What I am reading (read) — In the Heart of the Sea

I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea at the bookstore at Logan Airport and finished it before landing in Chicago. Excellent book which tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which in the 1820s was rammed by a whale some 2000 miles west of the South American coast, sank, and then subjected its crews to a horrific open-sea voyage of 93 days.

Cannibalism was involved. People in the 19th century liked cannibalism in their tabloids the way American’s today like Angelina and Britney and Whitney.

This tale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, and was the most lurid tale in America in the first half of the 19th century. Philbrick is an excellent writer and historian. I think I enjoyed his descriptions of Nantucket more than the sea story itself. I worked on Nantucket for six years (summers, as a deckhand on the ferry) and while its fishy history has always been in the back of my mind, I had no idea about the social dynamics of the island, the strength of the women who ran the local economy while the men were off on their two to three year voyages, and the immense wealth accumulated by the Quakers.

Nantucket in the 19th and 18th centuries was the Silicon Valley of its day. Ship owners like Obed Macy and the Howlands of New Bedford were the venture capitalists of their time, seeking at least a 25% profit on their ventures — ventures which personified the meaning of risk. The crews and their captains were among the best traveled, culturally aware men of their time, discovering new islands in the south Pacific, as they chased the dwindling whales around the world, up into the Arctic.

Philbrick has me all fired up to turn Chatfield into a book.

Update to Part Ten – Chatfield project

I’ve transcribed the account of General Newton’s failed attack on St. Marks — the Battle of Natural Bridge.

Here’s a photo from the civilwaralbum.com showing the bay where Capt. Chatfield disembarked troops for the battle.

“This is a view of Apalachee Bay from the base of the St. Marks Lighthouse. Union ships anchored offshore here during the Civil War to enforce the blockade and Southern blockade runners also slipped through these waters from time to time. In March of 1865, Union transports moved toward shore here and ran aground while trying to land troops. The entire operation was observed by Confederate pickets stationed at the lighthouse and took so long to accomplish that Southern forces were able to organize and call in reinforcements in time to defeat the Federal expedition at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865. Confederate reports describe stormy weather in the days leading up to the battle, so the view offshore probably looked very similar to this. Early in the war the Confederates built a battery at about this spot, but withdrew the guns. The structure was later shelled and destroyed by the Union Navy. No trace remains”

Here’s some links to The Battle of Natural Bridge

Update to Part 9 – Chatfield Project

I just transcribed a big piece of the Chatfield memoirs into part 9 (apologies for not inserting an anchor tag at the point of the addition).

He’s received his own command and has taken up station in Tampa Bay to care for the victims of the yellow fever. A good deal of the account is about the plight of Northeners trapped behind the Confederate lines and pressed into service during the Conscription. Lots of refugees to take care of, but Capt. Tom is now free of the disagreeable Captain Budd and has his own command, his first since leaving the whaler Massachusetts behind in San Francisco at the beginning of the war.

A side note, I have been researching through Starbuck’s excellent History of the American Whaling Fishery and finding some good details about the Massachusett’s voyages, her building and launching in Mattapoisset in 1845, etc..

A mere 45-pages or so to go before I turn to the Captain’s war letters. Cousin Pete told me over dinner last night that he has located the log of the Two Sisters, the schooner Chatfield commanded in Tampa during the last years of the war, so that is something I look forward to as well.

Finally — there’s been some urging by Jeff Young and Jim Forbes to turn this project into a book. Having majored in American maritime history in college, my inclination is to go the non-fiction route without getting too academically pedantic as I have no interest in making this anything close to an scholarly work. Both Jeff and Jim say – “Go fiction.” I don’t know. It’s tempting and this tale certainly provides the framework for a great sea yarn.

Part 9 – The Reminiscences of Capt. Thomas Chatfield — Night Assault on St. Marks

Churbuck.com » Part 9 – The Reminiscences of Capt. Thomas Chatfield
“Land your men, Mr. Chatfield ..”

Take one young bored officer itching for some glory, combine with eighty men in rowboats at night, head up a Florida river to spike a river battery and run immediately into trouble with some river sentries. The good Captain Chatfield keeps his head, and remembers his Cotuit roots before ordering his men out of a boat to attack the pickets when he takes an oar to test the bottom before leaping over the side and sinking dink-deep into the muck (something I forget to do everytime I go clamming).

Enjoy. This brings me up to page 131 of the typescript – fifty-six to go. Working from the original leather-bound manuscript is a treat. The frontispiece says:

The property of Florentine Chatfield Churbuck, youngest daughter of Capt. Thomas Chatfield, author of this book. The binding was done by hand by Thomas H. H. Knight, husband of Maud Chatfield Knight, third daughter of the family. Through the kindness of Mr. Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the typing was done by his secretary, who, not familiar with nautical terms, or Father’s pensmanship, made many errors in typing. A typed copy was given to each of the five Chatfield daughters.”

Florentine, or Oie, was my great-grandmother. I remember her sneaking me chunks of milk chocolate she kept in a cleaned-out Hellman’s Mayonnaise jar she kept behind her armchair when I was about three years old. She was also fond of overly ripe black bananas, which she hid from my grandmother (who hated fruit flies). I found one once in the drawer of the sewing machine and stuck my finger in it. It was one of my earliest memories.

Abbot Lawrence Lowell was the president of Harvard University and a next-door neighbor to the family in Cotuit. He instituted the “house system” at Harvard but is rather infamously known for his role in the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the expulsion of eight alleged homosexuals from Harvard. He was a pal of Thomas Chatfield and urged him to pen his reminiscences after hearing many of these stories told on the porch over the course of several summer evenings.

A. Lawrence Lowell

Yellow Fever and a Hurricane – Chatfield

Captain Chatfield is blockading the western coast of Florida and tense over the threat of an attack:

“We also knew that she was commanded by that fighting fellow Catesby A. Jones, the same that commanded the Merrimac in the fight with the Monitor in Hampton Roads: and the rumor reached us that he had sworn to clear out the blockade at West Pass, and open that port to commerce: and that with his gun boat and three river steamers, protected with cotton bales and hundred riflemen on each, he could easily do it: and I am sure he would have stood a good chance to succeed.”

Yellow Fever sweeps the East Gulf Squadron, and a hurricane wrecks the Union fleet at St. Mark’s. Good stuff that proves men are more dangerous than whales. Chatfield and the Somerset are patrolling and blockading the river mouth of the Chattahoochee River, which is navigable up to Atlanta, south of Tallahassee.

Catesby ap Jones

Chatfield Memoirs — The Assault on the St. Mark’s Saltworks

After capturing the Circassian, Chatfield and crew wait orders in Key West harbor, fire a disaster of a 34-gun salute, are sent on patrol, nearly sink their New York ferry boat in the Gulf Stream, and are reassigned to the calmer inside waters, where they take up blockade duties near St. Marks and Cedar Key.

Thanks a near tornado in Durham last night, my hotel had no power from 7 to 11, so I did the transcription by the light of the screen and my Thinkpad’s keyboard light.

The Reminiscences of Capt. Thomas Chatfield – The Civil War Years

Part 8 – The Reminiscences of Capt. Thomas Chatfield

The Captain returns to Cotuit, finds his house has been sold and the family has moved into the village, ships out on a coastal schooner, a grain ship, then enlists in the Union Navy, where he is commissioned as an Acting Master.

He visits the Monitor in Hampton Roads, fresh from her victory over the Merrimac, then off he sails to Key West as part of the East Gulf Squadron in a converted ferryboat, the U.S.S. Somerset and immediately captures a big prize off of Cuba, The Circassian