From the ECW Archives: Queen of Delphine, Part II

Lillias Nichols

(Continuing the story from Part I of Lillias Nichols as prisoner of war and her captors aboard the CSS Shenandoah.)

New Year’s Day 1865 continued clear and balmy. All sails were set with just enough breeze to fill them, the first really fine weather they had experienced since entering the Indian Ocean.

Mrs. Nichols’s canaries sang delightfully all day. New Year’s dinner in the wardroom included two splendid hams adorned with Confederate flags.

It seemed a pity to cut them, wrote Lieutenant Chew, “however, looking at them was not sufficient for the voracious appetites of some of my messmates.” Hopes for the future were tempered by thoughts of home. “What a waste of waters between me and the shores of my country!”[i]

They had a nice dinner, noted Lieutenant Whittle. “This is a day upon which all persons however separated think of their absent dear ones more than on any other. Oh! How my heart feels for my dear ones.” He invoked God’s blessing and wished for a better and happier new year. “My constant prayer is that a merciful God will guard, protect and cherish our dear country. That he will open the eyes of our enemies to the cruelty of the war they are waging against us and that he may teach them that they are wrong.”[ii]

With the dawn, the near-barren volcanic island of St. Paul rose above the horizon. Masters Mate Hunt claimed to have observed Mrs. Nichols in some distress over the prospect of being marooned there, and to have comforted her. (Hunt had a tendency to embellish his memoirs.)

She told him of stories in the Northern press describing outrages committed upon defenseless men and women by Rebel cruisers, and produced a sample from an illustrated New York publication. The article compared the men of the infamous CSS Alabama with dastardly pirates and renegades, but was, according to Hunt, full of blunders and absurdities that provided amusement in the wardroom for days.[iii]

They dropped anchor at the southern end of the island while eight officers rowed to the beach for a day of exploration and fishing, returning in the evening loaded with fish and in the best of spirits. But they paid dearly, recalled Hunt, with bright sunburns and hands blistered at the oars.

They had hoped to capture a seal or two but failing this, found a penguin and, “brought his aquatic fowlship off in triumph.” The penguin had the bray of an ass, was covered by gray down, and walked with military erectness. Someone pinned a rag around its neck resembling a shawl like an old lady, which amused them all, including Mrs. Nichols. Waddell shaped course for Cape Leeuwin at the southwestern tip of Australia.[iv]

CSS Shenandoah

The men (and woman) of Shenandoah settled into underway routine for the next three weeks with everyone anxious to get ashore. Friday, January 6, 1865, was Surgeon Lining’s thirty-first birthday. He enjoyed conversing with Mrs. Nichols and viewing her family photographs, but Captain Nichols got jealous and came poking around whenever the doctor was with her. “The fool and ass…. I shall now go on talking to her to plague him, if nothing else.”

Nichols frequently walked the quarterdeck with his wife, a privilege extended to no other prisoners. According to Hunt, “the old fellow made himself so continually and unmitigatedly disagreeable that our officers perforce avoided him.” They were as anxious to be rid of him as he was to be elsewhere.[v]

Lieutenant Chew noted the crossing of the meridian exactly opposite his home on the globe and was amazed to find himself in such a far off place. He calculated that Melbourne, Australia, and Lexington, Missouri were distant from each other by the Cape of Good Hope 238 degrees of longitude, equal to 12,600 miles.

They had enjoyed summer and fall in Europe and now in the southern hemisphere were having summer over again. “I suppose by the coming of the winter months, we will have [re-]crossed the line, thus having continual summer.”[vi]

Lieutenant William Whittle reported an uncomfortable encounter with Mrs. Nichols one morning in the wardroom:

“Well Mr. Whittle, I trust that we may soon have peace,” she said, a sentiment to which he concurred.

“Do you think we can ever be friends?”

“No Madam, never,” he responded.

“But Mr. Whittle, if after the peace was made you were to meet me, would you speak to me?”

“Certainly, Madam, I would speak at any time to a female.”

“But would you not speak to my husband?”

“I might do so as he has never served against us.”

The lady expressed admiration for the Confederate Navy uniform cap and asked if she could have one. Whittle felt bound as a gentleman to acquiesce; he could say no to men but not to a woman. But they were Yankees, and their motives could only be mercenary. Whittle had no doubt she would hand the cap, if provided, over to her husband and he would sell it.

He thought no woman with so little delicacy as to place a gentleman in such a fix should expect him to comply, “and on this principle I will let the cap alone.” Mrs. Nichols apparently developed a grudging fondness for some of the officers, but never took to the somewhat stuffy Virginian. She undoubtedly enjoyed teasing him.[vii]

Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, February 1865 (State Library of Victoria, Melbourne)

A new parole form was prepared for signature by the prisoners before release upon arrival in Melbourne, in which they promised not to serve against the Confederacy, and not to provide information tending to the detriment of the Shenandoah. Captain Nichols signed the form without protest, but not his wife.

Dr. Charles Lining

“She let loose with her tongue, pitching directly into her husband for telling her to sign it & say nothing,” reported Lining. The lady would not feel bound by parole given under duress and would pass on whatever information she pleased (which she subsequently did to the U.S. Consul in Melbourne).

After signing the document, Mrs. Nichols turned to Lieutenant Lee and pointedly inquired: “Is there anything you want [my son] Phiny to sign?” Lee replied: “No, Madame, we are much more afraid of you than we are of him.” Dr. Lining: “She went out in a towering rage. Not to get the vials of her wrath poured out on me, I kept quiet.”[viii]

On the morning after arrival, Captain Waddell was awakened by voices in the adjoining cabin. Mrs. Nichols was preparing for departure and loudly demanding restitution of every book taken from her ship Delphine. All were returned except Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Lieutenant Whittle threw overboard.

The lady thanked them for their kindness, declaring she liked all the officers except Doctor Lining and Lieutenant Whittle. “I thought I was a kind of chicken of hers,” concluded the embarrassed lieutenant, “anyhow I was very kind to her.” The Nichols family loaded their luggage into boats and shoved clear of Shenandoah. Her parting shot: “I wish that steamer may be burned.”[ix]

(Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015) by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes)

[i] Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 1 January 1865.

[ii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 99.

[iii] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 87-89.

[iv] Ibid., 84-86.

[v] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 6 January 1865; Hunt, Shenandoah, 91.

[vi] Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 12 January 1865.

[vii] Whittle, Voyage, 105-06.

[viii] Lining, Journal, 23 January 1865.

[ix] Whittle, Voyage, 106; James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:809.

From the ECW Archives: Queen of the Delphine, Part I

Lilias Nichols

A warship at sea was an exclusively male domain and sailors were a superstitious lot. Having a woman on board was unlucky as well as a confounded nuisance.

In December 1864, one New England lady found herself a prisoner of war in the Indian Ocean—about as far from familiar battlefields as it is possible to be.

Her captors, Southern gentlemen all, were befuddled by an enemy female in their midst. She, like so many courageous, strong-willed women on both sides in the Civil War, fought back.  This is their story.

The CSS Shenandoah was enjoying fine weather and fresh breezes, skipping along close hauled on the starboard tack when a cry of “Sail ho!” interrupted the monotony of sea life. The Confederate banner ran aloft; the signal gun barked, and the stranger hove to for inspection.

Captain James I. Waddell. Naval History and Heritage Command.

James I. Waddell (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Under command of Captain James I. Waddell, a North Carolinian, Shenandoah was on her way to Melbourne, eventually to the Bering Straits, and on around the globe flying the last Confederate banner. She had destroyed seven Yankee vessels on the trip down the Atlantic, and would take thirty more—most of them weeks after Appomattox.

Sailing Master Irving S. Bulloch, a son of Georgia, rowed across with an armed crew to take charge. She was the bark Delphine of Bangor, Maine on her maiden voyage with Captain William Green Nichols in charge, accompanied by his wife, Lilias, and six-year-old son, Phineas.

When Bulloch boarded, Mrs. Nichols confronted him: “I suppose you are going to steal my Canary birds, so you had better take them at once!” Her father was primary owner of the vessel with her husband having a third share.[i]

Delphine was seventy days from London in ballast bound for Burma to load rice, which Waddell assumed would be supplied to Federal armies. Once aboard Shenandoah, Nichols pleaded his wife’s health, saying with tears in his eyes that it would be the death of her if she were moved in such a delicate state. Waddell sought the opinion of South Carolinian and Ship’s Surgeon, Dr. Charles Lining. The doctor thought it sounded like an excuse to get away: “I told the Captain so & he rather reluctantly, I think, determined to burn her….”[ii]

The boats returned about 6:00 p.m. with all Delphine prisoners and baggage. As they rocked and bounced in the choppy seas, in danger of being crushed against the ship’s hull, the crew rigged a sling from the main yard and hauled the lady and boy aboard. “The Captain’s wife, woman like, brought with her a canary bird in its cage,” recalled Master’s Mate Hunt, “and if a bandbox containing her best bonnet had been added to her baggage, it would have been complete.”[iii]

The prize was raided for sheep and pigs. Waddell regretted not recovering additional stores, furniture, and other useful items that could not be brought over in the high winds and heavy seas. Night descended as Delphine was fired.

“Rapidly the flames gathered headway, casting a fierce, lurid glow over the heaving bosom of the ocean,” wrote Hunt. “From doors, windows, and hatchways they burst forth like the vengeful spirit of destruction, wound up the spars, stretched out upon the yards, swiftly enveloping shrouds, sails, and halyards in one splendid, fiery ruin ; and standing out, strongly revealed against the darkening sky, the burning vessel surged and tossed, a holocaust to the God of War.”[iv]

As Shenandoah sailed away, Hunt observed Captain Nichols pacing the deck with his wife, watching their vessel burn. “He probably had there invested the savings of half a lifetime of patient toil. To see the fruits of so many years swept away in an hour, might well try the philosophy of the best of men.” The fiery glow in the sky dropped below the horizon around three o’clock in the morning.[v]

Among the officers, reactions to their female guest were nearly unanimous. “A finer looking woman I have seldom seen, physically,” wrote Dr. Lining. Midshipman John Mason of Virginia: “The Captain’s wife is quite a pretty woman but rather a strong minded one…. I rather think she wears the breeches.”

From left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.(Picture from left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee, nephew of R.E. Lee. (Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA))

Another Virginian, First Lieutenant William Whittle, agreed, adding that she was anything but an invalid. “At first she is a little frightened but we can soon drive fear away by proving by kindness that we are gentlemen.”[vi]

Lilias Nichols was a down-easter from Searsport, Maine where almost ten percent of the 1,700 inhabitants were ship captains, including five uncles.

“When she came off she looked mad as a bull, but it only amused us,” recalled Lieutenant Grimball. The lady accosted the captain in the wardroom, demanding in a stentorian voice to know where they would be landed. “On St. Paul, madam, if you like,” said Waddell, referring to an isolated desolate island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. “Oh, no; never,” she responded. “I would rather remain with you.”[vii]

Waddell was surprised to see standing before him a tall, finely proportioned woman of twenty-six in robust health. “It soon became palpable she would be the one for me to manage, and not the husband. A refractory lady can be controlled by a quiet courtesy, but no flattery.” Lieutenant Chew’s only comment: “We have the trouble of another woman onboard.” [viii]

CSS Shenandoah

Shenandoah once again stretched her wings, all sail set and close hauled to the wind. December 30 was one of the most beautiful days they had seen. The heavy sea exhausted its mad passion and died away into long undulating swells. Captain Nichols confessed to Waddell his shame for having pleaded his wife’s alleged illness as an excuse to save the ship, but did not feel that the lie was wrong under the circumstances.

Mrs. Nichols seemed to get over her feelings and appeared a ladylike person, noted Grimball. “She is treated with every consideration. I suppose she will abuse us in inverse proportion.” The new goat with kid provided milk for tea every morning, during which the lady laughed and talked; her anger surfaced only when someone asserted her husband had been weak in his duty. The little boy ran about the decks playing with the goats.[ix]

It was the last of the old year, wrote Dr. Lining, “and a pleasant year it has been to me, taken all in all…. But where will I be a year hence from today? Echo can only answer, where? Nothing of any interest going on….” He had been suffering from a headache and would see the old year out with another drink to his little darling whom he longed to see.

Whittle agreed that their lady passenger was becoming more sociable, and, “really seems to think that we are not all a parcel of piratical barbarians.” He too would sit up to welcome in the new year.[x]

Captain Waddell resumed evening games of whist in his cabin. Midshipman Mason enjoyed a rubber with him, the first lieutenant, and assistant surgeon before retiring to the steerage where someone brought out a brandy bottle and proposed a toast to sweethearts and wives followed by “success to the cause.”

The midshipman hurried to finish the day’s journal entry before the master-at-arms could poke his nose in the door to say it is ten o’clock and lights out, but messmates made so much noise, he couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts wandered to Mrs. Nichols, her beauty and gentility. “But occasionally she brings out some ungrammatical expression which dispels the illusion; fortunately she seldom says much & the illusion lasts the longer….”[xi]

Master’s Mate Hunt was on watch at midnight when the new year, “wearing all the languid beauty of a Southern clime,” opened. The wind was light and variable; the stars threw their silvery shimmer over the quiet water. Everyone but the officer of the deck, quartermaster, lookout, and the man at the wheel were wrapped in slumber. “Such were my surroundings when the ship’s bell, striking the hour of twelve, announced the death of eighteen hundred sixty-four and the birth of eighteen hundred sixty-five.”[xii]

(Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015) by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes)

[i] John T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[ii] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[iii] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 74.

[iv] Ibid., 75.

[v] Ibid., 78.

[vi] Lining, Journal, 29 December 1864; Mason, Journal, 30 December 1864; William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 98.

[vii] Grimball to Father, 23 December 1864, John Berkley Grimball Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:807.

[viii] Waddell, “Extracts,” 807; Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[ix] Grimball to Father, 23 December 1864

[x] Lining, Journal, 30-31 December 1864; Whittle, Voyage, 98.

[xi] Mason, Journal, 31 December 1864.

[xii] Hunt, Shenandoah, 79.

Watching the “Merrimac”

Artist rendering of the CSS Virginia

Artist rendering of the CSS Virginia

One of the joys of a historian is finding that perfect eye-witness account of momentous events, one that puts you alongside our ancestors and sees through their eyes. The following is just such a viewpoint.

“IN March, 1862, I was in command of a Confederate brigade and of a district on the south side of the James River, embracing all the river forts and batteries down to the mouth of Nansemond River,” wrote Brigadier General R. E. Colston. “About 1 p. m. on the 8th of March, a courier dashed up to my headquarters with this brief dispatch: ‘The Virginia is coming up the river.’ Mounting at once, it took me but a very short time to gallop twelve miles down to Ragged Island.”[1]

From the south shore of Hampton Roads, General Colston watched all day as the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack, also spelled Merrimac) first rammed and sank the 30-gun sailing frigate USS Cumberland, and then destroyed the 50-gun sailing frigate USS Congress with hot shot and shell. This was a cataclysmic defeat for the U.S. Navy on the day before Virginia would engage in her epic battle with the USS Monitor.

I had hardly dismounted at the water’s edge when I descried the Merrimac approaching. The Congress was moored about a hundred yards below the land batteries, and the Cumberland a little above them. As soon as the Merrimac came within range, the batteries and war-vessels opened fire. She passed on up, exchanging broadsides with the Congress, and making straight for the Cumberland, at which she made a dash, firing her bow-guns as she struck the doomed vessel with her prow.

CSS Virginia vs CumberlandI could hardly believe my senses when I saw the masts of the Cumberland begin to sway wildly. After one or two lurches, her hull disappeared beneath the water, guns firing to the last moment. Most of her brave crew went down with their ship, but not with their colors, for the Union flag still floated defiantly from the masts, which projected obliquely for about half their length above the water after the vessel had settled unevenly upon the river-bottom. This first act of the drama was over in about thirty minutes, but it seemed to me only a moment.

The commander of the Congress recognized at once the impossibility of resisting the assault of the ram which had just sunk the Cumberland. With commendable promptness and presence of mind, he slipped his cables, and ran her aground upon the shallows, where the Merrimac, at that time drawing twenty-three feet of water, was unable to approach her, and could attack her with artillery alone.

But, although the Congress had more guns than the Merrimac, and was also supported by the land batteries, it was an unequal conflict, for the projectiles hurled at the Merrimac glanced harmlessly from her iron-covered roof, while her rifled guns raked the Congress from end to end.

A curious incident must be noted here. Great numbers of people from the neighborhood of Ragged Island, as well as soldiers from the nearest posts, had rushed to the shore to behold the spectacle. The cannonade was visibly raging with redoubled intensity; but, to our amazement, not a sound was heard by us from the commencement of the battle. A strong March wind was blowing direct from us toward Newport News.

Virginia vs CongressWe could see every flash of the guns and the clouds of white smoke, but not a single report was audible.

The Merrimac, taking no notice of the land batteries, concentrated her fire upon the ill-fated Congress.

The latter replied gallantly until her commander, Joseph B. Smith, was killed and her decks were reeking with slaughter. Then her colors were hauled down and white flags appeared at the gaff and mainmast. Meanwhile, the James River gun-boat flotilla had joined the Merrimac.

Through my field-glass I could see the crew of the Congress making their escape to the shore over the bow. Unable to secure her prize, the Merrimac set her on fire with hot shot, and turned to face new adversaries just appearing upon the scene of conflict.[2]

Virginia exchanged broadsides with other Union warships at long range throughout the afternoon but was unable to close with them in the shallow channel. As the tide receded and dusk descended, all contestants retired to their respective anchorages. Colston continues:

And now followed one of the grandest episodes of this splendid yet somber drama. The moon in her second quarter was just rising over the waters, but her silvery light was soon paled by the conflagration of the Congress, whose glare was reflected in the river.

The burning frigate four miles away seemed much nearer. As the flames crept up the rigging, every mast, spar, and rope glittered against the dark sky in dazzling lines of fire. The hull, aground upon the shoal, was plainly visible, and upon its black surface each port-hole seemed the mouth of a fiery furnace.

For hours the flames raged, with hardly a perceptible change in the wondrous picture. At irregular intervals, loaded guns and shells, exploding as the fire reached them, sent forth their deep reverberations.

The masts and rigging were still standing, apparently almost intact, when, about 2 o’clock in the morning, a monstrous sheaf of flame rose from the vessel to an immense height. A deep report announced the explosion of the ship’s powder-magazine.

Apparently all the force of the explosion had been upward. The rigging had vanished entirely, but the hull seemed hardly shattered; the only apparent change in it was that in two places two or three of the port-holes had been blown into one great gap. It continued to burn until the brightness of its blaze was effaced by the morning sun.[3]

The rest of the story will be told in the forthcoming book, With Mutual Fierceness: The Battle of Hampton Roads for the Emerging Civil War Series.

[1] Brigadier-General R. E. Colston, C. S. A., “Watching The ‘Merrimac,’” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, 712.

[2] Ibid. 712-713.

[3] Ibid., 714.

A Poet’s Perspective: Melville and The Stone Fleet

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.

     But so they serve the Obsolete—

     Even so, Stone Fleet!

It was apparent from the beginning that the Civil War was not going to be a swift or bloodless conflict – nor would it be confined to land. The Union began building its famous naval blockade in 1860 in an effort to, as Winfield Scott put it, “squeeze the life out of the Confederacy.” The blockade was an immense task, spanning over 150 Confederate ports along the southern coast from Virginia to Texas. One of the most difficult ports to control was Charleston Harbor, nicknamed “rat hole” because there were so many channels in and out of the area. The Confederates were able to launch several successful blockade running missions in the area even after the North started patrolling the port. This had to be stopped if the Union had any hope of cutting off the South’s supplies.

In December 1861, the North decided to implement a unique and desperate strategy to block access to the Charleston Harbor. The Union gathered a number of ships, many of


A Depiction of The Stone Fleet Making It’s Way to Charleston Harbor

them old whaling ships, and sank them in the harbor. They called it the Stone Fleet.

Several of these ships were quite famous thanks to the colorful history of the North East Whaling industry. Take The Tenedos, for example, which was originally used by merchants sailing from Boston to India and other parts of Asia. By 1840, The Tenedos was recommissioned as whaling ship. The Tenedos was one of the oldest ships in the Stone Fleet. It was somewhat of a legend, similar to The Essex in Moby Dick.

Herman Melville, once a sailor himself, had a deep love for the sea and a particular interest in whaling ships. Melville writes of the demise of The Tenedos and other prized whaling ships in his 1866 poem, The Stone Fleet:

You’ll say I’m doting; do but think

 I scudded round the Horn in one—

The Tenedos, a glorious

 Good old craft as ever run—

     Sunk (how all unmeet!)

     With the Old Stone Fleet.

An India ship of fame was she,

 Spices and shawls and fans she bore;

A whaler when her wrinkles came—

 Turned off! till, spent and poor,

     Her bones were sold (escheat)!

     Ah! Stone Fleet.

The ships of the Stone Fleet began their final journey on December 10th, 1861. They were accompanied by a handful of steamships, whose crews would be responsible for sinking the other ships in Charleston’s rat hole. The journey took just over a week. A few ships sank along the way, but at least 16 had arrived in Charleston by December 18th.

Four were erst patrician keels

 (Names attest what families be),

The Kensington, and Richmond too,

 Leonidas, and Lee:

     But now they have their seat

     With the Old Stone Fleet.

The sinking process was rather simple. Each ship was loaded with stone ballast and had a large hole plugged up with a big cork. All the sailors had to do was remove the cork, chop off the masts and rigging, and leave the ship before it filled with water. The operation was completed within two days.

Another legendary ship to become part of the Stone Fleet was The Cerea, which began its life as an arms transport ship for the British Navy. Harper’s Weekly on January 11, 1862 recounted the history of the vessel as part of an article about the Stone Fleet: “During the American Revolution War she came over loaded with supplies for the British Army. A storm coming on, she sought shelter in Long Island Sound.”

The Americans living in the area learned of the ship and were determined to capture it. To do so, they squeezed a group of armed men into the bottom of a modest fishing vessel and sent it out towards The Cerea. The only people on deck were an old man and a young boy.

The Cerea sailed right up to the fishing boat in order to obtain food and supplies. As the British began confiscating fish from the deck of the boat, the Americans exploded from the ship’s hold and easily overtook the enemy.

“This was but the work of a moment, and before the britisher could arm his crew or recover from the surprise the ship was a prize,” recounts Harper’s Weekly. The Americans took The Cerea to their home port in New Bedford, where she was discharged of her stores. It was converted into a whaling ship sometime after the end of the war.

Referring to the fate of The Cerea, Harper’s Weekly continues, “She now goes to assist in sealing up one of the Southern ports. The Cerea was a very fast sailer, and has been ordinarily a very lucky ship. But now her sailing days are over and she will find a white sand bed on which to lie until broken up by the strong waves of old ocean.”

The sinking of the Stone Fleet was painful for sailors who had called those ships home, but they understood the importance of the Union blockade and, in particular, the need to block the Charleston Harbor.

To scuttle them—a pirate deed—

 Sack them, and dismast;

They sunk so slow, they died so hard,

 But gurgling dropped at last.

     Their ghosts in gales repeat

     Woe’s us, Stone Fleet!


A Depiction of the Sinking of a Ship in Charleston Harbor

Ultimately it was portrayed in the North as a strong defense against the problematic Southern Port. The New York Times, wrote on December 26th, 1861, as the operation was beginning, “Thus another strong blow has fallen upon the headstrong people of South Carolina, the effect of which must be more humiliating than any they have yet received. They have no means of resenting it, and their haughty rebellious spirits must fret and chafe beneath the weight of the heavy hand which has been laid upon them.” It would be though that these words were written in vain.

Unfortunately for the Union, the Stone Fleet operation was not a success. Melville ends his poem by reminding us the mission failed, his words showing clear disdain for the waste of the ships:

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.

Slaves and Sailors in the Civil War

The enlistment of African Americans as soldiers in the United States Army during the Civil War is a well-examined topic, but less appreciated is the story of freedmen and former slaves as sailors in the navy.

Wartime experiences of these men (and a few women) are as distinct as the environments—ashore or afloat—in which they served.

Men of African descent in the sea service started out ahead of their land-bound compatriots and benefited from vastly expanded wartime opportunities.

But they did not significantly advance the conditions of service, finishing the war about where they started in better-than-slavery but less-than-equal circumstances.

In the army, African Americans achieved a monumental step forward, a tale of stoic sacrifice and daunting perseverance in the pursuit of freedom and equality as depicted in the popular movie Glory.

Starting from total exclusion—the federal Militia Act of 1792 outlawed their services—African-American soldiers sweated, bled, and died their way to broad acceptance as combat soldiers. They escaped bondage and approached equality at least in the enlisted ranks only to have that promise snatched back postwar to the muddy middle ground of segregation and circumscribed citizenship.

The navy always had been racially integrated; there were no laws like the Militia Act. African Americans hazarded their lives and freedom against the nation’s enemies in the colonial and United States navies while achieving a level of respect, relatively fair treatment, and economic opportunities generally not available ashore.

They were fully integrated into ship’s crews. Although performing primarily manual and service functions, they were not restricted to those roles. They equally manned the big guns, were trained in small arms, and performed the myriad of seamanship duties expected. With persistence and performance, African Americans could attain petty officer (non-commissioned) positions equivalent to crewman of European descent and were paid accordingly.

Through the quasi war with France, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, economic growth and westward expansion generated continuing shortages of merchant sailors for the navy to recruit. Restrictions on enlistment of foreigners and general bias by mariners against navy service created increased opportunity for African Americans. Such service also generated controversy, adding fuel for antislavery advocates in the debates on the meaning of liberty.

Commodore Isaac Chauncy wrote of his African-American crewmen during the War of 1812: “To my knowledge a part of them are not surpassed by any seamen we have in the fleet; and I have yet to learn that the color of the skin…can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” He had nearly fifty onboard and considered many of them among his best men.[1]

Commodore Oliver H. Perry praised the bravery of his many African-American crewmen after the crucial battle of Lake Erie in September 1813. Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) in her desperate struggle with HMS Guerriere concluded: “I never had any better fighters than those n—ers. They stripped to the waist & fought like devils, sir, seeming to be utterly insensible to danger & to be possessed with a determination to outfight white sailors.”[2]

While African Americans faced hardship and death alongside shipmates, such service did not materially improve their lives ashore, and peacetime efforts were made to exclude them from the navy. Navy Surgeon Usher Parsons recorded that they made up a tenth of the crew of the frigates USS Java and the USS Guerrier. “There seemed to be an entire absence of prejudice against the blacks….” That was not entirely true but still it applied much more often than on land.[3]

The navy at sea was its own world with its own authoritarian structures, customized through millennia to the unique needs of shipboard life and hardly less strict in its way than slavery. Officers were immersed in a cosmopolitan service accustomed to sailors of all shades and always desperate for men.

It would have been disruptive of efficiency and discipline to place some into a separate category based just on color and treat them differently, and there was no need to. While this was still very much a class system, the qualifications of race, which played such a central social and economic role on land, had little importance at sea.

The policies of the United States Navy changed drastically in the nineteenth century, eventually leading to a career enlisted service. After decades of resistance by traditionalists, including many seamen, the ancient practice of flogging was abolished in 1850. The measure to end service of alcohol or grog was passed on the day after the battle of Antietam, September 18, 1862.

These measures reflected the social crusades of the second Great Awakening. Seamen’s welfare resonated with many other issues of that socially conscious era, including slavery, and led to significant improvements in the conditions of both merchant and navy sailors.

African Americans continued to enlist in substantial numbers through the 1820s and 1830s, although regulations from the 1840’s onward limited their numbers to 5 percent of the enlisted force. Southern officers increasingly brought slaves afloat or enlisted them and collected the salaries.

As the issues heated up, Northern political backlash led to severe restrictions on employment of slaves. At the same time, economic hardship was forcing many other men back to sea taking available berths. African Americans constituted only about 2.5 percent of the enlisted force in spring 1861.[4]


As the war exploded so did the navy. African Americans recruits were mostly freedmen at first, many having naval or maritime experience.

But by September 1861, naval vessels of the blockade, along the coasts, and later up the Mississippi were inundated with fugitive slaves, many wishing to enlist.

Commanding officers desperate for recruits pleaded with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for authorization to take them. Despite the ambiguity of the contraband’s legal status and the secretary’s questionable authority to act, Welles permitted enlistment of former slaves whose “services can be useful.”

Recruitment of contrabands (and freedmen) was carried out quietly, out of public view, and with much less controversy than would arise concerning the army. The most recent research has identified by name nearly eighteen thousand men of African descent (and eleven women) who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. From spring 1861 through fall 1864, the percentage of African-American sailors increased steadily from less than 5 percent to a peak of 23 percent—a significant segment of manpower and nearly double the proportion serving in the army.[5]

Contrabands made up a considerable majority of those sailors; nearly three men born into slavery served for every man born free. By fall 1865, most wartime volunteers had been discharged, but African Americans still constituted 15 percent of the enlisted force, more than three times the percentage in service at the beginning of the war.[6]

Even without formal policies, persons of African descent were broadly associated with menial labor and personal service. Class and racial prejudices could informally segregate them and constrain their opportunities afloat. But such practices varied widely, influenced by location, type of vessel, and the personalities of officers and ship’s company.

Ships assigned to stores and supply duties, in contrast to warships, were disproportionally manned by African Americans. Ocean-going warships had relatively few, perhaps 5 to 10 percent.

Blockading vessels along the Atlantic coast drew many more, and on the Gulf coast not so many, while ships of the Mississippi Squadron relied mostly on them.

Freedmen from Northern states or other countries were more likely to gain sometimes grudging respect of officers and shipmates, particularly if experienced in the profession of the sea. They spoke and acted in more culturally comfortable ways; they were more likely to be accepted as equals and advance a few rungs up the enlisted ladder.

Those from northeast port cities might have commercial maritime experience, perhaps on the burgeoning steam packet service to Europe as cooks, stewards, deckhands, firemen, or engineers. Young men from towns and villages of New England often had two- to three-year whaling voyages under their belts. Along the shores of Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and Long Island Sound, they were familiar with small craft used in oystering, crabbing, and fishing. Many others stoked the furnaces and tended the boilers of river steamers.

John H. Lawson

Former slaves, however, continued to be stigmatized by a supposition of inferiority, were more stringently segregated among the crews, routinely assigned manual labor and busy work, and rated and paid at the lowest levels. Contrabands also provided valuable labor at shore installations.

The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia exchanged broadsides with the steam frigate USS Minnesota in Hampton Roads on April 8, 1862. Minnesota’s aft pivot gun, manned by an African-American crew, was hotly engaged and two men were wounded.

“The Negroes fought energetically and bravely—none more so,” wrote their commanding officer. “They evidently felt that they were thus working out the deliverance of their race.”[7]

As in previous conflicts, African Americans of the Civil War navy proved their valor in many hard-fought clashes. John H. Lawson, Landsman, USS Hartford, won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Mobile Bay. African-American sailors received 8 of the 307 Medals of Honor issued by the navy during the war.


[1] Steven J. Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy (DeKalb: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 15.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Joseph P. Reidy, “Black Men in Navy Blue during the Civil War,” Prologue Magazine 33, no. 3 (fall 2001),, accessed February, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens, 122.