In life, Sluman Gray was a prosperous whaling captain from Lebanon, Conn., harsh with his men but kind to his wife Sarah. In death, he was a pickled whaling captain taken prisoner by Confederates.
During the Civil War, he took Sarah on a voyage aboard the whaling ship James Maury with three of their children: Katie, 16, Sluman, Jr., 10, and Nellie, 2. They sailed out of New Bedford in June 1864.
Stiff competition for whale oil forced American whalers to sail as far as the South Seas to find whales. In the summer, the whaling fleet sailed for the Bering Sea. The voyages could take years.
After nine months at sea, the James Maury sailed off the coast of Guam. Sluman Gray, 51, suddenly took ill and died two days later of ‘inflammation of the bowels.’
Pickled Whaling Captain
Rather than bury her husband at sea, Sarah Gray decided to preserve his body in a cask of spirits, probably rum. She thought she’d then take him home to be buried. The March 24, 1864 log reads, “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”
The James Maury, carrying its pickled whaling captain, then turned north with the whaling fleet to hunt for whales in the Bering Sea.
The whalers had the misfortune to encounter the Confederate ship Shenandoah, which preyed on the North’s commercial shipping. Its captain, Lt. Commander James Waddell, either didn’t get the news that the Civil War had ended or refused to believe it. In June of 1865, the Shenandoah captured 24 unarmed whaling ships in the Bering Sea. On one day, the Shenandoah captured 10 whalers, including the James Maury, within the space of seven hours. It sunk or burned the vessels and took most of the crewmen.
Waddell spared the James Maury because Sarah Gray and her children were aboard. Southern men, explained Waddell, don’t make war on women or children. The Shenandoah then sailed to Honolulu with 222 prisoners aboard – and the pickled remains of Sluman Gray.
Sarah Gray and her children found their way back to Lebanon in March 1866, with their cask of rum and Sluman Gray intact. She buried him in Liberty Hill Cemetery.
According to local legend, Sluman Gray was buried in his cask. Though his body may have been moved to a casket, town historian Alicia Wayland said there is no record of Sarah Gray buying a coffin or paying a carpenter to build one.
Six months after the Civil War ended, Waddell finally surrendered on Nov. 6, 1865. He had learned about the South’s surrender three months earlier from a Liverpool barque. He lowered his flag in surrender, the last official Confederate sovereign flag furled.
Waddell feared returning to the United States. The North hadn’t extended amnesty to commerce raiders, and he was in danger of being hanged as a pirate.
Only six years later, the U.S. whaling fleet would suffer another blow when 33 whaling ships were crushed by Arctic ice.
This story was updated in 2021.