In Print

The Lost Fleet

The New England whaling industry on the ropes

By Dan Cabot - November 8, 2007

"The Lost Fleet: A Yankee Whaler's Struggle Against the Confederate Navy and Arctic Disaster." Marc Songini, St. Martin's Press (2007). Hardcover, 432 pages, including index and bibliography. $25.95.

The whaling industry was for a time a source of immense wealth for New Bedford, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. Whale oil, obtained by boiling down the blubber of whales, was the chief source of artificial illumination in the 18th and early 19th century. Whale bone (actually baleen) had many uses; most famously, the flexible corset stays favored by women of the period. Many of the fine houses along Water Street in Edgartown were built by successful whaling captains and the businessmen who backed them.

However, by 1858 when Mr. Songini's principal narrative begins, whaling was already doomed. Yankee whalers had been so successful that they were fishing out the oceans of the world, and some species were already nearly extinct. Even more of a threat was the increasing use of lighting oils made from coal and fossil crude oil, recently discovered in Pennsylvania.

It is not surprising that whaling ships were often lost. They fished the oceans of the world from the tropics to the arctic in relatively small vessels powered only by sail and surviving only by the wisdom and skill of their captains and the fortitude of their crews. Ships were sunk by storms, reefs, ice, and once (the famous case of the "Essex") by a whale. Many individuals lost their lives in trying to harpoon and dispatch their powerful prey, and whole crews fell victim to disease, hostile indigenous peoples, and pirates. For the investors ashore, losing a ship now and then was part of the business of whaling.

The Shenandoah, a Confederate ship, on the prowl for whalers. Illustration from "The Lost Fleet"
However, even against the background of high risk, the events recorded in "The Lost Fleet" are remarkable. In fact, there were five lost fleets: three events of the American Civil War and two separate arctic disasters administered severe blows to a dying industry.

Mr. Songini is a historian, not a novelist. His work is nonfiction gleaned from diaries, letters, ships' logs, memoirs, and newspaper accounts.

"Nothing has been written," he tells us, "that isn't backed by research and documentation.... The dialog as well is quoted directly as recorded." Nevertheless, many sections of "The Lost Fleet" are as entertaining as a novel and as exciting to read, particularly when his sources are extensive diaries and letters, as they are in the case of Mr. Songini's principal subject, the "Yankee Whaler" in the book's subtitle.

Captain Thomas William Williams sailed from New Bedford (and much later from Oakland, Calif.). He wrote often to his wife, Eliza, and she to him. The letters, many of which have survived, are full of tenderness as well as useful historical detail, and quoting from them allows Mr. Songini to draw them as real and sympathetic people. Eliza sometimes went a-whaling, too, and two of her children were born on whaling voyages, delivered at sea by her husband. Their children also went a-whaling, and one wrote a memoir, published after his death, on which Mr. Songini has drawn productively.

Captain Williams narrowly escaped one of two Confederate cruisers charged with destroying New England whale ships, and had the misfortune of encountering the other. (A coincidence that Vineyard readers will find startling is that the Confederate cruisers were named "Alabama" and "Shenandoah.") He was part of both arctic disasters (1871 and 1876), as whales became scarce and whalers were forced ever farther north to find them. Eliza was with him in '76.

Thomas and Eliza Williams are by no means the only persons recorded in "The Lost Fleet." There are dozens of others - some fascinating, some not. Mr. Songini has so many interesting stories to tell that he sometimes piles them together at the expense of moving his narrative forward. In a few places, the book is digressive and for that reason a bit tedious. There, Mr. Songini may remind some readers of a favorite history teacher who knew so much that he couldn't resist getting sidetracked with anecdote after anecdote, none of which would be on the test.

One sidebar that local readers might want more of is the heroic overland journey of the Vineyard's George Fred Tilton, who traveled 1,700 miles on foot and by dogsled in 1898 to bring help to a whaling fleet iced-in in the arctic. He gets only two paragraphs. In general, there are only passing Vineyard references in Mr. Songini's book, but that shouldn't diminish the appeal of "The Lost Fleet" to anyone who enjoys maritime history - or a good yarn.

Author's talk with Marc Songini, "The Lost Fleet," Saturday, Nov. 10, 2 pm, Oak Bluffs library, School St. Free. For more information, call 508-693-9433.

Dan Cabot is a contributing editor to The Times.