When the Civil War came to
By NED ROZELL
October 25, 2008
About 150 years ago, a few days after summer solstice, the gray
skies above the Diomede Islands were heavy with smoke from whaling
ships set ablaze by Confederate sailors who didn't know the Civil
War had ended.
"The red glare from the eight burning vessels shone far
and wide over the drifting ice of these savage seas," wrote
an officer aboard the Shenandoah, a ship commissioned
by Confederate leaders to wreak havoc on Yankee whalers harvesting
bowhead whales off the western and northern coasts of Alaska.
Though their timing was off-the Civil War was over for two months
when the Shenandoah reached Alaska waters from England
(after an eight-month trip around the southern capes of Africa
and Australia)-the captain and crew of the Shenandoah
succeeded in destroying the Yankee fleet, burning 22 whaling
ships and capturing two others.
An etching from Harper's
Weekly on December 2, 1871, showing the abandonment of three
whaling ships trapped in ice off Point Belcher, between Wainwright
and Barrow. Researchers in 2010 plan to look for remains of the
era's Yankee whalers off Alaska's coast.
Illustration courtesy of Harper's Weekly.
"It was the last hurrah of whaling-the place where commercial
whaling died in the U.S.," said Brad Barr, a biologist with
NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in Woods Hole, Mass.
Barr and NOAA historians and archaeologists are interested in
the often-overlooked history of Yankee whalers that first came
to Alaska waters in 1848, finding a bonanza of bowhead whales.
Weighing 100,000 pounds each and living their entire lives in
waters with sea ice, large bowheads have two feet of blubber
protecting them from cold northern oceans. Whalers boiled down
that fatty tissue to render about 120 barrels of oil from each
whale. A century before an exploration crew found crude oil at
Prudhoe Bay, whale oil and flexible bones known as baleen were
the target of whalers who set out for the Arctic from eastern
ports, such as Mystic, Connecticut, and New Bedford, Mass.
"They took (bowheads) like they were going out of style-at
least until they took too many, and the whales were harder to
find and harder to catch," Barr said.
Along with the last shots of the Civil War fired from Confederate
cannons, the waters off Alaska were the site of 32 whaling ships
trapped in sea ice and destroyed by it in 1871. When 12 more
ships were stranded north of Barrow in 1897-1898, that inspired
the U.S. government to commission a reindeer drive of 400 animals
from Nome to Barrow as food for the stranded whalers (that turned
out not to be needed).
"There are all of these compelling stories of heroes and
villains and survival," Barr said. "Like the 32 ships
trapped in the ice in 1871. Twelve-hundred-and-sixteen people
had to abandon ship and drag their (smaller) whaleboats across
the ice. They were rescued by seven ships that weren't caught
in the ice, and brought to Honolulu."
Somewhere on the sea floor off western and northern Alaska are
the waterlogged remains of those days long ago.
"We've identified 160 ships lost or abandoned from 1848
to 1914," Barr said. "For the most part, nobody's been
able to find them, mostly due to operational difficulties in
the Chukchi and Beaufort (seas)."
Starting in 2010, Barr and coworkers at NOAA want to begin searching
the waters off Barrow using, among other tools, remotely operated
vehicles that maneuver underwater and beam images back to a ship.
"With the ice out more, we can maybe look at some of these
targets," Barr said. "We have the technology that would
let us write the last chapter. What's left of those vessels,
and what can they tell us?"
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
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