The 19 sea captains of the 'Stone Fleet' gather for a portrait.

The 19 sea captains of the 'Stone Fleet,' a collection of old ships that were filled with rocks to be sunk in Charleston Harbor as part of the Union blockade of the Confederacy, gathered for a portrait. (/Mystic Seaport / January 3, 2012)

In November 1861, New London residents watched with curiosity as teams of oxen hauled wagons loaded with fieldstones through their streets.

The stones had been collected from the foundations of farms and old pasture walls in Waterford and surrounding towns. Generations of farmers had used those walls to keep their cattle and livestock from wandering off.

Now those stones were to provide a different kind of barrier.

When they reached the city wharves the teamsters, singing patriotic songs and with Old Glory waving proudly, worked with dock hands and sailors to load their rocky freight onto waiting ships.

Their wooden hulls used to carry blubber and oil from whales, but those days had passed with the advent of steam propulsion and petroleum. The stones were the last cargo these ships would carry.

The crews had rigged and readied the ships. Holes were drilled below the water lines in each hull. Plugs were then inserted, to be removed when the aged fleet reached its destination: the harbor of Charleston, S.C., seat of the Southern rebellion.

Union military planners believed that by scuttling the ships, they could clog the shipping lanes and bottle up a key Confederate port. The industry-poor South depended on its South Atlantic and Gulf ports to import the weapons, munitions, shoes, clothing and other goods from Europe that it needed to wage the war that had begun seven months before.

Devised by Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, the Anaconda Plan aimed to use the North's superior naval and material resources to squeeze the life out of the rebellion by seizing the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two, and blockading the 3,500-mile Southern coastland.

Thirteen ships in what became known as the Stone Fleet sailed from New London on Nov. 21, 1861. Twelve others left New Bedford and Boston. The 25 vessels, mostly whalers, were the first of two such fleets that set sail late in the war's first year to toughen the Union blockade and assist in ongoing operations against Confederate coastal defenses.

Just one week before, on Nov. 14, a Union flotilla had seized Port Royal Sound, near the Georgia-South Carolina border. Two Connecticut regiments — the 6th and 7th — had stormed ashore to occupy Port Royal's defenses: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard, both silenced by naval bombardment.

It was a notable success in an otherwise lackluster first year of the war for the North.

Connecticut and the Navy

From the earliest days of the Civil War, strategists in the Lincoln administration realized that for the Union to prevail, the Federal Navy had to play a critical role.

The blockade had to choke off the South's supply lifeline. Union warships and gunboats had to seize Confederate ports and move large bodies of troops and supplies along coastlines and inland waterways, particularly the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their various tributaries.

Charged with overseeing the effort was Glastonbury native and former Hartford Times editor Gideon Welles, President Lincoln's gruff, hard-working secretary of the navy.

Welles and other planners realized that to accomplish its mission, the Navy needed more ships, lots of them. Connecticut, with its long maritime history and established shipyards, became a key supplier, the historic whaling ports of Mystic and New London at the forefront.

In 1861, Mystic had three major shipbuilders and several smaller one. It emerged as a leading center for wartime naval construction. Its 50,000 tons of ships surpassed every other Union port except Boston, which was 20 times larger.

"The Civil War era was the peak of Mystic's long ship-building history. Most of the ships built at Mystic were for troop and supply transport, but several were built and fitted for combat, and a few actually engaged in battle,'' according to an unpublished paper by Brian Stanley, a graduate student in history at Central Connecticut State University.

Steamship construction led the way. The 56 steamships built in Mystic represented, 5 percent of the nation's total, more than Massachusetts and Maine combined. An additional 36 wooden vessels of various size and type were also built.