Bluejacket Community Discoveries: What’s in a Name? The Case of “Burden Portsmouth”

On our Zooniverse Talk forums, one of our community members- A Panther Incensed (@chocloteer) -alerted us to a particularly unusual name encountered on one of the muster sheets. @chocloteer noted the following: “The 12th person listed is named ‘Portsmouth, Burden’. He transferred from Portsmouth.” It seemed a little odd that someone who transferred from “Portsmouth” would also carry that name, and the addition of “Burden” also seems strange. We decided to explore the entry a little further and share it with our Citizen Scientists.

The entry that @chocloteer referenced came from a muster sheet of USS Arkansas. She was a transport vessel and tug that the U.S. Navy had acquired in the summer of 1863. With a compliment of 88 men, Arkansas spent her war with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, even managing to take a Confederate prize in September 1864. (1)

The name “Burden Portsmouth” recorded on the muster roll of USS Arkansas, which @chocloteer identified.

What then, of the oddly named sailor “Burden Portsmouth”? The muster sheet records that he was serving at the rating (rank) of Landsman, and had been enlisted on 17th June 1864 at New Orleans. He was 25-years-old, had no listed occupation, and was 5 feet 5 1/2 inches in height. Significantly, in relation to the name recorded on the rolls, he was African American.

The USS Portsmouth, the vessel which gave “Burden Portsmouth” the name which he served under aboard USS Arkansas (Naval History & Heritage Command).

The places that the sailor had been received onto the Arkansas from was USS Portsmouth. She was a sloop-of-war that had a long history in the Navy, having served in the Mexican-American War and later as part of the Africa Squadron, which hunted down slave-ships prior to the Civil War. Having participated in the capture of New Orleans in 1862, she served there as a station ship for the remainder of the conflict.

Unsurprisingly, the sailor who was recorded as “Burden Portsmouth” on the USS Arkansas was not actually called that. In reality he was a man called Robert Nelson. After the war, Robert tried to claim a pension based on his wartime service, and his tribulations in that regard reveal something of both his story and that of the name foisted upon him on the Arkansas.

Robert claimed to have been in a USCT regiment prior to his naval service, although he provided confusing details as to what the precise unit that was. He said that while in that regiment, he suffered a gunshot wound to leg, and was taken to Charity Hospital No. 9 in New Orleans, from where he was transferred to the USS Portmsouth. He explained:

I was on “Portsmith” which laid at New Orleans most of the time and ran between New Orleans, Pensacola, Galveston guarding. I suppose on that vessel they named me Burden Portsmith and perhaps the names have gotten confused in some way. I am uneducated and have to have all my writing done…

It is clear here that it was those on the vessel who gave him the name “Burden Portsmouth”, and that it was not of his choosing. It is difficult to imagine this happening to many men who were not African American, given it implies that those who entered his name on the rolls had little respect for either his person or his individuality. Robert also revealed that it was not the only time he was given an alias, claiming he was also sometimes “called George Phillip by men in the boat”.

One of the reasons Robert may have been treated this way was because he was almost certainly a man who had just recently escaped enslavement. We know that immediately after the Civil War he went to Refuge, in Washington County, Mississippi where he lived for several years (his first wife died there in 1866). There is a strong chance that Robert came from Refuge prior to his wartime service; situated on the Mississippi River it was dominated by “Refuge Plantation” where the Griffin family held large numbers of people in bondage. Although the Navy welcomed thousands of men who had escaped enslavement into their ranks, they were not always treated with the level of respect and humanity that was afforded their white comrades.

1850 Slave Schedule, Washington County, Mississippi. This page of the census enumerates those enslaved by the Griffin family. Given that those enslaved were denied their names on these schedules, we cannot know if Robert is among them- if he is, then he is likely one of the three boys aged between 10 and 12 recorded on lines 34, 35 and 38 (NARA).

In the end, Robert’s wartime naval service concluded in the summer 1865, having served aboard USS Portsmouth, Arkansas and Pembina. Just how difficult that service was is hard to gauge- certainly he provided some confused and at times contradictory information regarding his military service in later years- though it is worth remembering he was completely reliant on others to transmit written messages for him. His plight was not helped by the loss of his military documentation, claiming that “in moving some children got hold of it and destroyed or mislaid it.” The move Robert refers to here was to Lakeport, in Chicot County, Arkansas, where he seems to have lived out his days. Judging from those willing to speak for him in later years, it seems he built for himself a valued place among his community, something it does not appear he was not always afforded during his time on USS Portsmouth and USS Arkansas.

Many thanks to @chocloteer for bringing this discovery to our attention- this post will be the first of (we hope!) many that showcases the discoveries of the hard-working volunteer Citizen Scientists on the Bluejackets Project. Remember, if you are interested in “climbing aboard” with us, you can start uncovering your own stories on our Zooniverse Project Page!

The USS Pembina, another of the vessels Robert served on, under construction in New York in 1861 (Naval History & Heritage Command).


(1) Paul H. Silverstone 1989. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 110.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: