Sheets from the Fleet: Tattoos & Scars Aboard USS Acacia

In our second instalment of the Sheets from the Fleet series, which explores a random sheet from the Civil War Bluejackets Project, we are looking at entries aboard USS Acacia from the closing days of the war, on 1st April 1865.

The Acacia was a steam-powered tugboat that entered U.S. service in late 1863. The vessel, which had a compliment of just under 60 men, was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in April 1865. She had spent much of her war in that role, particularly off the coast of South Carolina, and met with some success, taking the Scottish-built Confederate Blockade Runner Julia in December 1864, After the Civil War, Acacia entered merchant service.

Muster Sheet from USS Acacia, April 1865- Click to Enlarge (NARA)

The element of this sheet we are going to focus on is the “Remarks” section at the extreme right. Though one of the fields our Citizen Scientists most frequently encounter as left blank, when it was filled out it often contains some fascinating information. In this example the officer relays information relating to the men’s Rating and the bounty they received for service. It also makes a special effort to note any defining tattoos, marks or scars. The “Remarks” section appears to have been more commonly completed towards the end of the war, perhaps as the Navy sought to increase their chances of identifying men who had joined late in the conflict. As bounties for service increased, the military grew increasingly concerned about the potential for men to “bounty jump”- claiming their bounties and then deserting only to re-enlist under an assumed name. By noting down as much information about men as possible, they increased their chances of identifying such men.

Men who enlisted in the Navy often had a dizzying array of tattoos, which can provide us with a unique insight into their pre-war lives. The fifth man down is recorded Timothy Brannon, apparently a native New Yorker (though elsewhere he is recorded as Irish). Timothy served as a Second Class Fireman, and was a Mariner of long service- he had previously done nine-years service as a Seaman. One of Timothy’s defining features was a tattoo of the word “Erie” inked on his right arm. This may indicate a connection with Erie itself, or perhaps with a vessel of this name. Another man who had inked his body was Dennis Carney, a 23-year-old Irish emigrant who joined the crew off Charleston. The young coalheaver had the initials “D.C.” tattooed on his right forearm- likely as a form of identification if anything should befall him. Another such example can be found in Boston native James Henry, who had “M.A.” on his left forearm, which might indicate he was serving under an alias- a common occurrence in the U.S. Navy. While a number of the men on this sheet did bear tattoos, it is interesting to note how few there are. Other sheets and enlistment records indicate that it could be very common for both mariners and urban working-class men to have different symbols and letters inked on their bodies. It will be interesting during the course of the project to learn if the Acacia is unusual (or not) among the 1865 Navy when it comes to the frequency of tattoos.

A 19th century tattoo artist at work on a sailor (Harper’s Weekly)

Scars were another major identifier used by the Navy in this period. Among the Acacia crew was William Brown, a 29-year-old English blacksmith rated as a Coal Heaver. William bore a scar on his wrist- perhaps a consequence of his pre-service profession. 21-year-old Massachusetts-born carpenter George Corwin also had a scar on his left-hand, and may also have had a tattoo of his date of birth. 33-year-old Irish laborer Owen Gallagher had a crooked little finger on his left hand. William McCracken from Massachusetts was just 22-years-old, but the former painter turned Paymaster’s Steward was already heavily scarred- he had damage along the upper part of his right arm and on his right side near the shoulder, suggesting he had once sustained a major injury. Just as tattoos can tell us something about the culture, belief and superstitions prevalent among sailors, their scars often reveal the many risks that were part and parcel of working-class life in 1860s America.

Why not have a look at the remarks on the Acacia sheet to see can you identify any more information about the marks, scars and tattoos on these wartime mariners. If you are interested in uncovering more of this type of detail, why not have a go at the “Remarks” workflow over on the Civil War Bluejackets Zooniverse page. There are many more to be discovered!

U.S. Sailors (Library of Congress)

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