“Sheets from the Fleet” is a new occasional series we will be running to highlight some of the Muster Sheets we are working on and the potential we are hoping to unlock with the Civil War Bluejackets Project. Each post/thread will see us pick a random muster sheet from a random U.S. vessel and explore some of what it has to tell us. In this first instalment, we are looking a sheet from the 31 December 1864 muster of USS Argosy.
USS Argosy was 219 tonne stern-wheeler “tinclad” built in Monongahela, Pennsylvania in 1862. First commissioned in the Navy in March 1863, she spent her service with the Mississippi Squadron, with one of her most notable achievements being the taking of the steamer Ben Franklin in December 1863. She usually had a crew of a little over 70 men. After the war she went into merchant service, and was destroyed in a fire in 1872. (1)
Let’s take a look at the very first man on the page. He is recorded as Otto Anton, a 30-year-old from Norway who had enlisted in Chicago on 25 August 1864. Otto had grey eyes, dark hair, a florid complexion and was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall. Like many men from the Nordic countries who made their way into the U.S. Navy, Otto was a sailor by profession- he is listed as a Mariner.
Otto’s details on the Muster Sheet allow us to locate him in the records for the Chicago Naval Rendezvous when he enlisted. There we learn he had signed-on for one-year, and was credited to Illinois’s Bureau County, which had a significant Scandinavian population. His enlistment also recorded that Otto had a small scar visible on his right scapula. Sadly, the Remarks section for Otto’s entry tells us that by the time this Muster was taken, Otto was dead- the Norwegian had died on 24th November.
The sheet gives us a picture of the nationalities that served on the Argosy– as well as American-born men there are Norwegians, English, Canadians, Germans, Scots, Prussians and Irish-men recorded. George W. Chisholm from Scotland is listed as a 22-year-old Landsman on the Argosy. He was a new recruit, having joined the service in Chicago the previous August, where he had worked as a Machinist. Years later, George would apply for a pension based on his service aboard the Argosy which revealed much about his life. He was born on 17th July 1842 in Cromarty, on Scotland’s Black Isle. After his war service he wed Winifred Roney in Chicago in 1868, and they had three daughters- Cora, Eva and Estella. George lived in Bloomington and Farmer City in Illinois until 1908, when he moved to Los Angeles, California.
Three decades after his service, George suffered from increasing problems with his right knee, something that would eventually impede his ability to work. He claimed that “in July 1865 while on U.S. steamer Argosy I first had rheumatism and it has continued ever since. It has resulted in stiffness of right knee. I am incapacitated totally from manual labor.” George would eventually secure his pension- he passed away on 1st January 1927.
Like many of the U.S. vessels that operated on the Mississippi and her tributaries, the Argosy had a significant complement of African American men who had escaped enslavement and enlisted. The birthplaces of these men stands in testament to the sundering apart of families and kinship groups by slavery- on this muster sheet alone are men born into bondage in Tennessee, Mississippi, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Virginia and Arkansas. Yet all had joined the Navy in either Louisiana or Mississippi (the majority in Natchez), suggesting they had been enslaved nearby in the immediate antebellum period. One of the African Americans listed on the crew was 22-year-old First Class Boy Simon Baker, who had been born in Wilmington, North Carolina, but had enlisted in Simmesport, Louisiana- a town on the Atchafalaya River that was more than 1500km from his childhood home. Simon’s hardships were most certainly not over when he escaped enslavement to don the Union bluejacket. His service aboard the Argosy came at considerable cost to his physical health. While shovelling coal aboard the vessel to feed her boilers, Simon fell down a hatch severely injuring his knee. In later life it would cause him to need a stick to walk. The war also damaged his hearing- for the remainder of his days Simon struggled with deafness in both ears, something he put down to the “roaring of the guns” during his service.
We hope you have enjoyed this first instalment of “Sheets from the Fleet”, our random dip into the enormous potential of the Muster Sheets we are exploring as part of Civil War Bluejackets. Say tuned for another example in the near future!
(1) Silverstone, Paul H. 1989. Warships of the Civil War Navies (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press).