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The sea life of 1861: life on the Federal war-ships

A “powder-monkey” on a deep-sea craft This smart little “monkey” is a sailor, every inch. In the old navy, the powder, before the days of “fixed ammunitions,” was brought up in canvas bags or powder buckets, and during an action these brave little fellows were constantly on the run from their divisions to the magazine. Under the break of the poop-deck behind the little lad are to be seen the cutlasses that every sailor wore in the old days and that have now disappeared from the service.


The men of the “Mendota” : an idle hour on the after-deck Gathered here on the after-deck are the crew of the gunboat “Mendota,” some busy at banjo-playing, checkers, and other diversions more idle. More than one nationality is represented. Although there are many men who probably have followed no other calling than that of the seaman, there are doubtless men from inland towns and farms who, flocking to the seaports, had chosen to enlist in the service. But there is another reason for the foreign-looking faces; the higher pay of the United States navy and the chance for adventure and prize money had caused a good many foreign ships to find it difficult to procure merchant-sailors. Englishmen, [279] Swedes and Norwegians, Danes, Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Portugese were to be found on almost every United States ship. To a certain extent sea-language, so far as the terms and orders are concerned, are the same the world over. There was no educational qualification required. Some of the seamen could scarcely speak English. In the foreground is a marine and an able seaman playing the jack-tar's favorite game of checkers, while a bright-faced little “powder-monkey,” leaning picturesquely against the capstan, has looked up to pose for the camera man who has preserved this typical scene of the sailors' idle hour.


In no profession or calling has tradition so strong a hold as it has upon the sailor. In the middle of the nineteenth century he was hemmed in by it. It molded his mind, governed his actions, and in the regular navy it produced a type whose language, appearance, and even gait were indigenous to the sea, the ship, and the service.

The traditions died only when the type itself expired. Although the Civil War marked a changing period from sail to steam, tradition survived long afterward, and during the war itself sailors were awkwardly adapting themselves to surroundings and methods that were being forced upon them. It was so with both officers and men. Of the former. many were too old to learn the new lessons. The enlisted man who had survived the sailing days lacked also two essential qualifications for the modern sailor: the first was education; the second, adaptability. Innovations were a bugbear to him; he fought progress and invention with all his might. Just as the introduction of gunpowder changed the manner and methods of land fighting, so did the introduction of steam into ships revolutionize the fighting tactics of navies. But it was a long time before steam and the marine engine came to be regarded as more than an auxiliary factor in shipbuilding.

The navy of the Civil War was recruited from all sorts and conditions of men. The real sailor was in the minority. Nearly two-thirds of the men who fought were rated as landsmen, and although they became good gunners, few progressed higher than ordinary seamen. The old “A B's” of the elder service were graduated to petty officers, and of the commissioned volunteers whose acting ranks during the war were those of masters and [281]

Amusement during the blockade minstrels on the flagship “Wabash” A ship's company is a little world by itself. As one of the principal objects of the inhabitants of the earth is to amuse themselves, so it is with the crew of a vessel at sea. The man who can sing, dance, play the banjo or the fiddle is always sure of an appreciative audience in the hours off duty. On many of the larger craft there were formed orchestras, amateur theatrical companies, and minstrel troupes who used to get together to rehearse, and gave entertainments to which very often the officers of all the ships of the fleet were glad to be invited. Time grew heavy and the hours lagged in each other's laps during the tedious blockade. The flagship “Wabash” became renowned throughout the fleet for her minstrels, whose good music and amusing songs helped to pass many a long evening. On more than one occasion regular balls were given that, although not attended by the fair sex, did not lack in gaiety. “A busy ship is a happy one,” is an old adage with sea-faring men, but the wise captain was he who remembered also an old saying well known and equally true both afloat and ashore: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

[282] master's mates, very few remained in the service at the close of hostilities, a notable exception being Admiral Farenholdt, who worked his way up from an enlisted man to rear-admiral.

The life of enlisted men on the blockading vessels was monotonous in the extreme. Only a few on the smaller or the faster ships saw very much of excitement, and, except for the bombardment of the forts, very little fighting. From the time a man enlisted on the receiving-ship until his term of service was up, very few of the sailors ever set foot ashore. In consequence, there was much grumbling in many of the forecastles, but taking it as a whole the men were well fed, well cared for, and contented.

The crews of the ships despatched on foreign service and in search of the Confederate cruisers were picked men, although many of them came also from the volunteers. When it is taken into account that six hundred vessels were provided for the navy, of which two hundred war-ships were constructed, and four hundred and eighteen merchant vessels, three hundred and thirteen of which were steamers, were converted into ships of war, it can easily be seen how few men who were actually deep-sea sailors were placed on board of them. There was very little attempt made to do more than to work them into useful shape at first. The adage of the old service was, “It takes three years to make a sailor,” and sailors, in the proper sense of the term, most of them never became. But on the regular ships of the navy all the old order was maintained. The warrant-officers consisted of the boatswain, gunner, sailmaker, and carpenter, and the divisions of the crew in this order followed: petty officers, able seamen, ordinary seamen, landsmen, and first-and second-class boys. The chief petty officer is the master-at-arms, who is really the chief of police of the ship; he has two assistants, who are called ship's corporals. Then come the quartermasters, who, with the captain of the forecastle, are supposed to be the best of the ship's seamen. The quartermasters, in time of action, steer the vessel, and in port, report to the [283]

“Al fresco” cooking on the famous “monitor” This is the deck of the original “Monitor,” with part of the crew that had participated in the fight in Hampton Roads. The savory smoke is blowing away from the fire, where the ship's cook is preparing the mid-day meal. The crew are awaiting the mess-call, and in the foreground are seated two of the fire-room force. There was one thing that the men on the monitors had a right to complain of: it was the intense heat generated between decks after a day's exposure to the sun. It was difficult to obtain proper ventilation in this class of vessel at the best. The wooden ships, with their high top sides, their hanging “wind sails” or canvas ventilators, and their ranges of open ports, admitted the free passage of the air; but in the iron-decked monitors, whose metal plating often got so hot that it was almost scorching to the feet, the fire-rooms, the galley, and the men's sleeping-quarters became almost unbearable. In still water, while on blockading duty, it became customary for the ship's cook to prepare the men's messes up on deck, and for this purpose stoves were erected that could be easily taken below in time of action, and the men took their meals al fresco in the open air. The crew of the “Monitor” were picked men, in a sense, for they were all old sailors who had volunteered for the unknown work that lay before them. Their devotion to the officers who had brought them so successfully through the famous engagement was little short of worship; it is sad to think that most of these men went down with their vessel when she foundered in the storm off Hatteras a few weeks after this picture was taken.

[284] officer of the deck, taking care of signals and other movements in the harbor. Boatswains' mates are assistants to the boatswain, and the medium through which the officers' orders are communicated to the crew. The gunners' mates and quarter-gunners have the guns and all their paraphernalia under their especial charge; to each gun-deck there is a gunner's mate, and a quarter-gunner to each division. The crew proper is divided primarily into two watches, starboard and port watch; and secondarily into subdivisions which in the old days were entitled forecastlemen, foretopmen, maintopmen, mizzentopmen, afterguard, and waisters.

The ship's guns were divided into divisions, each generally under command of a lieutenant, assisted by a midshipman, and to each gun was assigned a crew that, in the muzzle-loading days, was made up of (for the heavier guns) one captain, one second captain, two loaders, two rammers and spongers, four side-tacklemen, five train-tacklemen, and a powder-boy--sixteen in all. Their names indicate distinctly their positions at the gun in action.

On board the faster vessels which acted as scouts on the outer line of the blockading squadrons, things often reached a pitch of great excitement. The appearance of low-lying, black lines of smoke against the horizon late in the afternoon was a sure precursor of the dash of a runner, either to make port or to reach shoal water along the beach — anyhow, to get through if possible. Rich as were the hauls, however, when the vessel was captured, they did not begin to compare in value with those taken from outward-bound blockade-runners loaded with cotton. Some of the blockading vessels had once been in the very business themselves, and there are instances of chases lasting fifty-six hours before the runner either escaped or was brought to, with most of her cargo jettisoned. In 1863, one noted blockade-runner loaded to the gunwales with cotton, brought as prize-money to the captain of the vessel that captured her twenty thousand dollars, and even the cabin-boys [285]

The “Essex

Below appear four picked men from the crew of the “Essex.” Seated on the right in the front row is “Bill young,” the medal of honor man whose portrait appears above. W. L. Park, to his left, was a quarter gunner, as were Thomas T. Drew, standing to the right, and Gordon F. Terry beside him. All four are typical faces of the best that service in the inland navy could produce. The firm features of these men tell of a simple heroism that so often rose to great heights in the battles of the gunboats. These men fought under “Bill” (Com. W. D.) Porter, elder brother of the admiral, in a ship named after the famous flagship of their father, Commodore David Porter, in the War of 1812. In that old namesake Farragut had his first training as a fighter and about the newer “Essex” there hung much of the spirit of the navy of former days. Aboard of her too there was abundant opportunity to exemplify that spirit as nobly as was ever done by sailors any-where. From Fort Henry till the fall of Port Hudson the “Essex” was always in the thick of the fight. One of the “Essex's” most important services came in the action of July 15, 1862. On Aug. 7 the “Arkansas” and two gunboats were lying above Baton Rouge ready to cooperate with the Confederate troops in a combined attack on that place. The troops with the aid of the Federal gunboats were defeated. Then Commander W. D. Porter started up-stream with the “Essex.” As he approached the “Arkansas,” a few well-directed shots disabled her so that she became unmanageable. Porter, seeing his advantage, loaded with incendiary shells, but at the first discharge the “Arkansas” was seen to be already ablaze. Porter and his men redoubled their efforts. The “Arkansas” managed to get near enough in-shore to make fast but her cable burnt away, and drifting again into the current she blew up. The “Essex” had accomplished the destruction of the last Confederate ram operating on the Mississippi River.

William young, gunner's mate of the “Essex

Four picked men gunners' crew of the “Essex

[286] received large sums. If other vessels were in a certain radius of distance or attached to the same station, they also had a share in the money awarded by the prize-courts, and an escaping blockade-runner would remind one of a hare pursued by a heterogeneous pack of hounds — the swiftest to the fore, and then the lumbering, unwieldy boats bringing up the rear.

Of the fifty-one thousand men in the Federal Navy during the Civil War, not a third could have been called by the most elastic stretching of the term, sailors. A great majority rated as landsmen, were so in fact as well as name, and at least twelve or fifteen thousand of the men serving in the fleets along the coast and on the rivers had never set foot on a ship before enlisting.

On the gunboats in the Mississippi and the converted nondescripts that did such good service along the shores, there was very little chance for putting into practice the strict rules that governed life on the regular vessels. The men in some cases had greater comforts, and in others much less. It was a question of give and take and make the best of it between officers and crew.

With the introduction of the monitors there came into sea life an entirely new existence. At sea, if the weather was rough the men were corked up like flies in a bottle. Under a hot sun the sleeping quarters below became almost unbearable, and the iron decks so hot that they almost scorched the feet. This life in the ironclad, modified in a great measure with many comforts, is the life that has developed the seaman of to-day, for the old-time Jack has gone. A man must know more than how to make his mark when he enlists; his knowledge of arithmetic in fact must include the use of decimal fractions. The oncedespised duties of the soldier are his also. He must know his manual of arms like a marine, for the ship's crew is an infantry regiment, a light-artillery battalion. The individuality of the sailorman as a class began to disappear when the generation that had fought the Civil War forsook the sea.

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