Well, not the Medieval outlaw from Sherwood Forest, but—believe it or not—one of the ships in the infamous “stone fleet” at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861 was named Robin Hood. Here is that saga:
Robin Hood (the boat) was reportedly from New London, Connecticut, though it appears consistently on registries of whaling ships from Mystic, Connecticut; one record hints that the ship had been purchased from Boston, but it’s unclear if it arrived new or had been used previously. Most likely it was an older ship but it may have been renamed when purchased in 1845.
Charles Mallory, listed as the owner or agent from 1845 through 1861, sent Robin Hood to the Indian Ocean that year, and the ship departed on May 25, 1858. Over three years later, Robin Hood returned on September 17, 1861, bringing 21 barrels of sperm oil and 791 barrels of “regular” whale oil. Over the course of the voyage, the crew had collected 9,391 pounds of whale bone.[i]
That final voyage ended Robin Hood’s oceanic career of sixteen recorded years with that name. Six recorded voyages, including the final venture, resulted in the collection of 1,469 barrels of sperm whale oil, 11,362 barrels of “regular” whale oil, 122,691 pounds of whale bone. It’s a staggering number to think about, especially when realizing that it came from the slaughter of world’s largest mammals. In those days before electricity, whale oil lit many streets and homes while whale bone found its way into a variety of products and fashion design.
Charles Mallory sold Robin Hood to the U.S. Navy in the autumn of 1861, and the ship would serve one, final patriotic purpose, joining a fleet of sixteen vessels destined to be sunk at the mouth of Charleston Harbor along South Carolina’s coast to aid the blockading squadron in reducing harbor traffic out of the rebel prize city.
A war correspondent for the New York Times went along on the expedition and created a vivid and opinionated description of the venture and Robin Hood’s final days at sea. Reporting on December 21, 1861, he began with a proclamation worthy of England’s legendary Sheriff of Nottingham:
The main channel of approach to Charleston harbor has been destroyed. Sixteen stone-filled hulks placed checkerwise across the passage, in the deepest water just at the inner and outer edges of the bar are the mediums through which this righteous retribution has been measured out. 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.
After this introduction to excite his northern audience, the war correspondent described the fated vessels leaving Port Hudson under the command of Captain Charles H. Davis. “They were nearly all condemned whalers—some of them sixty and seventy years of age.”
In the night, off Charleston Harbor, some excitement occurred. “A loud explosion. . . heard inshore soon after dark. Supposing that our whalers were first-class frigates come to bombard the city, the rebels had blown the light-house up, that the bears of the channel might be lost. The trick hurt nobody except themselves, but after all, lighthouses henceforth will be useless establishments at Charleston.”
According to the reporter, scuttling and sinking the “stone fleet” started on Tuesday, December 17 and was not completed until Friday the 20th:
“The wrecks are not ranged in a straight line across the channel. That arrangement might prove an effective blockade for a time, but not permanently. The theory of Captain Davis was, that the inland waters about Charleston must have a channel to the sea, and if the usual one was artificially closed, another would naturally form. His scientific mind devised another plan. The hulks are placed in three lines checkerwise. This arrangement not only does not prevent the passage of water, but forms a series of shoals, around which the tide will whirl and eddy, making an intricate labyrinth which no vessel could navigate.
“The vessels were not all scuttled till Friday morning as it was necessary to work at full tide. They looked desolate enough as they lay upon their bilges, masts and rigging still standing; some listed to port and others to starboard, all presenting a confused appearance comparable to nothing but a fleet at anchor and left aground by the tide.”
Ship after ship went down that week about two and half miles from the shore, visible from Confederate-held defenses at Morris Island, Sumter, and Moultrie. Guarded by the armed blockaders, the work of building an underwater barrier continued. Masts and rigging from the old ships were cut away and allowed to drift out to sea on the tide. Only a few whale boats (smaller boats carried by the ships) and a few sails were salvaged.
Finally, there was just one ship left in the first stone fleet: Robin Hood. In a historical twist that might have followed the legends of the English outlaw, the named ship had served as the store-ship for all valuables taken from the others during the sinking week. As the last ship down, the war correspondent gave it special attention in high vocabulary:
“The Robin Hood was the last vessel sunk. . . . Her owner must have been a waggish [humorous] fellow. In utter violation of euphony [sounds pleasing to the ear], he had absurdly curtailed the fair proportions of this old forester’s name to R. Hood, which stared in big, carved letters, painted to imitate gold, from each quarter of the vessel. One of these I secured, and shall probably send it to Barnum, to serve the double purpose of a momento of the blockade and a specimen of quiet wit.”
The final scenes ensued with a merriment and penchant for destruction that might have pleased the merry men of Olde England:
“It is not often that persons are permitted to destroy valuable property, and feel at the same time that they are doing right. On this occasion, however, such a sentiment could be properly entertained, and from the energy which the jack-tars displayed in using their axes, I am inclined to think that they considered the privilege one to be thoroughly enjoyed. Smashing things was a luxury, and the inclination to indulge in it was gratified without stint. After everything that could be saved was taken from the Robin Hood her rigging was cut and “frapped” or secured to the masts, in order to make an illumination and pyrotechnic display worthy of the successful issue of the expedition. She was fired early in the evening, and her burning afforded a novel and beautiful sight to most of those who witnessed it. The blockading squadron was especially entertained. Their lives are such a dull and tedious round of monotony hat a far less magnificent spectacle would have afforded them a topic of conversation for a month.
“The weather during the whole time consumed by the expedition was most favorable. The undertaking was accomplished without an accident, and the tire arrangement reflects alike the greatest praise upon Captain Davis for the prudence and wisdom of his plans, and upon his able assistants for the masterly manner in which they were executed.”[ii]
However, the tale was a slippery as the old death-defying archer of the ballads. In less than two months, Northern newspapers proclaimed the failure of the stone fleet. Sunk too far apart and too deep, blockade runners passed over the sunken ships while they stayed in place. Eventually, currents and tide swept the stone fleet to a broken and deeper watery grave.
To be continued…
[i] Starbuck, Alexander. History of the American Whale Fishery. (Castle Books, New Jersey: 1989) Pages 432, 458, 464, 490, 522, 566.
[ii] “The Main Channel to Charleston Harbor Destroyed”, Saturday, December 21, 1861. Originally written for the New York Tribune. Accessed as a reprint in The Buffalo Commercial, December 27, 1861. Online at Newspapers.com: https://www.newspapers.com/image/264444869/?terms=%22robin%20hood%22&match=1