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.
The boom in shipbuilding spawned the growth and development of local subcontractors and suppliers such as the Mystic Iron Works, which in 1862 began fabricating steam boilers and the iron plating the Navy was demanding by late 1861.
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."