Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | April 11, 2013

April 11, 1861- Whaling and the Civil War

Mary Brewster’s journal for her voyage from 1845 – 1848 ended on March 8, 1848 when the Tiger arrived home (Stonington, CT). Mary and her husband, Samuel did not return to sea for their last voyage until June 1848. However, Mary’s journal-writing did not resume until July 13, 1848.

Mary Lawrence’s journal will resume May 1, 1859.

Eliza Williams made sporadic journal entries from Feb. 27 – May 7, 1861.

Today marks the day before the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of America’s Civil War, which officially began when Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861. For several reasons, some scholars have also noted that date (and the start of the Civil War) as contributing to the decline of the whaling industry in the United States. Among those reasons, as noted by Eric Jay Dolan in his book Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (pages 309-311) were the following reasons: it became “increasingly difficult to obtain insurance for voyages and so whaling ships sat idle….; the “demand for whale oil in the north plummeted, as kerosene became the illuminant of choice [it was cheaper]”; the “pipeline of whale oil flowing to the south was completely cut off….”; and “the Union in an effort to place a stronghold on Confederate commerce….decided to “sink a large number of ships in the channel leading to Savannah’s harbor, making it impassable….” 

Those twenty-five ships (twenty-four were whaling vessels) became known as the “Stone Fleet” and included fourteen from New Bedford and Fairhaven (MA), five from New London (CT), two from Mystic (CT), and one each from Nantucket, Edgartown and Sag Harbor (MA). The ships were sold to purchasing agents at about ten dollars per ton (Dolan, page 310). Each of the ships weighed between 250-600 tons ($2500.00 to $6000.00). The ships were referred to as the Stone Fleet because they were to be loaded with blocks of granite to weigh them down and within each hull was placed a ‘pipe and valve’ so that at anchoring, the valve could be opened and the ship scuttled.

For the reasons mentioned above the whaling industry never recovered and was never able to return to its heyday of the 1840’s-1850’s. Additionally,  the near-decimation of the whaling fleet was due in part to the Confederates’ use of Commerce raiders from 1862-1865. Early in the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis looked to Europe to aid the South’s battle against the North. Hence, special agents from America’s south were sent to Europe to arrange the building of twelve warships. However, none would be feared as much as the Alabama and the Shenandoah, which before the end of the Civil War and in less than three years would capture and/or burn over 103 vessels (most of them whalers). The Charles W. Morgan, for whatever reason – whether smiled upon by Lady Luck or sheer Providence (fate), managed to evade capture and completed two successful voyage during the Civil War: voyage six from October 4, 1859 until May 12, 1863 with cargo valued at $165,405.74 AND voyage seven (the same voyage, Lydia Goodspeed Landers, the first Morgan wife to go travel with her captain-husband) from December 1, 1863 until June 12, 167 with cargo valued at $50,014.13.


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