The one-way voyage of the Stone Fleet:
An aging armada sets course to become an obstacle
There may not have been a less impressive fleet in the entire history of the American Navy. The ships were old, long past their glory days, stripped of almost everything valuable and useful, permeated with the blood, oil and smoke accumulated over years of service as seagoing slaughterhouses. Yet as it slowly made its way out of the harbor of New Bedford, Mass., in November 1861, the crowds gathered onshore cheered and fired cannons in tribute to the fleet on a one-way mission that would, by design, end in their sinking.
The old ships, almost all of which had once been whalers, were loaded with tons of stones. The Stone Fleet, as it was called by both North and South, was heading to the harbors of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., as part of the Union blockade of the Confederacy. After reaching the choke points in the harbors, the ships and their stones would be sunk to block the channels.
The blockade was part of the overall Union strategy to defeat the Confederacy by cutting it off from the rest of the country and the world. At the onset of the Civil War the aging and infirm General Winfield Scott set out a plan for land and sea forces to surround and constrict the South. Dubbed the “Anaconda Plan” after the powerful snake, it looked easier on paper than in practice. Cutting off Southern trade seemed an obvious goal; doing it with the ships and men on hand was another matter.
The strategy was not without risks. Under the law of nations, the declaration of a blockade by the navy of one country created the presumption that the target of the action was, in its own right, a separate, sovereign nation. If the Lincoln administration declared a blockade against the South, it could open the door to recognition of the Confederate States of America by Britain and France. It was not unlike the current dilemma facing America in dealing with terrorism: No one wants to treat the stateless terrorists as prisoners of war with specified rights—but to hold them as criminals gives them constitutional rights in the U.S. judicial system.
After a spirited debate in the Cabinet, Lincoln decided to take the risk and declared a blockade on April 19, 1861.
Although Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles opposed the blockade in favor of a declaration closing the ports of insurrectionist states, he quickly began to carry out the order. With the urging of Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox—who led the failed relief mission to Fort Sumter—Welles created a Blockade Strategy Board, which drew on the expertise of Captain Samuel F. DuPont and U.S. Navy Commander Charles Henry Davis, the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey and an Army major. The board analyzed the coast from Virginia to Texas and recommended the most obvious method of blockading: sinking old vessels laden with ballast to create material obstructions. The old channels would be destroyed, the report conceded, but the obstacles would eventually create new channels over time while making it “almost impossible, certainly very precarious” for ships to pass in the meantime.
Welles ordered his purchasing agent, George D. Morgan, to begin, as secretly as possible, buying 25 old whaling ships in New London, Conn. The ships were to be fitted with a 5-inch diameter pipe and valve—essentially a cork that when pulled from the bottom would quickly sink the ships—and loaded with blocks of granite to the “upmost extent.” Morgan was authorized to pay $10 a ton for the ships and 50 cents a ton for the stone. The Navy had no problem finding willing sellers for either the ships, left idle in ports, or for the stone, as fences and cobblestone paving began disappearing along with granite blocks.
The American whaling industry was already in decline as kerosene, also known as coal oil, reduced demand for whale oil. The war cut off the Southern markets, exposed the ships to capture by Confederates and decreased to some extent the number of able seamen to man the whalers. Many whaling ship owners, unable to buy insurance during the war, had planned to wait out the conflict in port. Now they could make a profit from their idle ships. The fleet was quickly acquired and outfitted for its mission.
On November 20, 1861, the Stone Fleet and the skeleton crews on board set off. “The rebels,” observed the New York Times, “cannot but regard our proceedings with terror and dismay. They cannot lift a finger in resistance, or to prevent the cities through which their commerce has been carried out from becoming desolate wastes. They have tasted many a bitter cup since the rebellion broke out, but this last one is the most fatal chalice yet commenced to their lips.” In his final confidential communication to blockade commander DuPont, Welles predicted that “if only a few vessels sink” in the channel, “Charleston, as a harbor, will no longer exist.” Fox, the most enthusiastic backer of the plan, bore the mission like a “maggot in his brain,” according to DuPont’s chief of staff, Charles Henry Davis.
By this time the mission was no longer a secret—except to the Union ships on blockade duty off Savannah. In early December, Captain J.S. Missroon of the USS Savannah was surprised to see a fleet of decrepit ships appear on the horizon, with orders for him to take command of the Stone Fleet. He wrote to DuPont, on board the flagship USS Wabash, that he had “no intimation of the coming of these vessels.” Seventeen ships, he reported, arrived “with information that many more are on their way, and may be expected daily. They are all loaded with stone, but very few good vessels among them, and all badly found in every respect….Several of these vessels have arrived in a sinking condition.” Two of the ships in fact sank unintentionally shortly after arriving, and one was deliberately beached.
Clearly frustrated, Missroon worried the presence of the Stone Fleet presented as much a hazard to his own ships as it did to the enemy. Fortunately the Confederates on shore were even more concerned. Fearful the unarmed vessels of the Stone Fleet were converted warships standing by to support an invasion, the defenders of Savannah sank three of their own ships to block the Union forces. DuPont later said he would be willing to supply the Confederates with more ships if they would continue doing his work for him.
What was left of the Stone Fleet and its escorts turned north to Charleston, in Northern eyes the serpents’ nest of the rebellion. Charleston had been blockaded with limited success from the war’s beginning.
Anthony M. Riecke of the Carolina Zouave Cadets recalled, for example, the “excitement and anxiety” after a large steamship was sighted heading into Charleston Harbor. The units scrambled, ready to open fire when “there rose to her masthead the Stars and Bars. Each fort and battery answering her salute in rhythm while men at the various posts in the harbor seemed wild with cheering. This unexpected, and yet most welcome, visitor proved to be the old familiar Charleston vessel, the ‘Isabel,’ that had just run the blockade with a large cargo for the Confederacy.”
But on December 18, 1861, the Stone Fleet approached the harbor. The Confederates blew up the lighthouses guarding the entrance. At 4:30 the following afternoon, with the sun low in the sky and the tide at full, the first ship, the Theodosia, was towed into position. The last of the equipment and the crew were loaded into the whaleboat as the valve was opened. A correspondent writing in Harper’s Weekly noted that the “old bark settled down into its own grave.”
The work continued until sunset and resumed by the light of the moon. The ships went down, the reporter wrote, “as a brave man falls in battle, with his harness on.” Major Thomas M. Wagner of the South Carolina Artillery watched with his troops from captured Fort Sumter, but was powerless to stop the placement and sinking of the fleet. “From the observations made the vessels appeared to have been placed in a singular irregular line, with intervals of 100 feet, making a distance of about 3,500 feet in extent from shoal to shoal, and completely occupying the channel.”
Some of the ships sank straight down but many listed, with the debris sticking out at various angles. One ship, the Robin Hood, remained partially above water. The Navy set the wreckage on fire, burning it down to the water line. When the work was finished, with about 250 crew members waiting for passage to New York, the reporter wrote with apparent satisfaction that “one feels that at least one cursed rat-hole has been closed,” calling Charleston “once a thrifty city, but what is now the seat of rebellion, and an object of just revenge.” The water washed over the wrecks, erupting into sprays and foam.
From his headquarters at Coosawhatchie, S.C., General Robert E. Lee, then in command of the defense of Charleston, condemned the Stone Fleet as “unworthy of any nation” and “the abortive expression of the malice and revenge” the North felt for the South.
Lee’s sentiments echoed across the Atlantic. The British foreign ministry protested the blockage, a view widely supported by the London press. “Among the crimes that have disgraced the history of mankind it would be difficult to find one more atrocious than this,” wrote the Times of London. “People who would do an act like this would pluck the sun out of the heavens, to put their enemies in darkness, or dry up the rivers, that no grass might for ever grow on the soil where they had been offended.” The weekly humor magazine Punch ran a cover caricature of America as a grinning Indian “savage” gleefully surveying the sunken Stone Fleet in Charleston Harbor while holding a copy of the anti-British New York Herald.
Confederate envoy A. Dudley Mann wrote to Jefferson Davis from London of the “worst than barbarous act of Lincoln in sinking the stone fleet in Charleston harbor.” The European naval powers, Mann assured Davis, were outraged at the destruction of a harbor to the permanent injury of mankind, with France condemning it as “vindictive vandalism” and Prussia calling it a “crime and outrage to civilization.” He was optimistic the act would benefit the Confederacy’s effort to gain diplomatic recognition.
After the first operation of the Stone Fleet was completed, Welles ordered a second fleet assembled and sunk in another channel of Charleston Harbor. Another 20 whalers were sunk by late January 1862. With the Stone Fleets now a fait accompli, Secretary of State William Seward quietly sent word through back channels of diplomacy that no other ports would be blocked and that the obstructions would be removed after victory.
He needn’t have bothered. For all the incendiary rhetoric on both sides, the ships and stones sunk in the harbor had little real effect. The wreckage of the once proud ships quickly rotted and washed away, and the stone cargos sank into the soft, muddy bottom of the harbor—the same mud that concealed the pioneer submarine H.L. Hunley for more than a century. The flow of water around the stones actually cleared the channel, by some reports making it deeper than before. The blockade continued throughout the war, but although the overall tonnage reaching port was reduced, most blockade runners, by some estimates five out of six, made it through without any problem. The blockade runners, as often motivated by profit as by patriotism, found room to carry pricey luxury goods in place of war materials.
Today there is not a trace of the Stone Fleet in the harbor. The channels once targeted were bypassed for a new channel. The effort, like the war of which it was a small part, exists only in history.
Although he lives a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, Greg Bailey seems to have an affinity for ships—and has edited a memoir of an 1873-74 whaling voyage.