Civil War's 'Stone Fleet' Sailed From New London To Dubious End In South Carolina
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)
The iron-clad age had dawned that summer when Confederate naval engineers successfully transformed the burned, wooden hulk of the USS Merrimack into a fearsome, iron-plated commerce raider, the CCS Virginia.
To counter the threat, Welles ordered a design competition that resulted in the birth of the famous USS Monitor, selected by a naval board thanks in large part due to the timely intervention of competing ship designer Cornelius Bushnell of Madison.
Bushnell realized that the Monitor design — a "cheesebox on a raft'' with its innovative, rotating gun turret — was superior to his own and lobbied for its selection. In March 1862, the Monitor fought the Virginia to a draw at the Battle of Hampton Roads, ending a serious threat to the Union blockade and signaling the dawn of the modern naval age.
Bushnell's own ironclad, the screw-steamer USS Galena, was built in Mystic in just 90 days. Launched in February 1862, it became the Navy's second ironclad and went into action three month later on the James River outside Richmond. Unfortunately, the ship's iron plating proved inadequate protection against Confederate shore batteries, and its crew sustained heavy casualties. Taken in for repairs, stripped of her plating, the Galena later returned to action as a wooden warship and participated in Admiral Farragut's famous victory at Mobile Bay in 1864.
A directive from Welles in October 1861 set in motion preparations for the Stone Fleet.
A New London businessman, 35-year-old Richard H. Chappell, was charged with finding and outfitting the needed vessels.
Chappell had made his mark in New London's whaling industry. Ambitious and resourceful, he had expanded the reach of his firm to include seal hunting in Alaska and the Antarctic and guano collection in the Pacific.
Working with agents in New Bedford and Boston, Chappell scoured the New England coastline for ships. In just a few weeks time, 45 vessels, mostly old whalers, were acquired from New York City and various New England ports, with 11 of them coming from New London and others from Mystic.
Ships from the initial stone fleet were sunk off Charleston on Dec. 20, 1861 provoking an immediate outcry from the press in South Carolina and across the Atlantic.
"Shall We Have War With England?'' headlined a Hartford Daily Courant editorial on Jan. 3, 1862. The editorialist argued that Great Britain viewed the American rebellion as an opportunity to weaken a growing commercial power and would seize upon "any pretext'' to tweak the U.S.: "the hostile English press itself is already protesting against such a mode of blockade as injurious to the rights of nations."
The second stone fleet sailed December 11. Vessels were sunk off Charleston and Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, in early 1862. By then, reports had emerged that that this novel effort to impede Southern blockade-running had achieved, at best, mixed results.
As the Courant informed readers on February 15, 1862:
"The Sea Ranger which accompanied the stone fleet to Charleston has returned to New London. The Chronicle says the captain brings a report which will somewhat astonish all of us who have fancied that the stone fleet had closed up from navigation the inlets where the hulks have been sunk.
"The enterprise is pronounced so far a failure that 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 are sunk so far apart that it is easy to steer between them, and some of them lie in such deep soundings that there are six or eight fathoms of water between their rails and the surface."
Herman Melville, the great chronicler of the whaling era, mourned what he viewed as a wasteful failure in his poem, "The Stone Fleet." Here are 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."