On 20 November 1861, an unusual flotilla got under way from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Flags flew along the shore, crowds cheered in wild encouragement, and windows rattled along the waterfront as gun batteries fired a salute to the departing vessels. Despite their naval mission, these were not warships.
Most were whalers whose days had been numbered by the increasing use of kerosene, replacing the whale oil that had long been lighting American lamps. Some looked like warships because of the broad white stripe running fore and aft, with black-painted squares known as “Fiji ports” that had once deceived marauding islanders in the South Pacific into thinking that cannon must be lurking in the darkness. But these ships carried large loads of stones instead of weapons, and their “main battery” was a “pipe and valve” rig—a five-inch hole in the hull with a wooden knock-out plug designed for easy scuttling.