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 a brief look at one of them. The man we explore is James Carey, who was identified by our volunteer subscribers on the 1863 musters of the USS Carondelet. His story allows us to take a deep dive not only into his own experience and that of the working-class Irish in Philadelphia, but also reveals something of his ship’s community.

On the muster rolls James Carey is recorded as a Quarter Gunner. He was described as being in his mid-twenties and he had previous shipboard experience, given that his profession was listed as sailor. Linking his muster data with his Naval Rendezvous details allows us to determine that he had first enlisted in 1861 and joined the Carondelet around 1863. Unfortunately, that was also the year he lost his life. James Carey died on 1 October 1863 from wounds he received when a torpedo (what we would today call a mine) exploded. His fate caused a pension to be claimed by his dependents, a file which in turn allows us to tell a lot about both him and his family.

James Carey’s vessel, USS Carondelet, tied up at a riverbank during the Civil War (Naval History & Heritage Command NH49991)

The Carondelet‘s muster roll states that James Carey was born in Philadelphia, but this was almost certainly not the case. Through further linkage with the 1860 Federal Census, we can determine that he (along with his family) were listed as being of Irish nativity. Indeed, we are even able to state the Carey’s likely origin point, given that James’s parents Brian Carey and Bridget Kelly were married in Horseleap, Co. Offaly in 1838. This discrepancy is not as unusual as it may seem. The mis-assignation of country of nativity on military documentation was very common among Irish immigrant servicemen, and particularly so in the Navy. It was almost always unidirectional, i.e., where men actually born in Ireland were recorded as being born in the United States. There are a number of reasons as to why this may have occurred. In some cases, officers and recruiters appear to have chosen to misrepresent place of origin, but in others the disinformation may have been the decision of the enlistee. In a world where anti-immigrant nativism was still rife, and for those whose accents may have allowed them to “pass” as American, the opportunity to identify yourself as native-born may have helped mitigate some of the prejudice that came your way. 

Stevedores loading a ship during the 1870s, as portrayed by Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)

As well as raising questions of identity, the Carey file also provides an unusually detailed insight into the lives of working-class Irish immigrants in major cities like Philadelphia, which was home to the second largest Irish American community in the United States. Soon after they arrived, James’s father Brian secured work as a labourer “along the river front…loading and unloading vessels-goods, coal, sand, hoop-poles &c.” Irish immigrants tended to dominate among the crews who carried out this work. Often referred to as stevedores, these men were a vitally important link in the labour-chain, and jealously guarded their jobs. However, it was a position that required bodily strength, and as the years passed, Brian Carey’s position became increasingly precarious due to physical incapacity. No longer able to work full-time, he was forced to seek out employment as a day-labourer, and frequently found that he could only get paid work for an hour at a time. This demonstrates in microcosm the extreme precarity of existence that was the lot of the mid-nineteenth century urban labourer in America. Brian’s situation meant that it fell to his young son James–the future USS Carondelet Quarter Gunner–to take on the role of chief breadwinner for the family. He performed that role for seven years prior to joining the United States Navy. Though he didn’t know it then, the job James Carey performed was one that would eventually help him to progress when he enlisted as a Union bluejacket. He became an oysterman, working the boats of fellow Irish American Philip Fitzpatrick. When times were good and the catch was rich, James could earn up to $30 a month. By the time war came, these experienced Oystermen were a valuable commodity for the Union Navy, and quite a number of them ended up serving on Mississippi ironclads.

It is readily apparent that James was well regarded by his crewmates on the Carondelet. We know this because after his death they took the step of paying for the return of his body to his family, which was an unusual and expensive undertaking. This receipt shows the costs incurred by the undertaker, which included his fare and board, the cost of moving the body, and the price of its journey to the Carey’s tenement home in Philadelphia.

Expenses incurred in shipping James Carey’s body back to Philadelphia (NARA)

As well as revealing how well regarded he was, James’s death also gives us further insight into the ship’s community. Each of the crew who contributed towards transporting James’s body had their names recorded, along with the amount they contributed. All told, 49 of the officers and men made donations of between $2 and $25 to the cause. Of the 18 ordinary “seamen” who gave funds, the muster rolls tell us that the greater proportion of them were either Irish or Irish American, though a number of other crew also contributed. This is what we might expect, given that all indications are that Irish Americans maintained close bonds with each other wherever they served together. Nevertheless, the biggest contributions were made by three of James’s fellow Petty Officers- Pennsylvanian James Roberts, Captain of the Forecastle, who gave $25; Frederick Steinmeyer, from Germany, Captain of the Hold, who contributed $20; and Gunner John Evans, from Cobh, Co. Cork, who also gave $20. Combined, these two pieces of information suggest that while ethnicity was important on the vessel, those of similar rank also shared close ties, and James Carey had successfully moved into a position of broad respect among the Carondelet crew. This provides an important window into the often distinct but frequently overlapping relational spheres and bonds shared among white crewmen on these ironclads. But it also serves as a reminder that whatever prejudices an ethnic Irishman might face on a Union gunboat, his experience was usually markedly different from that of many of the African Americans among the crew. They tended to lead a much more segregated on board life (a topic we will return to later), and most could only dream of the level of acceptance and integration afforded to James Carey.

As well as providing detail on Irish American working-class life in Philadelphia and a glimpse of the Carondelet‘s shipboard community, James Carey’s story also leaves us with unusual detail of a profoundly emotive and painful moment in their family life. It comes in the form of a rare account from an ordinary immigrant of the moment they were informed of a loved one’s death during the American Civil War. Despite its brevity, it is clear that it represented a memory that was seared into the mind of ageing Offaly immigrant Brian Carey. The matter-of-fact fashion in which it was transmitted belies the emotion that clearly accompanied the recollection, as he recalled that “he was at Gloucester, wheeling coal onto a vessel, as he distinctly remembers, the day he got word of his son’s death.” Aside from his many other roles and positions in life and in death, James Carey of USS Carondelet had been Brian and Bridget Carey’s eldest child, and his family felt his loss with a keenness and rawness that still reaches down to us from the span of 160 years.

Some of the USS Carondelet crew who subscribed to have Carey’s body transported (NARA)


USS Carondelet Muster Roll

Philadelphia Naval Rendezvous Enlistment Returns

Index to Rendezvous Reports

1860 U.S. Federal Census

U.S. Naval Pension Files

2 responses to “USS Carondelet Spotlight: Reconstructing Individual Lives-Irish Immigrant James Carey”

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