December 20, 1861 – Federal Flag Officer Samuel H. Du Pont directed Captain Charles H. Davis to sink vessels filled with stones to obstruct Confederate blockade runners from entering Charleston Harbor’s main ship channel.
Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had initially resisted an idea from Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to sink “stone fleets” in Confederate ports. Du Pont wrote that he had “a special disgust for this business… the maggot, however, had got into Fox’s brain.” Thus, Du Pont complied with orders, targeting Charleston and Savannah.
Federals sunk seven “stone fleet” vessels, consisting of old wooden sailing ships, at the entrance to Savannah Harbor on the 17th. Three days later, on the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Davis sunk 16 whaling vessels in Charleston Harbor.
The sinking of the “stone fleet” outraged Confederates because the vessels could have permanently halted shipping from those ports, thus severely crippling the southern economy even after the war. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate defenses along the coast, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, “This achievement, so unworthy of any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice & revenge of a people which they wish to perpetuate by rendering more memorable a day hateful in their calendar (the South Carolina secession).”
However, the Confederates had sunk hulks in their own harbors to obstruct them before the war. Du Pont noted this when he wrote:
“I should probably not have recommended such a measure had I been consulted, but that we had not the right is simply absurd. So it is all right for the rebels to obstruct, but it is dreadful for us. Then the idea of pretending to believe that these are permanent obstructions shows great ignorance of the nature of outside bars forced by the sea action.”
Du Pont wrote that if the obstructions remained effective until spring, “it will be worth all the trouble.”
Ultimately, the sea water eroded the vessels and reopened the ports for shipping much sooner than anticipated. Moreover, the “stone fleet” only closed one of Charleston’s three channels, and it revealed that the Federals had no plan to attack the city; they merely sought to close the city’s access to trade. Nevertheless, Lee continued building defenses just in case.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 268; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3056; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-150; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 48