January Blunder: The Union Army and Its "Stone Fleet"
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

January Blunder: The Union Army and Its "Stone Fleet"

Before we leave the month of January, here's one more story from 150 years ago.  The Union wanted to blockade the southern coast, but Charleson Harbor proved particularly difficult because of its many entrances. A fleet of twenty-five old whalers near the end of their usefulness, sailed on 2 November 1861, and blundered its way down the coast. The ships had been rigged to sink upon command.  A couple of the whalers ran aground while others were already leaking by the time they reached South Carolina. Only sixteen ships went on to Charleston, where on 20 December, the "Stone Fleet"finally sank into the main shipping channel just off Morris Island on the south side of the harbor. Five staggered lines of three or four ships each settled into the sand, some with masts still showing above the waves.         

An observer for Harper's Weekly reported:
 But with a fleet of ships sunk across and blockading an important channel, leading to what was once a thrifty city, but what is now the seat of rebellion, and an object of just revenge, the dismasting of the hulks, within sight of the rebel flags and rebel guns, is really an unalloyed pleasure. One feels that at least one cursed rat-hole has been closed, and one avenue of supplies cut off by the hulks, and any thing that adds to the efficiency of the work affords additional pleasure.

But it was, in fact, a wasted effort, for there was more than one channel into the harbor. Blockade runners simple shifted their efforts to the north side of the harbor and came into Charleston through Moffitt's Channel between Rattlesnake Shoals and the shore of Sullivan's Island.

A second "Stone Fleet" of twenty vessels arrived on 20 January 1862, and, within the week, these had similarly settled into Moffitt's Channel. Still, illegal ships made their way into Charleston down the center of the harbor through the Swash Channel. Charles Cawley described the scene as the whalers "disappeared like phantom ships" and chided the citizens of Charleston for "complaining of this imaginary peril." Marchand also analyzed the attempt: "Though an imaginative innovation, it was to prove a disastrous failure. Underwater currents disturbed the sunken rockpiles, and the strategic fallout to the endeavor was the elimination of 27 ships."

This move, on the first anniversary of South Carolina's secession, elicited only scorn from Robert E. Lee. In a letter to J. P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of War, he wrote:
The enemy brought his stone fleet to the entrance of Charleston Harbor to-day, and sunk between thirteen and seventeen vessels in the main ship channel . . . This achievement, so unworthy any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice and revenge of a people which it wishes to perpetuate by rendering more memorable a day hateful in their calendar. It is also indicative of their despair of ever capturing a city they design to ruin, for they can never expect to possess what they labor so hard to reduce to a condition not to be enjoyed.

If you'd like to know more, A Scratch with the Rebels is now on sale in Kindle edition for only $2.99.  Or borrow it for free if you are a Kindle Prime member.