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The Lost Fleet: A Yankee Whaler's Struggle Against the Confederate Navy and Arctic Disaster

The Lost Fleet: A Yankee Whaler's Struggle Against the Confederate Navy and Arctic Disaster

by Marc Songini

Paperback(First Edition)

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Arctic disasters, rogue whales, ambush by Confederate ships—the true saga of one captain's struggle to survive the demise of the Yankee whaling fleet

It's the mid-ninteenth century and the American whaling fleet is struck by one hammer blow after the other. Yankee whalers are contending with icebergs, storms, rogue whales, sharks, hostile natives, and disease. Many whalers give up the life—but some carry on the vocation. One such man is a captain from Connecticut, Thomas William Williams. Not only does he go out on voyage after voyage, he even takes on board with him his tiny wife, Eliza, and his infant son and daughter.

The Lost Fleet's thrilling narrative recounts Williams' remarkable career, including a daring escape from the Confederate cruiser Alabama and a daring rescue and salvage of lost ships off Alaska's coast. Songini has crafted a historical masterpiece in recording a family saga, a true narrative of adventure and death on the high seas, and a detailed and well-researched look at the demise of Yankee whaling.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312380953
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/22/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

MARC SONGINI is a Boston-area journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Book Review, the Boston Herald, and the Boston Globe.

Read an Excerpt

The Lost Fleet

A Yankee Whaler's Struggle Against the Confederate Navy and Arctic Disaster

By Marc Songini

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Marc Songini
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5833-6


Lonely but Not Alone

The ship's agent whispered to the master, already on board, "Captain Jones, you've forgotten to kiss your wife good-bye!" Without so much as a look down, the captain replied: "What's ailin' her? I'm only going to be gone six months."

— Old whaling story


At about two hours before noon on this mild day, a thirty-one-summers old and pregnant Eliza Azelia Williams left one of the many wharfs connecting to Water Street and entered a waiting pilot's schooner. About to embark on what she knew might be a three-year whaling voyage, her destination was the Florida, anchored five miles downstream the Acushnet River — an estuary that pulled double duty as New Bedford's harbor. Mrs. Williams's lot wasn't enviable: Not only five months with child, she was also a green hand — and so, a soon-to-be-sorry wretch who'd never been to sea. Among those in the sailboat with Eliza for her last trip as a lubber were her husband and soon-to-be-captain Thomas William Williams and his four mates. Also coming for the ride were two of her brothers and Roland Fish, a principal at Fish, Robinson & Co., the firm that owned the Florida. The passengers all aboard, the boat left its mooring and began to glide down the wide, deep, slow-moving greenish-gray waters of the relatively safe confines of the city's upper harbor toward Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Casting off from and arriving at the waterfront both were attended by a near-sacred ceremony, with the appearance of shore-side congregations part of the ritual. Here an onlooker saw great joy and heartbreak as people were sundered, sometimes forever, while others were reunited, if not permanently, then at least for a while. Eyeing the harbor was a popular pastime, with many in the city watching from a rooftop or tower to see what ship might be arriving. Some merchants paid a lookout to watch the lighthouse on Dumpling Rock off nearby Dartmouth shore in Buzzards Bay. When a vessel was heading to port, the keeper there extended the lighthouse's signaling arm. At the cry, "The arm is out!" hundreds headed down to the waterfront to greet the ships, listen to the stories, and find out how greasy (successful) or clean (poor) the voyage was. Some in the crowd might also learn they had lost their investment in the cruise — others, they were minus a brother, son, or father.

A departing party such as Eliza's was common enough at the edge of the busiest whaling port in the world, but, it was impressive-looking as well. She was in good company by the reckoning of this city. It was tall and brawny Williams and his formidable officers who were going down to the sea in ships to do a great work there. Heroes of the port and the fleet's backbone, they were the envy and object of emulation of every boy they passed. Those who'd survived long enough to become mates and masters were physically strong, brave, and handy, as well as skilled at fighting both men and whales. Their sweat, daring, muscle, and blood had made the City of Light what it was, rich for its size beyond compare with any other city in America, if not the world. Through their toil, New Bedford had grown into a global whaling enterprise, a massive octopus whose tentacles reached every ocean, sea, river, lagoon, and bay that had a whale worth taking.

Just yards away from Eliza was the proof: The city blocks by the waterfront formed a hive of activity, with nearly all those who worked there serving the queen bee of whaling. The more primitive of these toilers included blacksmiths, coopers, sailmakers, carpenters, mechanics, and spar makers; at the higher end were the bankers, merchants, and provisioners. The fleet kept ten thousand men busy hunting leviathans, and some said if the combined ships of New Bedford and her little sister Fairhaven, across the river, had been laid out end to end — not that such an arrangement was likely to happen — they would have provided ten miles of dry walking. At any given time in the harbor, a forest of skeletal masts sprouted up from ships just returned from all over the world — the Davis and Bering Straits, the South Seas, the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic.

Here were the sounds of a busy waterfront: the ominous, pleading cries of gulls, the clink of a windlass's pawls as a crew raised an anchor, the creak of a ship riding a swell, the slap of drying sails and rigging, and the cries of mates and men. Vessels were tied up at dock or swung at anchor as they waited to disgorge their cargoes and be hove down for refitting before sailing again to harvest their varied fields. As their bosses yelled and screamed them on, stevedores manned the ship's windlass or, reining draft horses, used block and tackle to raise from a ship's airless hold the treasures of the deep — sheaves of whalebone taller than a tall man and casks of oil by the dozen. Teamsters carted these whale remnants away for the next step to their final destinations: Perhaps the oil became a fine bright light to be lit at a wedding, or the bone became embedded in a corset to keep fashionably small a matron's oversized waist.

By the wharves, covered in wet seaweed to keep the staves from shrinking and prevent leakage, the oil casks might rise up into small mountains awaiting shipment through the world. Despite precautions, some of the precious fluid always seeped out, staining the soil and giving the waterfront its unmistakable, unforgettable, and, not to mention, profitable stench. A fool could see and a blind man could sniff at New Bedford's wealth, or, to be more precise, that of its ruling and owning class. The distinctive and defining fragrance prevailed over all other aromatic rivals. These included the scent of the fresh cordage, white oak, and pine lumber, pungent sea brine, and the perfume of the pathetic thorn-bush blossoms in Rose Alley, grown as a futile buttress against the fishy smell. The whalebone was stacked to dry in yards near the waterfront, in row after row, where, collected together, it resembled a small, bristling forest. On the waterfront were outfall pipes (one was even celebrated in a painting), through which flowed raw sewage, and the poisons of industry, such as mercury, lye, and arsenic. These substances ran into the great vein of the Acushnet and mingled with the saltwater blood that sustained the city's commercial heart.

The schooner carrying Eliza and her party sailed, leaving behind the small city that rose up from the water's edge and covered the gently rolling hills beyond. With public lighting, large gardens, fine buildings, and paved streets, it was one of the grander communities in New England. Just then, it also was enjoying that time of year when the weather is a perfection of moderate temperature and mellow sunshine. The city, growing indistinct in the distance, with its fine "patrician-like" mansions, long avenues of green and gold, and fine maples, horse chestnut trees, and terraces of flowers, was "sweet to see," noted Herman Melville. Visible on the other side of the river was the low-lying town of Fairhaven and its church spires, where Fish, Robinson had its countinghouse and where the Florida was registered. (New Bedford had its own Florida.) The two rival banks of the Acushnet, set against one another forever, both geographically and economically, were united by a bridge so ugly some wondered if employing ferryboats wouldn't have been preferable.

A whaling voyage tended to be a rather effective portal into the next life, and it's likely Eliza, a devout Congregationalist, had attended some sort of a service. New Bedford, largely founded by religious dissenters, not to mention fanatics, had its share of fine edifices, like the imposing First Baptist Church on William Street. The elegant white Greek Revival structure didn't just assist in the guidance of men's souls to heaven — mariners used its tall and highly visible steeple as a landmark to help them navigate the harbor. Closer to the water — and hence, to the thousands of sailors, whores, thieves, murderers, and drunks who passed through the port each year — was the Seamen's Bethel on the slight rise called Johnny Cake Hill.

Some forward-thinking patricians with an eye to moral improvement (and the social order that followed) had erected the church to divert the wayward sailor from the many pleasures of the flesh readily available on the waterfront and make him think about death and hell. To add to the effect, set into the walls of the bethel were marble cenotaphs carrying a few of the names of the many unlucky sailors who'd died hunting whales. One such memorial was to Wm. [William] Swain of the Christopher of Nantucket: "This worthy man, after fastning to a whale, was carried overboard by the line, and drowned May 19th 1844 in the 49th Year of his age. Be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the son of man cometh." Clearly not the cheeriest of places — but on Sundays it was a refuge that a whaler destined for dangerous waters could seek comfort in.

A block away from the bethel was the granite-faced federal Customs House, shaped like a Greek temple. To clear his ship, Williams had trod the cobblestones on Second Street, climbed the house's rock steps, and passed through its tall Doric columns to enter. Inside, he obtained the papers needed to sail out on the face of the deep. God and death, commerce and treasure, government and power: the structures that grandly housed or signified them lay side by side here in the small, neatly ordered universe that was the city's downtown.

To Eliza, with the city gliding by her and in company with friends and family, it seemed a pleasant cruise. Yet it was more appropriate to view this trip as a funeral procession for her now-dead onshore life. Ahead in the distance was the new home her husband would soon present to her: the Florida, a black-hulled whaler and "a very fine sight," from Eliza's vantage point. However, with the wind light, the pilot's schooner was unable to make much headway toward the vessel, and Williams, impatient to reach her, hailed a nearby rowboat to tow them the rest of the way. The schooner began picking up speed, and soon Eliza was looking up the side of what would be her penitentiary-house. The vessel seemed quite large to her now.

The Florida was a 123-foot-long, 523-ton, three-masted square-rigged ship — that is, her yards were at right angles to her keel, as opposed to a fore-and-aft rigged vessel. She was 30 feet 10 inches in beam. Her keel was laid in 1821 in New York, and given the streamlined hull, the builders apparently had intended her to be something along the lines of a fast-sailing packet ship. In contrast, most whalers were bluff-bowed and broad-beamed, built for sturdiness rather than celerity — a quality generally useless in the whaling fishery, unless one was running from pirates, angry natives, or hostile warships. Despite the Florida's speed, her owners had converted her for whaling, a vocation at which she'd managed to survive for thirteen years. As part of the transformation, they built a tryworks (two huge try-pots of 200-gallon capacity each, mounted on a brick furnace to boil blubber into oil) on the main deck amidships. They'd also installed davits to hang whaleboats over the side for easy launching — three on the port, or left side, and two on the right, or starboard side. To give the entirely useful a touch of elegance, the ports in her black hull had been painted white to give her a longer, more rakish look — something popular with older captains like Williams.

There remained the ticklish problem of getting Eliza on board without using a gangplank. In contrast to her tall husband, the woman, who was under a hundred pounds, was tiny — standing straight, she could fit under his outstretched arm without touching it. With a deck, on average, ten or more feet above the waterline, depending on the water's mood, usually a mariner precariously climbed up the chain plates hand over hand to the shrouds (the ropes fastened to the mastheads). Completing this transaction sounds simpler than it was to execute, particularly on a swelling sea when a boat might rise up as high as the ship's bulwarks, and in a second fall halfway back down again to the keelson. Boarding demanded a great deal of skill and split-second timing. These were quickly developed, otherwise if a strong wave smashed into the boat and sent it flying against the hull, a whaleman risked having a limb pinched or smashed between them. To keep the operation simple and safe, the crew employed block and tackle to hoist Eliza in an armchair, which seemed to her "quite a novel way" of entrance and increased her sense of awkwardness. Already she'd accurately guessed how hard it would be for her on a whaler with "so many Men and not one Woman beside myself."

On board, Eliza was in sight of nearby Clark's Point, a small flat promontory jutting into Buzzards Bay — she was just off the edge of New Bedford and the dry, fixed world she'd known all her life. In addition to the city poorhouse, the point also supported a rubblestone lighthouse to help mariners plow through the often misty and dangerous waters nearby. The officers held the roll call immediately, and all hands were found on board, which wasn't surprising. Usually the crew came over the side the day before sailing, after which the vessel left the wharf and anchored in the harbor, which had the advantage of discouraging any anxious mariners from last-minute flight.

Just like Williams, these recruits were plucked mostly from the small towns of New England, although there was a troublesome blacksmith from New York City. There was also one of the near-ubiquitous Irish, a doomed race that was engaged in perhaps the largest diaspora in history while trying to stay a step ahead of starvation — it wasn't surprising that one or two displaced Hibernians landed in any given ship's forecastle. Later, the Florida would acquire some Cape Verdeans and Hawaiians to fill out the roster, men whose complete poverty made the absurdly tiny lays that whalers paid seem reasonable compensation.

For the low wages and other reasons, professional merchant mariners typically despised whalers, not wholly without cause, as filthy, incompetent unfortunates incapable of real seamanship and occupying the lowest rung on the maritime ladder. So much of what the blubber hunters did was different, including how they dressed. Rather than uniforms, whalers wore whatever they pleased or could afford, and didn't exactly look like sailors. Moreover, any given ship typically had a share of dupes who'd signed on while drunk — it was said a bottle of gin was good for a signature or an X on a contract. "And many an old Yankee skipper just as soon got his man by liquor as to say his prayers on a Sabbath morning," as one whaler noted. Some captains, it was said, even resorted to using the blackjack to persuade a reluctant prospect to join.

Now one such intoxicated or kidnapped crewman might be coming out of a stupor to find himself on a pitching ship. Head pounding, stomach churning, and about to be divorced from anything like the life he'd known for the next several years, the green hand wouldn't be in the best frame of mind for the voyage's start. Not surprisingly, forlorn countenances on the ship's deck would be common on the day of setting out.

The greenhorns required a rapid breaking-in period. This included training not just in the simplest and most essential tasks, such as how to pull the lines, which itself was an art, but also tutoring in how to ignore the most commonsensical and sanest instincts to hunt with an iron lance the biggest creatures inhabiting the planet. Thus, at least at the start, the men had to be more in awe of the officers than of the sea and the whale. To complete this makeover among his crew, it didn't hurt that Williams was a substantial physical presence whose appearance and temperament would've been appropriate to a Viking chieftain or an Elizabethan swashbuckler. (He was actually the scion of a family of weavers from a tiny inland village in Wales then toiling away in a Connecticut woolen mill.)

Despite youthful bad health, he was strong and quick enough to be a match for a half-dozen men or more at once, as he proved. His son Willie, also a whaleman, later claimed of Williams he was the finest type of man he'd ever known, six feet three in his socks, a giant in those days, broad-shouldered with long, muscular arms that functioned like human pistons. He stood straight as an arrow, or perhaps to be more accurate, the deadly lance that he wielded. At two hundred pounds, he was unburdened of any extra flesh, years of whaling having taken out all excess. If it were any comfort for the recruits, they had a successful master, who at thirty-seven had a reputation that stood out like his height. Williams had already survived whaling for nearly two decades, itself not a small feat, and proven himself worthy of the trust the owners had placed in him to manage their fat investment. A natural leader, he was fearless without being reckless, and if anyone could get the ship out and back in the least time with fewest deaths and most whales taken — it was him.


Excerpted from The Lost Fleet by Marc Songini. Copyright © 2007 Marc Songini. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Lonely but Not Alone,
2. A Lighthouse Keeper,
3. In Wild and Distant Seas,
4. Journey's End,
5. The Daring Fishermen of New England,
6. Old Rodney,
7. An Indifferent Screw Steamer,
8. A Pirate Deed,
9. Like Pursuing a Coy Maiden,
10. The Other Alabama,
11. Come on My Deck and Fight Me,
12. Terrible Havoc,
13. Idle Wharves and Dismasted Ships,
14. Death Stared Us in the Face,
15. In the Topmost Frost-Killed End of Creation,
16. How Many Will See the Last Day of Next August?,
17. The Most Crushing Blow,
18. Enough to Fill a Book,
19. Appreciable Deterioration,
20. Looking for a Modern Joshua,
21. A Dreary and Uncertain March,
Epilogue: The Clear-eyed Men of the Sea,

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