet

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    An interesting read. I loved the way you interspersed information about the various “Stone Fleet” ships with passages from the poem.

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