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

Marc Songini

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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It's the mid-nineteenth 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.


Praise for The Lost Fleet

"Marc Songini has crafted a magnificent tale of perseverance in the face of the declining whaling industry in the mid-1800s."—Linda Rosencrance, author of Murder at Morses Pond and An Act of Murder

"The Lost Fleet is rich in detail, broad in scope and brilliant in its ability to capture a lost era that eerily parallels some of the military misadventures of today. Simply stated, this is the best book of its kind since A Perfect Storm."—Jon Land, author of The Fires of Midnight and The Walls of Jericho

"Songini's book chronicles Thomas William Williams' four-decades-long career—from 1840 to 1880—as the captain of the whaling vessel Florida. On its first voyage, the ship was due to sail east through the sperm whale grounds that lay toward the coast of Africa. From there it was bound for the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope. On board were Williams' wife and their infant son and daughter. The story includes his escape from the Confederate ship Alabama and accounts of a number of ship disasters off the coast of Alaska. Songini spent six years doing the research, some of it at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which contains the most comprehensive collection of whaling documents in the world. Songini has examined a vast subject, not only the history of Captain Williams but also of the whaling trade itself, in great depth. The book, with eight pages of black-and-white photographs, is a thoroughly absorbing look at life and death at sea."—George Cohen, Booklist

"Boston-based journalist Songini vividly charts the decline and fall of New England's whaling industry during the 1860s and '70s. With familiar grounds fished out and cheap ‘rock oil' discovered in Pennsylvania, American whaling at the end of the 1850s faced extinction, had anyone cared to notice. Two subsequent developments combined to fatally harpoon the industry. First was the Civil War: Confederate raiders Shenandoah and Alabama (whose exploits are memorably detailed in Stephen Fox's Wolf of the Deep, July 2007) burned more than 50 Northern whaling ships, and the Union only exacerbated the fleet's decimation with its feckless plan to blockade Charleston's harbor in South Carolina by scuttling some 36 whaling vessels freighted with granite. Then the ice gobbled up a large portion of what remained of the whaling fleet during the unusually frigid Arctic winters of 1871 and 1876, when scores of ships with cargos worth billions of dollars had to be abandoned. In the companionable fashion of an old salt, Songini particularizes this history in the saga of Captain Thomas Williams and other members of his family, who seem to pop up, Zelig-like, somewhere in each of the rousing adventures chronicled. Needing little prompting to supplement his main theme, the author spins additional yarns—sometimes amusing, sometimes horrific, always fascinating—about the brutal business of whaling. He touches on the history of New Bedford; the Quakers' domination of ownership; the fatal interaction between whalers and Eskimos; the capture, flensing and boiling of blubber; the hard captains and debauched crews who happened to be among the world's finest mariners. A Nantucket sleigh ride of a read, guaranteed to thrill and amaze: very different from—but a nice complement to—Eric Jay Dolin's more comprehensive history, Leviathan."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Marc Songini

  • Marc Songini is a Boston-area journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Book Review, the Boston Herald, and the Boston Globe.

  • Marc Songini
    Marc Songini