Stone Fleet of Charleston
- Diagram of the Charleston harbor battlefield from SC Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology
Charleston's Stone Fleet
It may not be instinctive to think of Charleston's harbor as a battlefield, but for four years during the Civil War, that's exactly what it was. A team of underwater archaeologists from the University of South Carolina recently mapped out the naval battlefield for the first time, using the same strategies developed to understand historic battlefields such as Gettysburg. One of their most interesting discoveries was the location of several blockade runners. As we discussed last week, close to the beach of the Isle of Palms are the wrecks of the Georgiana, Norseman, Mary Bowers, and Constance--perhaps with sunken treasure (!). But the more recent discoveries include wrecks that are buried under the beach and maritime forest of Sullivan's Island. See, the 1865 shoreline of Sullivan's Island was set much further back; lots of land has accreted since the jetties were built in the late 1800s. Any loot on these ships is going to be a lot more difficult to get to than taking a short dive, that's for sure. But arguably the most interesting and unlikely discovery was the remains of the first Stone Fleet. Now, this is an interesting piece of Charleston's Civil War era maritime history.
- 1861 Characterization of Scott's plan to blockade the South. J.B. Elliott. LOC/ American Memory
Part of the Union's strategy to defeat the Confederacy from the outset of the war involved a blockade to surround and constrict the South, preventing Confederate military supplies from coming in as well as halting the export of Southern cotton. For the Charleston harbor, this meant creating a blockade of Union ships that were strung in an arc from Dewee's Inlet on the north end of Isle of Palms all the way down to Stono Inlet, south of Folly Beach. Between these two inlets were five channels that ran into the Charleston Harbor (north to south): Maffitt's Channel, North Channel, Swash Channel, the Main Ship Channel and Lawford Channel. Maffitt's Channel was popular with blockade runners who, despite the shipwrecks mentioned above, were generally pretty successful. In fact, they were so successful here (and in Savannah) that Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox became exasperated and cooked up a plan: plug up the main channels of these harbors by sinking old whaling vessels laden with stone; the blockade runners would be blocked or their hulls destroyed by this Stone Fleet.
- View of the Stone Fleet by John R. Spears, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at University of Washington
Now, this idea, the "maggot that got into Fox's brain," did not sit well with many people in the Union or abroad. This was the era before the concept of 'total war' had taken over, and the strategy was something that went beyond the rules of 'civilized' warfare. "The notion of destroying, perhaps forever, the navigability of a major port was seen as a barbarous act," historian Patrick Browne wrote. The Secretary of State had to promise British diplomats that nothing like this would ever happen again and that the vessels would be removed after the war; French diplomats called it "vindictive vandalism" and the Prussians condemned it as "a crime and outrage to civilization." Many believed that it would permanently destroy the harbor and others thought that eventually new channels would form around the sunken ships. Although the ships had been bought and sailed under sealed orders, it was an open secret and the cause of a noisy controversy.
Apparently, the only ones who hadn't heard about the mission were the Union ships blockading Savannah. When the battered ships arrived to the port in December, 1861, they were in such bad shape that two were unintentionally sunk and a third was deliberately beached. The Union navy worried that the Stone Fleet was as much a hazard to its fleet as it might have been to the Confederates, but the Confederates were afraid that the vessels were converted warships and sunk three of their own ships to block the Union forces from invading. So, the Stone Fleet turned around and headed for Charleston to plug up one of the 'rat holes' that lead into the harbor.
- The Stone Fleet in Charleston Harbor, Harper's Weekly, January 11, 1862
Old Sailor's Lament
Captain Charles Davis did not relish the task of sinking of the old whalers, but went about it methodically by lining up the fleet in a 'checkerboard' formation of three lines. This strategy, it was hoped, would prevent the opening of new channels by the tide and encourage the formation of new shoals that would block the harbor. It seemed like a sound plan, and a second fleet was sunk in January, 1862 to block another channel into the harbor. Everything went according to plan, but the plan, alas, did not work. The harbor was blocked for a short period of time, but the tides eventually pulverized the wooden hulls and when the timber washed up on the shores of Charleston, it was used as firewood. The pointlessness of the operation caused Moby Dick's Herman Melville to write a poem called An Old Sailor's Lament: "I have a feeling for those ships, Each worn and ancient one, With great bluff bows, and broad in the beam; Ay, it was unkindly done...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."
For over 150 years, the consensus was that the Stone Fleet was broken apart, buried, long gone. But the recent project by the S.C. Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology discovered that the large mounds of rocks and even some parts of the old whaling vessels are still there, sitting at the bottom of the harbor. Interestingly, they are not in the neat checkerboard pattern that historical accounts had suggested; in a more happenstance distribution, they were probably not as effective as obstructions as the Union claimed. How about that?
- 282 S Plaza Court, Penthouse 7, Renaissance on Charleston Harbor
Penthouse on the Harbor
Well, you'd never know today from looking at the harbor that such rich history lies beneath its waters. Who wouldn't love looking out over the water every day? Lois just listed a gorgeous penthouse overlooking the harbor with views of historic downtown Charleston, the Ravenel Bridge, Sullivan's Island and its lighthouse. There are balconies on both sides of the unit and the open floor plan affords breathtaking views from every room. This is penthouse living at its finest! Click here for full listing details and give Lois a call with any questions or to schedule a showing (843-270-2797).