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The Stone Fleet

Jan 1, 2003

Anyone familiar with that old sailor's last lament, "The Stone Fleet," by Herman Melville, will recall that the intentionally doomed whaling fleet celebrated in his poem was composed mostly of old vessels collected from the Massachusetts ports of Fairhaven and New Bedford.

The idea for the stone fleet was conceived during the early days of the Civil War, when it was decided that Union forces should set up and maintain a blockade of southern waterways to stem the flow of munitions and supplies to Confederate ports. The blockade was also supposed to prevent the export of southern cash crops, like cotton, from reaching world markets, thus depriving the Jefferson Davis government of badly needed foreign currency. The first part of the plan included Union patrol of entrances to southern ports like Charleston, S.C. The second and more radical approach was to sink navigational obstructions in enemy harbors and channels. It was at this point the plan for the stone fleet was put forward.

At a July 1861 meeting in Washington, a supremely confident Gustavus Fox, assistant secretary of the Navy, fidgeted while waiting to float a sinking idea. His brilliant concept: collect old sailing vessels, over-ballast them with rock debris, sail them into Confederate waters and then sink them at the most effective points to block enemy and neutral shipping to all but the smallest of vessels. Fox suggested most of the vessels required could be found tied up and idle at various whaling ports in New England.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the New England whaling industry was already in a period decline. Petroleum had been discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, giving America kerosene, a cheap replacement for whale oil in lamps. Also, the development of inexpensive spring-steel had lessened the need for whale bone in the construction of women's corsets. If that wasn't bad enough, whale numbers were declining, necessitating longer and more expensive voyages.

Fox's scheme was eagerly adopted, and the first stone fleet was sunk at the entrance to Charleston harbor on Dec. 20, 1861. But Confederate blockade runners quickly found that they could easily slip through Mafitt's Channel to reach the sea. For this reason it was decided to sink a second stone fleet to close that channel. The sinking of these vessels caused great consternation in European capitals and resulted in many shipping nations complaining bitterly to Washington that such actions were both ":arbarous and an outrage to civilized Christian nations."

The Europeans, however, needn't have complained. The sly old Fox's Stone Fleet flopped! The heavy granite ballast pushed the scuttled ships deep into the soft ooze of the bottom where the wooden, worm-eaten hulls quickly broke up. In fact, the sinkings may have had the opposite effect from their intended purpose, since navigation in CharleTton Harbor may have been improved by the tons of rock compressing bottom sediment.

The utter failure of the plan, which sacrificed a significant portion of New England's whaling heritage, led Melville to end his poem somewhat bitterly with the following lines:

"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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