December 24th: The Ghost Ship Sails Into New London


Perhaps no object symbolizes the importance of craftsmanship and historic preservation better than the ghost ship Captain James Buddington and a skeleton crew of 11 sailed into New London harbor on Christmas Eve 1855. The prize vessel, which the veteran whaler had discovered abandoned on an ice floe off Baffin Island three months before, was none other than the battered arctic rescue ship HMS Resolute.  It had been sent by the British admiralty in 1852 to search for the missing explorer Sir John Franklin, whose entire expedition had disappeared attempting to find the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific in 1845. The heavy-timbered, iron-sheathed Resolute, specially fitted to withstand the crushing demands of arctic conditions, had been the lead ship of a five-vessel rescue and recovery mission. The Resolute had not found any sign of Franklin, but it had succeeded in rescuing the crew of the ice-bound ship HMS Investigator in April of 1853.  Unfortunately, four months later the Resolute too became ice-bound and was locked within a moving ice floe throughout a brutal Arctic winter. After eight helpless months, the captain and crew reluctantly abandoned Resolute for a grueling over-ice march to safety, leaving the locked-in ghost ship to drift with the icefloe.

HMS Resolute & HMS Intrepid WInter Quarters 1853, by Sailing Master George Frederick McDougall

Buddington and his New London crew found Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1200 miles from where she had been abandoned. Discovering the crewless 600-ton British navy ship was a disconcerting, but simultaneously exciting, find. Buddington’s whaling voyage up to that point had had limited success, hampered by unseasonable cold and dangerous ice conditions. But by the laws of salvage, the Resolutewas now his, and if he could get it home, it would sell for a fortune.

Captain James Monroe Buddington and his second wife, Julia Woodward Buddington.

But could he accomplish that? HMS Resolute was designed for a crew of 75; Buddington’s ship George Henry had a crew of 26. And, Resolute was damaged, waterlogged, and in need of both rigging and sails. It would also have to be chopped out of the ice. Though the challenge was formidable, an undaunted and resolute Buddington set himself and crew to the challenge.

It took a month to make the ship marginally sailable, and the 67 day, tempest-tossed voyage to New London that followed was, according to Martin W. Sandler, author of Resolute (New York, Sterling Publishing, 2006) the most difficult of Buddington’s entire career.

“I don’t know how I did it,” the Captain later recalled.

Stanley Tetrick Photo of John F Kennedy, Jr. in Resolute desk

Resolute’s arrival at the port was a major event. The ghost ship provoked both local curiosity and international diplomacy.  Crowds lined the shore as the vessel, flying both the United States flag and the English Union Jack (“out of respect for the Britisher,” Buddington said), came in to the harbor. “She attracts visitors from everywhere.” The Boston Daily Advertiser later noted.  The British government immediately sent consular agents to New London to assert ownership of  the vessel. Their intent to litigate the salvage claim, however, was dropped when  Henry Grinnell, an American philanthropist who had personally funded two expeditions to find Sir John Franklin, requested Britain to drop the claim, as the whale ship had suffered great financial losses rescuing the vessel. The Admiralty readily agreed, which the New York Herald  called ‘generosity that does them honor.” Not to be outdone, Grinnell then asked Congress to buy the Resolute, restore it, and return it to Britain in recognition of the vessel’s “humane and merciful object” of  rescuing the Franklin expedition. Congress authorized the funding, and on December 12, 1856, the Resolute  reached Portsmouth, England, where she was visited by Queen Victoria. The Resolute returned to service until 1879, when it was retired. That was not, however, its last chapter.

The cat “Socks” considering anti-dog legislation while siting at the Resolute desk in 1994.

Queen Victoria ordered a special desks be made from the timbers of the Resolute, as a gift for the President of the United States.  Designed by Morant, Boyd, and Blanford and made  by William Evenden, a joiner at the
Chatham Dockyard, the desk arrived at the White House on November 23rd, 1880, where it was received by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  The “Resolute desk” became an immediate focus  of presidential paper work and visitor interest because of its beautiful design and historical significance.  It was moved into the Oval Office by John F. Kennedy in 1961 and has been used there by every President since Kennedy except George H W Bush

Further Reading

Alfred Duning, “The Return of the Resolute,” American Heritage

Derek Hayes, “All the Presidents Desk: How the Quest for the Northwest Passage Ended in the Oval Office,” Fine Books & Collections

Video: “The Story of Why The Resolute Desk Was Given to the President”