Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War

Overview

Historians have given a great deal of attention to the lives and experiences of Civil War soldiers, but surprisingly little is known about navy sailors who participated in the conflict. Michael J. Bennett remedies the longstanding neglect of Civil War seamen in this comprehensive assessment of the experience of common Union sailors from 1861 to 1865.

To resurrect the voices of the "Union Jacks," Bennett combed sailors' diaries, letters, and journals. He finds that the sailors ...

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Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War

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Overview

Historians have given a great deal of attention to the lives and experiences of Civil War soldiers, but surprisingly little is known about navy sailors who participated in the conflict. Michael J. Bennett remedies the longstanding neglect of Civil War seamen in this comprehensive assessment of the experience of common Union sailors from 1861 to 1865.

To resurrect the voices of the "Union Jacks," Bennett combed sailors' diaries, letters, and journals. He finds that the sailors differed from their counterparts in the army in many ways. They tended to be a rougher bunch of men than the regular soldiers, drinking and fighting excessively. Those who were not foreign-born, escaped slaves, or unemployed at the time they enlisted often hailed from the urban working class rather than from rural farms and towns. In addition, most sailors enlisted for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons.

Bennett's examination provides a look into the everyday lives of sailors and illuminates where they came from, why they enlisted, and how their origins shaped their service. By showing how these Union sailors lived and fought on the sea, Bennett brings an important new perspective to our understanding of the Civil War.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
A remarkably effective job of capturing the voices of ordinary sailors. . . . A gem, joining social history methodology with the vivid story-telling loved by Civil War buffs.--Military History of the West

Union Jacks is an original and fascinating study that fills a huge hole in the historical scholarship about the Civil War. Despite all that is known about the experience of soldiers, the sailors' war has remained shrouded in a combination of mystery and myth. In one stroke, Michael Bennett brings the sailors out of the shadows and situates them within the distinctive maritime culture of seafarers and roustabouts and the broader political culture of mid-nineteenth-century working men.--Joseph P. Reidy, Howard University

An outstanding contribution to the fields of the American Civil War, U.S. Military History, naval history, as well as the history of race, ethnicity, and class in nineteenth-century America. . . . Recommended for classroom use as well as general readers.--Florida Historical Quarterly

This book is a treasure-trove of references about the Union Navy. . . . Bennett's sources, primarily diaries, letters, and journals, were skillfully used to make each topic come alive, making Union Jacks excellent reading and a useful resource for scholars interested in the role of the Union Navy during the Civil War.--Peekskill Sea History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807872420
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2012
  • Series: Civil War America Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,509,733
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael J. Bennett is an attorney and independent scholar living in University Heights, Ohio.
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Read an Excerpt

Union Jacks

Yankee Sailors in the Civil War
By Michael J. Bennett

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2870-X


Chapter One

Dissenters from the American Mood:

Why Men Joined the United States Navy during the Civil War

To understand who joined the United States Navy during the Civil War and why they did so requires a break from prevailing treatments of Yankee soldiers. The current interpretation holds that the average Union soldier was a virtuous farmer or craftsmen, lived in a small town or on a farm, and went off to war, with patriotic send-offs from friends and family, to fight for commonly held goals. While this model helps us understand how Union regiments were filled, it packs little explanatory power for the navy's crews. Apart from age, sailors shared few characteristics with soldiers. Union sailors tended to be Eastern and urban rather than rural. The majority emanated from the working class. They were foreign and poor. Many were former slaves. Sailors did not join the navy to uphold the predominant values and ideals attributed to soldiers. They did not enlist to preserve the Union, end slavery, or prove their courage. Instead, practical circumstances formed within the realities of class, ethnicity, and race played a larger role in pushing men out to sea and shaped their motivations for entering the war.

When the war broke out, there were only 7,600 sailors in the navy. By 1863, that number had grown to 38,000. In 1865, 51,500 sailors were serving in ships engaged in the blockade of the Confederacy, in gunboats up and down the Western rivers, and in squadrons around the globe. While these figures paled in comparison to the 2.2 million men who enlisted in the Northern armies, the buildup represented a more than 500 percent increase in sailor enlistment. Moreover, the navy had never sought so many sailors at once, and it knew that the process of attracting sailors would be different both in terms of approach and location than for soldiers.

Nothing trumpeted this sharp divergence like the enlistment process. Generally, when a man enlisted as a sailor, there were no torch-lit parades to the village square, no patriotic speeches, and little of the pomp and circumstance that attended early soldier enlistment waves. Men who enlisted as sailors often did so alone, with little fanfare, and under less-than-romantic conditions.

While newspaper advertisements and recruiting broadsides plastered on post office walls, rail stations, and the sides of buildings proved helpful in attracting sailors, naval recruiting stations called "rendezvous" functioned as the traditional conduits into the navy. Located near the water's edge in large Eastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and small coastal and river towns, rendezvous operated in shadowy storefronts and in sections of cities where polite citizens usually feared to tread.

The locations of the rendezvous were not haphazard. The navy planted them near places where sailors frequented when on land: boardinghouses for transients, restaurants, and saloons. Recruiting officers kept a keen eye on the window in the event a curious type stopped to linger. Officers, knowing that the power of a uniform swayed young men, sometimes clad recent enlistees in smart blue suits and paraded them in front of the rendezvous hoping to attract onlookers. If one did, they bombarded the loiterer with tales of prize money, daily grog, and three square meals a day.

In order to intensify recruiting efforts, rendezvous hired civilian agents called "runners." Runners scoured sailors' haunts and working-class neighborhoods looking for recruits to bring back to the rendezvous. They received three dollars for each recruit they secured who could pass the navy physical. Women running boardinghouses proved especially proficient as runners.

Rendezvous were not romantic and contained more than a whiff of coercion. General La Fayette C. Baker of the Bureau of the Secret Service, who investigated both army and navy recruiting practices, called the fraud at the New York City rendezvous "stupendous." "Out of seven of these naval recruiting rendezvous," Baker reported, "but three could be entered without first passing through a public drinking saloon of the lowest and vilest character." Innocent pedestrians often walked by rendezvous at their own peril. Irate businessmen described in a letter of protest to Rear Admiral H. Paulding, the atmosphere around the 156 South Street Rendezvous, located on the lower east side of Manhattan: "The citizen as he passes, is wantonly insulted, often dragged into the Rendezvous, and when they cannot overawe him to enlist, they commence to beat him without mercy. There is hardly a day that passes, that the most corrupt and outrageous means are used by these said runners to decoy the citizens into the U.S. Navy, and when expostulated with, they are very insulting."

There was a good deal of rough treatment and fraud among recruiters and runners at naval rendezvous. Runners proved adept at coercing, tricking, or forcing unwilling recruits into the navy. Some employed the time-tested tactics of the notorious "crimping" gangs who once roamed English and American seaports. Naval officials, desperate for men, often looked the other way or tacitly participated in such frauds. Navy recruiters constructed elaborate subterfuges through which passersby, naval yard artisans, and the curious would be lured onto a ship with promises of money, information, or a tour. Tactics ranged from simple lying about the terms of naval service to the infamous practice of "shanghaiing," whereby agents plied men full of liquor, drugged, or beat them into the service. British and Canadian recruits complained that they were often "punched out or knocked out with whiskey." In Niagara Falls, it was alleged that recruiters from the Buffalo Rendezvous drugged Canadian boys and then transported them across the border for induction. Once in the United States, runners handed the groggy recruits to naval officials who slapped them on ships. By the time they awoke, the boys found themselves on the decks of the Michigan in the middle of Lake Erie.

In part, recruiters could employ these methods for trapping sailors because, in the parts of town where rendezvous operated, coercive behavior drew less attention and the practice of dragging sailors back to ships from liberty was not uncommon. Recruiters employed such tactics because throughout the war not enough men joined the navy. The reasons for such recruiting shortfalls proved numerous. First and foremost, states, counties, municipalities, and the federal government offered army recruits cash bounties that ranged from $75 to $300. The navy did not offer bounties until near the end of the war. John D. Harty, the recruiting officer of the Chicago Rendezvous, complained to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter that army bounties "retarded enlistments" into the navy.

Second, Union armies organized their units by states, within cities and local communities under the auspices of civic, business, or political leaders. These leaders often secured officer commissions based solely on the ability to deliver recruits. This method of organizing army regiments under the local control of a town leader created an intense esprit de corps that the navy, owing to its national organization and federal control, could not duplicate. Moreover, the navy refused to exchange commissions for recruits. Some men did offer the navy large numbers of recruits in exchange for an officer's commission, only to find their offers refused. The navy saw itself as a professional service that depended on the experience and skill of its officers and enlisted men. The navy simply could not afford, in the words of Commander J. A. Winslow, to fill its ships with "useless officers" in order to obtain enlisted men.

Third, the offering of bounties and the intensely local nature of the army's organization also served to underscore the reality that the fielding of large armies absorbed the primary attention and priority of the United States government and the Northern public. For the most part, the Lincoln administration and the general public concentrated their energies and pinned their hopes in the Civil War on Northern armies. It was on the fields of battle, many believed, that the outcome of the war would be won or lost. This mind-set was also reflected in governmental policies regarding manpower allocations during the war. Conscription and volunteer systems ignored naval needs. Until July 1864, men who joined the navy were not granted draft exemptions, received no credit toward recruiting quotas for their home districts, and could be drafted into the army literally off the decks of ships.

Fourth, the government's priority on manning armies also reflected the public's perceptions of how the Civil War was to be fought and who should do the fighting. At the war's outset, many Northerners viewed the Civil War as a test of courage for white American male citizens. In this courage-conscious environment, the ultimate and proper testing ground for proving a patriot's mettle lay not on the decks of a ship but on the field of battle, charging headlong into the enemy's lines under the hail of bullets. The collective nature of naval warfare clashed with the public's romanticized, ill-informed notions concerning the army's capacity for individual heroism. The vocation for a man who was interested in proving his courage and saving the republic was soldiering and not sailoring.

Men who ultimately enlisted in the navy did so at the risk of shame. Dodging shots and shells under the cover of a ship, sheathed with plates of iron, did not resemble fighting in "man fashion." Northerners often accused sailors of being "cowards." Throughout the war, sailors proved extremely sensitive to the accusations that they were not doing their part. Families and friends often chided those men who opted for naval service. "Some of my neighbors think I am in an easy place," commented Seaman William Bock in a pained letter to his mother back in Springfield, Illinois. "You have a chance to see much of the world," wrote Ann Preston to her son Fowler, but "not much chance of fighting." Mary Osborne hinted to her brother Joseph, serving on the Vandalia, that the family considered it a disgrace for him to serve in the navy rather than the army. Joseph retorted heatedly, "It is no disgrace for any man to be in the service of the country."

Last, sailors labored under many negative stereotypes. More than a few Northerners viewed sailors as a hapless and godless set of men whose poor state of affairs had either sprung from wretched beginnings or resulted from lives made miserable by excessive drinking, careless spending, and whore mongering. Catchphrases such as "drank like a sailor" or "swore like a sailor" carried with them potent social and moral judgments in pre-Civil War America about the suspect character of sailors' lives. At best, prevailing prewar stereotypes cast sailors as adventure-seeking boys possessed by wanderlust. At worst, popular perceptions equated sailors with drunks, thieves, drifters, and murderers. The combination of all of these negative characteristics registered sailors as "the lowest class of humanity" in the American spectrum by 1861. Sailors were not the stuff of which patriots were made.

The widespread belief of both contemporaries and historians has been that the Northern army and navy were competing for the same pool of men. In some respects, this was true since the nation had a finite number of men of legal military age. Many potential recruits, even those who had seafaring experience, examined both branches of service, weighed the financial and social repercussions of joining one or the other, and then chose the army. However, this analysis not only oversimplifies the process but also obscures the fact that, despite the factors pushing men into the army, 118,044 men voluntarily chose the navy over the army between 1861 and 1865.

Who, then, became sailors? First, the average sailor recruit tended to be on average twenty-six years old. Second, Easterners rather than Westerners tended to become sailors. More than 78 percent of Union sailors came from the Atlantic coast. Eastern states and cities produced more sailors, largely owing to the maritime trade in states like New York and Massachusetts. This heritage, coupled with the presence of rendezvous in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, helped to instill an imbalance of Easterners. New York State and New York City provided the bulk of the nation's sailors (35,164), followed by Massachusetts (19,983), and Pennsylvania (14,037). Of the 118,044 men who enlisted, only approximately 12,375 came from the Western states. Ohio and its river port of Cincinnati yielded 3,274 sailors, the most of any Western state.

Third, sailors were city dwellers. Based on the personal statistics contained in a sample of 4,570 Union sailors who enlisted at all naval rendezvous-East and West-between April 1861 and April 1865 ("Rendezvous Sample"), only 3 percent of recruits made their living on a farm before the war. The ones who did primarily came from the Western states. Farmers constituted 23 percent of Western sailor recruits. This statistic stands in stunning contrast to the rural backgrounds of most soldiers. According to samples done by the United States Sanitary Commission, Bell I. Wiley, and James McPherson, nearly half of all soldiers worked on a farm before the war.

Union sailors evoked those sections of America where they came from and where the navy recruited-the poor and working-class neighborhoods of large Eastern cities. In fact, based on the letters, journals, and logs of sailors as well as the results of the Rendezvous Sample, three dominant groups sought out the navy during the war-the working class, the foreign born, and former slaves.

The occupations that Union sailors gave when they enlisted at rendezvous indicate that a majority of them emanated from the working class. As used here, the term "working class" encompassed a broad social group determined by the type of work a man did. Occupation was critical to membership in this group. Men who possessed a mechanical skill-such as a blacksmith, carpenter, or baker-would fall in the working class. In addition, those men who depended on strength to earn a living, such as common laborers-unless they were farmers-would have been considered part of the working class. The working class also consisted of the unskilled, the unemployed, and the idle. The working class did not include professionals such as doctors and lawyers or white-collar or commercial occupations such as salesman or clerk.

The largest segment of working-class men who enlisted as sailors were from the skilled trades, such as butchers, bakers, and coopers. The Rendezvous Sample indicates that over one-half (53.5 percent) listed occupations in which they made a living with skilled hands.

Continues...


Excerpted from Union Jacks by Michael J. Bennett Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Dissenters from the American mood : why men joined the United States Navy during the Civil War 1
2 Any man can become a soldier : the making of Union sailors 28
3 Ships of fools : the sailor's experience on the Union blockade 54
4 The devil's own purgatory : the experience of gunboatmen in the Mississippi Squadron 77
5 All hands drunk and rioting : the maritime culture of Union sailors 99
6 Saving Jack : religion, Union sailors, and the United States Christian Commission 126
7 Frictions : shipboard relations between white and contraband Union sailors 155
8 My youthful emagination of hell : the face of battle for Union sailors 182
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2004

    BlueJackets in the Union Navy

    I totally enjoyed this book, and its fascinating history on the union sailors. The typical bluejackets (or Jacks) were made up of the poor, working class and immigrants. Union Jacks covers detail on the sailors, and explains what type of people sailed on these ships in the nineteeth centory. It adds immensely to this topic, and fills in a lot of newly found information from sailors' journals,letters and diaries. The first book also to illustate how their origin shaped their service in the Union navy. Union Jacks investigates the social and political impacts, as well. I reccommend this book to any enthusiasist or buff who wants to know more about this topic, which Michael J. Bennett definitely brings out into a more important perspective in understanding.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2004

    Union sailors

    I enjoyed the efforts of more research into this untapped subject, and the civil war series doesn't disappoint. I base most of my opinion on the very fine book by Dennis Ringle in 1998. His book is the break through and now Bennett's book has contributed more knowledge. I believe all those who like to know more about the civil war's little known topic and put this book on their shelf.

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