The Civil War Bluejackets Project

In 2020, Northumbria University undertook a pilot project to explore the lives of ordinary immigrant and African American sailors during the American Civil War. The mainstay of the project was a crowd-sourced analysis of newly digitised muster rolls of Union naval vessels from the conflict. These rolls are housed at the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C. Over the coming months, this site will present some of the results, and highlight the potential of this resource.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The 118,000 sailors who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War can provide us vital insight into racial, ethnic and class life in mid-19th century America, revealing details about ‘everyday’ people during this critical period in U.S. history. Of these 118,000, c. 30 percent were born in Britain or Ireland and there were also many first-generation Irish and British Americans. Initially recruited in port cities, these immigrants provide an excellent case study of urban working-class lives at that time. Also, though free black men could join the navy (though not the army), before the Civil War, thousands more recently enslaved African Americans joined as the war progressed and Emancipation became official government policy, thereby entering official government records for the first time. 

There were two major naval campaigns in the Civil War. The first was the blockading of Confederate ports on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to deprive the rebel states of supplies and to halt exports. The other campaign, which featured a fifth or Mississippi River ‘Brown Water’ squadron, focused on controlling the internal waterways of the United States in support of land campaigns, especially efforts to capture Vicksburg and control the Mississippi and its tributaries. The Atlantic squadrons worked primarily from east coast ports such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, cities with the largest numbers of foreign, especially British and Irish, immigrants along with large populations of African Americans. In the river squadron, increased recruitment of recently enslaved African Americans was common. This fact brought many northern sailors, native- and foreign-born, into direct and close contact, for the first time, with large numbers of recently enslaved men. For the moment we are focusing on vessels which were active in the Mississippi River squadron.

THE PROJECT

The Civil War Bluejackets Pilot Project was undertaken by Professor David Gleeson and Damian Shiels of Northumbria University, Newcastle. The overall aim was to trial the viability of a future large-scale project based around the recently digitised muster rolls of Union naval vessels from the American Civil War. Specifically, we are interested in what can be learned about race,ethnicity, class and transnationality from bottom-up analysis of the Union navy. To that end, the pilot engaged a team of volunteer transcribers to work on muster rolls from seven City Class gunboats that operated on the Mississippi River and its tributaries during the conflict as part of the Mississippi River Squadron. The posts on this page will share some of the information we uncovered about these vessels and the crewmen aboard.


Revealing the Life Experiences of African American Crewmen aboard USS Pittsburg, July 1864

In order to examine the potential of linking data to specific crew lists, a sample analysis was undertaken on crewmen from the USS Pittsburg muster of 1 July 1864. This muster included details on 151 individuals, 40 percent of whom were black. Pension applications were sought relating to black and immigrant sailors among the crew, with thirtyContinue reading “Revealing the Life Experiences of African American Crewmen aboard USS Pittsburg, July 1864”

USS Carondelet Spotlight: Nativity & Ethnicity on a Union Gunboat

In our first two posts on Civil War Bluejackets we focused on individuals, exploring what they can reveal about immigrant and African American service in the Union Navy. Another of our aims with the muster roll transcription project is to see what the wider data set can tell us, and what questions it might raise. One wayContinue reading “USS Carondelet Spotlight: Nativity & Ethnicity on a Union Gunboat”

USS Carondelet Spotlight: Reconstructing Individual Lives-Irish Immigrant James Carey

Our first post on Civil War Bluejackets sought to demonstrate how the muster rolls allow for a detailed look at the often hard to reach experiences of formerly enslaved African Americans. They also provide a similar opportunity with working class European immigrants. Given that March marks Irish American Heritage Month in the United States, we decided to take aContinue reading “USS Carondelet Spotlight: Reconstructing Individual Lives-Irish Immigrant James Carey”