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 way of tackling this mass of data is by examining the ethnicity and nativity information provided on the crews. How did the ethnic and nativity makeup change (or not) through time, and what might this have meant? Wartime vessels were in essence enclosed communities, cheek by jowl environments that could cause close bonds to form but could also accentuate frictions and tensions, particularly racial ones. Changing racial and ethnic makeups within these shipboard communities prompt us to think about what impact that might have had on vessel dynamics through the course of the war. They also serve as a reminder that while many Union vessels saw prolonged service, their crews were often far from static. 

The USS Carondelet Crew, 1 January 1863 (Click Image to Enlarge)

In this post we are introducing a bit of the “number crunching” we undertook for USS Carondelet, based on her muster rolls of 1 January 1863 (when the Emancipation Proclamation came into force) and 30 June 1864. They come in the form of pie charts we created from the transcribed and cleaned data. We can look at the information in these pie charts in a number of ways, but first let’s see how nativity breaks down among the crew in the two periods. On 1 January 1863, the Carondelet had a particularly high number of American-born sailors, more in fact then we would expect to find across the Navy as a whole. While it is important to remember that nativity doesn’t equal ethnicity, it is an interesting feature nonetheless. Almost 50% of the crew at this time were white native-born American men. We might expect the Irish-born to dominate as the next highest-nativity group, but in fact they were outnumbered by men we assigned to the “Other Europe” category, European immigrants from outside Britain, Ireland, the German States and Scandinavia. Indeed, the Irish-born proportion of 6% runs at just over a quarter of the percentage we think they may have made up in the entire Union Navy (20%).

This crew breakdown may be due in part to the way in which the gunboat crews were initially gathered together, with a focus on securing experienced sailors at short notice. But 18 months later, that picture had changed (below). By then the Irish-born made up 18% of the crew, trebling their representation on 1 January 1863. While American-born percentage is still high, the proportion of native-born white Americans on the crew has fallen from almost 50% to just over 35%. By this date there was also less “variety” in the non-British and Irish Europeans aboard when compared with 1863 (one of the interesting “constants” on the crew at this time was Jose Alavarez, a native of Chile, who was present in 1863 and 1864). One of our aims is to replicate this type of data across different musters and different ships, a process which may well reveal broader patterns to us, providing us with the potential to tell us a lot about naval service, how it changed during the war, and how dynamics changed from vessel to vessel. For example, these changes raise a number of questions surrounding nativity- were more Irish enlisting in the navy by 1864, or were there just more of them on the Carondelet by then? 

The USS Carondelet Crew, 30 June 1864 (Click Image to Enlarge)

These pie charts also make for interesting with regards to African American service. African Americans already accounted for almost 20% of the crew by 1 January 1863, an indication of the extent to which the gunboats had been enlisting men who were escaping enslavement in 1862- long before the Proclamation came into force. The African American proportion of the crew had jumped to almost 30% by the middle of 1864 (when the total crew was also slightly smaller). Perhaps more significantly, whereas black men had represented just under 30% of the American-born crewmen in January 1863, they made up 45% of the American-born crew by June 1864. The majority of those men had come on board as “contrabands,” demonstrating how the Mississippi River basin gunboats replenished their crew from the areas they passed through, much as the U.S. ocean going vessels did with immigrant sailors when they called into international ports. At least on the Carondelet, this seems to have accelerated following the Emancipation Proclamation, as African American sailors became an ever more integral component of the crew. Future posts will explore what these changing figures meant for the relationship dynamics on board, and the extent to which these these figures are replicated through  the Carondelet‘s service, and within the City-Class Gunboats generally. 

Published by Damian Shiels

Archaeologist & Historian

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