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Doc. 235. operations of the Stone fleet.

A correspondent of the New York Tribune gives the following minute account of the fleet:

off Port Royal entrance, steamship Cahawba, Dec. 17, 1861.
To Charleston!--that is our destination; or, more accurately, to the bar at the entrance of the harbor of that doomed city. The terrible stone fleet, on a mission as pitiless as the granite that freights it, sailed this morning from the harbor of Port Royal, and before two days are [504] past will have made Charleston an inland city. This western bride of the sea is to be a widow; the decree of divorce is entered in a court without appeals; and the fleet which executes it, storm-tossed, shattered, and unworthy of the sea, is a fit counterpart to the gorgeous galleys with whose stately procession the Doge yearly wedded Venice to the Adriatic. Against these crumbling hulks the batteries which silenced Sumter point their guns in vain. They have taken counsel of the Romans, who declared that he is the most dangerous enemy who values not his own life, and has insured success by resolving on suicide.

Sixteen vessels will be sunk on the bar at the river entrance. Here is the list:

AmazonCapt. SwiftNew Bedford.
AmericaCapt. ChaseNew Bedford.
AmericanCapt. BeardNew Bedford.
ArcherCapt. WorthNew Bedford.
CourierCapt. BraytonNew Bedford.
FortuneCapt. RiceNew London.
HeraldCapt. GiffordNew Bedford.
KensingtonCapt. TiltonNew Bedford.
LeonidasCapt. HowlandNew Bedford.
Maria TheresaCapt. BaileyNew Bedford.
PotomacCapt. BrownNew Bedford.
Rebecca SimmsCapt. WillisNew Bedford.
L. C. RichmondCapt. MaloyNew Bedford.
Robin HoodCapt. SkinnerNew London.
TenedosCapt. SissonNew London.
William LeeCapt. LakeNew Bedford.

They range from two hundred and seventy-five to five hundred tons, are all old whalers, heavily loaded with large blocks of granite, and cost the Government from two thousand five hundred dollars to five thousand dollars each. Some of them were once famous ships; the Archer, for instance, the Kensington, the Rebecca Simms, and the Robin Hood, once owned by Girard. The Tenedos is one of the oldest, if I may trust the mate of the Cahawba, who confidentially informed me that her keel was laid when Adam was an oakum-boy; and if this be correct, one or two must date still further back to the period of mastodon and saurian.

With this fleet go the Cahawba, Philadelphia, and Ericsson, to help them along and assist at the sinking. The Mohican, Capt. Godon; Ottawa, Capt. Stevens, and Pocahontas, Capt. Balch, are convoy to the whole, and if Mr. Commodore Tatnall should be too curious about our operations, their eleven-inch shells will give him an intelligible hint to keep at a respectful distance. The business over, the Philadelphia and Ericsson go North with the crews of the sunken ships; the Cahawba returns to Port Royal. She is a good steamer, and at this moment carries her nose uncommonly high, for she is flagship of the squadron, by virtue of having the fleet-captain on board, Chas. H. Davis, U. S. N., who has temporarily quitted the Wabash to superintend operations. I am indebted to his kind invitation for the pleasure of accompanying the expedition. The Cahawba was steaming out to sea when I reached the wharf, and my boat's crew had a hard pull trying to intercept her, but just as it became evident we must give up the chase she changed her mind, ran back to the Wabash, and anchored. Some of the whalers being very slow to start, we spent a couple of hours in getting them off. The steam-tug Mercury did justice to her name, carrying orders to sleepy captains of reluctant vessels, and keeping her sandals — that is, paddles — steadily moving. By two o'clock the last vessel had got her anchor, and begun to drift lazily down with a light breeze that hardly filled her sails. The Cahawba took the Potomac in tow, the Mercury picked up the Robin Hood, which had been run into by the Alabama and partly disabled, and both stood out of the harbor.

Some of the fleet have crawled well away already, under canvas, and the Philadelphia has towed one over the bar, and is returning to do the same office for another. At three, we pass a small schooner bound in, apparently a captured rebel with a prize crew aboard. The men-of-war, most of whom dislike unprofessional service, have been set to work towing, for we want to get the whole fleet outside tonight in readiness for the first breath of air that may come to help them along. As yet there is very little wind, all of it now the wrong way, and the best clipper in port might be puzzled to beat out against the strong flood-tide. The Potomac, our tow, is enjoying herself greatly. There is swell enough from the steamer's wheels to make her roll a little, and her bluff bows nod to us rather gracefully as she lifts herself on the wave, and yaws with the surge of the hawser. Poor old ship; it is her last voyage, and she does well to make the most of it. We drop her pretty soon, and return for another, passing through the fleet on our way, close enough to many of them to read the names painted in white on their square sterns, which are of such abrupt angularity as to recall the familiar legend concerning the Maine shipyards: that they built vessels by the mile, and sawed them off to order. The Marion is coming out with the Ocean Express in tow, bound for Tybee--two very smart-looking vessels. Presently the propeller Parkersburg comes within hail, and is asked to go back with us to tow. The captain is understood to say he will, but doesn't. He is not of our party, and may have other business. Next, the Ericsson shears alongside, and we confidently count on her help, because she belongs to the expedition. Being ordered to return, her captain remonstrates that he draws too much water, seeming to be under the impression that he is expected to take a whaler on board instead of in tow. One of our officers says the Ericsson is a beast, which I find, on inquiry, to mean that she is a fine ship, but has very poor engines and worse boilers, with a name for ill-luck, which is, of course, fatal among sailors. However, she is [505] allowed to go, though we don't quite see how she would draw any more water with a tow than without. We are presently consoled by the report that the Pocahontas is coming, and shortly afterward the Mercury, also, which is constantly turning up in the most unexpected way just as she is wanted.

By this time we are well in the midst of the whole fleet, part of which is anchored outside the bar, part waiting for our return, while the gunboats and steamers and tugs are moving busily in all directions. More than thirty vessels are in plain sight, most of them on the same errand to a hostile port. The scene is extraordinary; the number of vessels, their purpose, the poetic and religious justice of the fate they carry with them, and the rare beauty of the day by whose fading light the scene is visible, make it singularly impressive. Far away in the harbor, rides a phantom fleet, its spars dimly outlined against the sky. Nearer, a ship, whose seams are yawing, like the ancient mariner's skeleton bark, crosses the disk of fire in the west, with a motion spectrally slow. The sun, just touching the sea, dyes its surface with crimson splendor, and passes into purple twilight. It has hardly sunk when another rises in the east, so exactly the same in color and size that you cannot at once believe it the moon. For the rest of the night she is regnant queen.

We hail two whalers, the Courier and Amazon, fast anchored, and apparently asleep, and get their hawsers aboard, with such clumsiness on the part of the Courier's boat that she is nearly caught and tossed in the bight of the line. Then the Amazon hails to say she has thirty fathoms of chain out and cannot get her anchor, but being ordered to look alive and make no further trouble, the anchor is speedily up. We have the fleet-captain aboard, and shall stand no nonsense. The Courier meantime has swung round till her cabin windows are staring into ours, but as she is about as sharp one end as the other, tows stern first very well indeed. Only one ship is left; we can't very well take her, but we are determined to leave nothing behind. A steamer is coming out, bound for New York. We know her to be the Daniel Webster, Capt. Johnson. It is rather dark, and she is evidently indisposed to see us, but we all go up on the paddle-box and wave hats and handkerchiefs till she can no longer pretend to be blind, but puts her wheel to larboard and waits for our hail. “Daniel Webster, ahoy! Will you tow that ship out over the bar?” sings out our Master. “I'll see you damned first,” answers Daniel Webster; and with that polite and obliging response, resumes her interrupted journey. Somehow, the Mercury at this moment reappears and of course carries off the lingering whaler. When we arrive outside we find the squadron anchored. There is no chance of getting to Charleston to-night with any thing but a fraction of the fleet. Capt. Davis is well satisfied to have got all the whalers out of port and under his eye, ready to start with the breeze. The Cahawba lets go the tow-ropes and drops her anchor.

off Charleston, steamship Cahawba, December 20, 1861.
The fleet got under weigh next morning, Wednesday, about an hour before sunrise, part of the ships in tow of the steamers, the rest trusting to canvas. There is the same delicious weather, only not quite enough wind for sailing vessels. A butterfly floats for an hour about our quarter-deck. Charleston light is in sight at half-past 3, and soon after the blockading squadron--the Florida, Augusta, and Roebuck. The Florida runs down to take a look at us and make sure that the rebels have not contrived to steal a fleet and get to sea. At five we are fairly off the entrance of Charleston harbor, and there, lifting its walls high out of the sea, is Fort Sumter! No loyal American can look on it without grateful remembrance of the service it has done. I have nothing to say of what is called its defence, nor of its final surrender, but I salute the fort with silent respect.

None of the ships under canvas arrived that night. The Philadelphia came about seven o'clock. The Ericsson, whose zeal had outrun her discretion in the attempt to tow three vessels, was seen sometimes during the night. Both were expected to remain till operations were finished, but the Philadelphia suddenly sent to say she had only three days coal, and must go to New York at once. Five minutes allowed for letters. The only business of the evening was a channel reconnaissance, which resulted in the discovery that the channel buoy had been moved in order to mislead us, and that further soundings would be necessary the next day to determine its true position. Ships enough had arrived no doubt to persuade the anxiously-watchful Carolinians that all the men-of-war had come, and were ready to repeat the Port Royal lesson. Two or three of the whalers on their way down passed within sight of the harbor, and caused some excitement on shore, signals being raised and guns fired in evident expectation of attack. The Charleston Mercury, it is thought, would be pleasant reading on the morrow, but unhappily the newsboys neglected to bring it.

The first news on Thursday morning was that the rebels had blown up the light house during the night. It is evident they supposed the fleet to be men-of-war, and an attack intended. They could have no other object than to obstruct its entrance, for the destruction of the lighthouse was an advantage to the real purpose of the expedition, and had been contemplated as a part of its work. Less agreeable information followed, that the Ericsson had gone North without waiting for orders, or any way communicating with the flag-ship — an unmanly desertion which interferes with the plan of operations, and compels the crews of the sunken vessels to return to Port Royal, [506]

Map of Charleston harbor.

instead of going direct to New York. A rebel steamer comes half way over the harbor about ten o'clock to take a look at our fleet, but keeps well out of range. The work of the day goes rapidly on. All the whalers which have not arrived are in sight, and coming up well. Mr. Godfrey is sounding to determine the points at which the outside vessels are to be sunk, while the Cahawba is busily moving about, bringing some of the ships further in, and hailing each one that she passes. The Robin Hood, whose name appears economically on her quarter as the R. Hood, has been rather a favorite, and is chosen for the longest life and the most tragic fate of all the fleet. Each ship is ordered to unbend her sails. Mr. Bradbury hails the R. H.: “Robin Hood, ahoy! We shall send all the sails aboard you for the present. When you have them all, we shall take them on the Cahawba, and you will then sink your ship!” A remark which has a startling emphasis, one would think, on board the Robin Hood.

Guns are now heard from time to time during the day. Moultrie is said to be now a school of practice. Sumter is hidden from sight. The weather, which has favored us hitherto, is still every thing that could be wished; and the haze on the land side has dropped a vail between us and Charleston, so that they are left wholly to conjecture our movements. A few people can be seen at Morris Island, some of them negroes, at the water's edge, and even wading in, as if trying to come off to the ships. The Susquehanna, Mr. Bradbury tells us, has nine who escaped before the fight while she was blockading off Charleston. Six of them are sailors and fishermen, worth two thousand dollars a piece, and earning fifteeen dollars a month for their masters. They readily went to work with the rest of the crew, were stationed at different guns during the bombardment at Port Royal, and fought throughout the action with perfect steadiness and unflinching courage.

Capt. Goldsborough of the Florida, one of the blockading squadron, came aboard during the morning with the news of the great fire in Charleston, of which some rumors had reached us at Port Royal. He was at anchor close in shore, and had the bearings of the city. The fire commenced on the night of the 11th and burned all night, the next day, and the night following. It was on the further side of the city, not near the water, the church steeples being plainly seen against the light. The wind was blowing fresh from the north-east, and the fire seemed to spread from the north-east to the south-west side of the city, and was awful in appearance and extent. Capt. Goldsborough also gave an account of a Swede, escaped from the Nashville at Bermuda, who described the condition of the city as one of great consternation and destitution. The people were constantly expecting an attack, were out of many kinds of provisions, and greatly dispirited. A rumor, current at Port Royal, says that a meeting was held in Charleston not long since, at which the question of abandoning the Confederacy was discussed, and several votes given in favor of that policy, among them that of the Mayor of the city.

Most of the day was spent in preparation. The Ottawa went in and anchored half a mile beyond the bay, while the Mohican took a position about a mile east of the channel and commanding its approaches from the city. Neither vessel is in reach of guns from the shore, unless possibly a shot from Morris Island might find them in range. But there are no guns on that island at present. Many are known to have been carried from the forts and batteries commanding the channel to defend the city on the land side. Three heavy batteries still remain [507] on Sullivan Island, though the blockading vessels have seen some of the guns removed even from Sumter. In the course of the afternoon all the whalers arrived and were towed up toward the bar in a convenient position to be taken over. About five o'clock the Ottawa came out, and towed first the Tenedos and then the Leonidas to their positions on the extreme right and left of the line. In a few minutes after anchoring, the crew of the Tenedos left her side in two boats, and we knew the ship was sinking. The process was much slower than had been expected. When the plug was removed, the water rushed in a stream from one side of the vessel to the other, but there was only a single hole, and when that was reached inside, it entered from the outside with greatly diminished force. The Tenedos presently heeled over a little, and being on the bottom, lay there for the night. It was low water, and the sides still visible. The Leonidas not swinging into the right position, her plug was not drawn till the next morning. After the moon and tide had risen, six more vessels were towed in, four by the Ottawa and two by the Pocahontas. By half past 11 the tide had fallen too far to proceed with the work. These old ships draw from thirteen to seventeen feet, and can only get on the bar near the top of the tide.

The sinking of the fleet was intrusted to Capt. Charles H. Davis, formerly, from 1842 to 1849, chief of a hydrographic party on the Coast Survey, and ever since more or less intimately connected with it. It is remarkable that when, in 1851, an appropriation was made by the Federal Government for the improvement of Charleston harbor, and, at the request of South Carolina, a commission of navy and army officers was appointed to superintend the work, Capt. Davis was one of the commission, and for three or four years was engaged in these operations. The present attempt was of somewhat different character. The plan adopted by him may be easily understood by reference to a chart of the harbor, or by the following description: The entrance by the main ship channel runs from the bar to Fort Sumter, six miles, nearly south and north. The city is three miles beyond, bearing about N. W. The other channels are Sanford's, Swash, the North, and Maffit's, or Sullivan's Island, which need not to be particularly described. Only the latter is practicable for vessels of any draught, but all serve more or less to empty the waters discharged by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Over the bar, at the entrance of the main ship channel, is a narrow passage, through which vessels may carry eleven feet at low water; about seventeen at high water. The plan of Capt. Davis for closing the harbor proceeded on the following principles:

First.--The obstructions are to be placed on both sides of the crest of the bar, so that the same forces which have created the bar may be relied on to keep them in their places.

Secondly.--The bar is not to be obstructed entirely; for natural forces would soon open a new passage, since the rivers must discharge themselves by some outlet; but to be only partially obstructed, so that, while this channel is ruined, no old one, like Swash or Sanford, shall be improved, or a new one formed.

Thirdly.--The vessels are to be so placed that on the channel course it shall be difficult to draw a line through any part of it that will not be intercepted by one of them. A ship, therefore, endeavoring to make her way out or in, cannot do it by taking the bearings of any point of departure, as she cannot sail on any straight line.

Fourthly.--The vessels are to be placed checkerwise, and at some distance from each other, so as to create an artificial unevenness of the bottom, remotely resembling Hell Gate and Holes' Hole, which unevenness will give rise to eddies, countercurrents, and whirlpools, adding so seriously to the difficulties of navigation that it can only be practicable by steamers, or with a very commanding breeze.

With reference to the second, it may be added, that no other channel now existing will be closed, at least for the present, for if such a plan were carried too far, the formation of a new channel would be inevitable. Moreover, for the purposes of the blockade, the obstruction of the main channel is entirely sufficient. Maffit's Channel is so difficult that the Nashville failed in an attempt to escape by it, although made by daylight and with two pilots on board, and if it should be rendered more easily navigable in any way, it can be effectually blockaded by a force which is unable to watch that and another exit at the same time. And as to sinking vessels in the narrowest portion of that channel, it could only be done by first silencing the batteries on Sullivan's Island, if not Sumter itself.

The execution of the foregoing plan was begun by buoying out the channel and circumscribing within four points the space where the vessels were all to be sunk, as follows:

S. W.‡the bar.‡N. E.

The distance between the points from S. W. to N. E. is about an eighth of a mile; the breadth perhaps half as much. It will be understood that it was no part of the plan to build a wall of ships across, but to drop them at a little distance from each other, on the principles above stated, closing the channel to navigation, but leaving it open to the water.

Work was resumed on Friday morning, the 20th, the Ottawa and Pocahontas bringing the ships to their stations. The placing of them was an operation of considerable nicety, especially as some of the vessels were so deep as to be with difficulty dragged on the bar, except at high water. A graver hindrance to their exact location was found in the imperfection of the arrangement for sinking, several of the ships [508] remaining afloat so long after the plug was knocked out, that they swung out of position. They were, nevertheless, finally placed very nearly according to the plan. Great credit is due to Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Godfrey for the successful execution of so difficult an undertaking. The last ship, the Archer, closed the only remaining gap, and the manner in which Mr. Bradbury took her in with the Pocahontas and then extricated the latter from her perilous position, filled the fleet with admiration for his skillful seamanship and cool daring. The difficulty with which this light vessel, in broad daylight, with such a pilot, got through, is sufficient evidence of the thoroughness of the work and the total impracticability of the channel for ordinary navigation. By half past 10 the last plug was drawn, and every ship of the sixteen was either sunk or sinking. Our expectations had been to some extent disappointed in the character of the expedition while it was in progress. None of the vessels wholly disappeared from sight, and those which heeled over farthest and were most under water, had subsided in a very deliberate manner. Still, it had been rather melancholy to see the old craft that had survived so many storms, stripped of their sails and towed in, one by one, to be sunk; and when the whole fleet was in position the scene was sufficiently novel and striking to satisfy any hopes. From the position in which the Cahawba lay, there was hardly an opening between the ships. An impassable line of wrecks was drawn for an eighth of a mile between the points above indicated. All but two or three were careened. Some were on their beam ends, some down by the head, others by the stern, and masts, spars, and rigging of the thickly-crowded ships were mingled and tangled in the greatest confusion. They did not long remain so. The boats which had been swarming about the wrecks picking up stores, sails, and what-ever was to be got, returning heavily laden, were ordered back to cut away the masts. It was meant to leave nothing behind of use to the rebels. The Cahawba was not more than half a mile from the bar, and every thing was in full view from her deck. In half an hour from the time the boats left her side the mizzenmast of the Rebecca Simms went over the side, and was speedily followed by the main and fore. The next was the Richmond, whose three masts went by the board together, with three almost simultaneous reports, followed by the snapping of stays and shrouds, like irregular volleys of musketry, and the cheers of all the crews in the boats. As they fell, the sound of heavy cannon echoed down the bay, and for the next two hours the crash of falling masts was accompanied by the same salute. The guns of Sumter were the requiem of the fleet. Some stanch old ships died very hard, settling very slowly, and still upright when they had felt the bottom. It was hard to believe they were not afloat, and might yet sail away from their dreary fate, but the stately masts which one moment were standing in strength, the next are helplessly floating on the water, and had left only a hulk behind them. I think no one ever saw before the masts of fifteen ships cut away in a morning. When they were gone the desolation was almost complete; the picture more utterly ruinous and forlorn than can be conceived. One ship out of the sixteen, the Robin Hood, with upright masts, stood solitary sentinel over the wrecks. As evening came on she was set on fire, and gave us as the crown of our novel experiment, the rare sight of a ship on fire at sea. She was still burning when the Cahawba left for Port Royal at one in the morning.

The work of the expedition is a complete success. If it seemed sometimes a sad one even to us, with what feelings must the people of Charleston have looked on its progress? All the operations of the fleet were in full sight of Moultrie, Morris, and Sullivan Islands, and Sumter, but not a man could lift a finger to imperil or arrest them. The fire which swept the streets of half the city was a trivial misfortune compared with this final disaster. Its distant results it is impossible to foretell with certainty, for it is necessarily an experiment. An effort to blockade a tidal harbor like this, presented a wholly new problem, which was worked out by Capt. Davis with great ingenuity and scientific skill; and for his present success it is enough to know that all access by the main ship channel is effectually closed. The bar is paved with granite, and the harbor a thing of the past.

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