Finding Finns: Revealing the Untold Story of Finnish Mariners in the American Civil War

With the help of our Citizen Scientists, Civil War Bluejackets is setting out to reveal new insights into the life of the common U.S. sailor during the American Civil War. The project blog has already examined the experiences of some African American, Irish, British and native-born white American sailors- representatives of the groups who made made up the bulk of the wartime Navy. But what might be learned about men from different, more unusual backgrounds? What might a concentration on them tell us about different type of recruits into the U.S. Navy, and what might it reveal about less well-known forms of immigration into the wartime United States? We decided to see what we could find out by examining a small-albeit fascinating- subset of Civil War Bluejackets- the U.S. Tars who had been born in Finland.

The relative positions of the United States and Finland. The distance between Helsinki and New York is in excess of 6,500km- by the time war came in 1861, not very many Finns had made the journey. (Image: Wikipedia)

We’ve highlighted before that the Civil War Musters and U.S. Naval Records don’t just have a lot to tell us the U.S. Navy- they are also a very important resource for anyone interested in subjects like immigrant history. This is due to their capacity to reveal detail about individuals and groups that simply does not exist elsewhere. The example of Finnish sailors offers a marked case in point.

The majority of Finnish emigration to the United States came after the American Civil War, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is borne out by the 1860 Census. Taken on the eve of the conflict, it recorded just 165 people in the United States who provided “Finland” as their birthplace. So far, our analysis of naval records has identified at least 152 Finnish men who served in the U.S. Navy during the 1861-65 Civil War. Remarkably, this is a figure that nearly equals the known number of Finns in the entire country in 1860! Although their numbers are higher than we might have thought, the fact that they were relatively well represented in the Navy should perhaps not be a surprise. As scholars of Finnish emigration to the United States have pointed out, many of the Finns who arrived in America during this period had a maritime background- a skillset that particularly suited them to participation in the War on the Waters. (1)*

So what do the naval records tell us about these 152 Finns? Well, as we might expect, the overwhelming majority who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War were indeed professional sailors. For those with surviving occupation data, a staggering 83% were listed as either Seamen, Mariners or Sailors. Another 4% were sailmakers, while 7% were carpenters- a trade that often had a maritime connection. This suggests that the Finnish bluejackets were overwhelmingly drawn from the pool of international mariners who regularly “stopped off” at ports in the United States as a result of seafaring activity.

Table 1. Finnish Bluejackets by Occupation (Based on 84 entries)

The maritime skills these men possessed is further borne out by the Rating (Rank) they were given at the time of their enlistment. Not a single one of the Finns thus far identified entered the Navy at the lowest rating. Indeed, aside from a single Fireman, all the others were signed on as either Ordinary Seamen or Seamen- a mark of the invaluable experience they carried with them into the service of Uncle Sam.

Finns rarely served together on U.S. vessels, but it did occur. One example we have uncovered at Civil War Bluejackets is this Muster (click to enlarge). It details the crew of USS Commodore Perry in September 1864, including Finnish sailors Gustave Anderson (from Helsinki/Helsingfors) and Hans Heber. Both were professional seamen. (Image: NARA)

When did these Finns enlist? Almost one in four of them signed on in 1861 (or immediately prior the war). This reflects the Navy’s need for additional manpower, as it sought to exponentially increase in size to meet the demands of the massive conflict it faced. The desperate need for men represented ideal circumstances for any career mariner who happened to find himself around a U.S. port when the conflict erupted. Similar opportunity would also seem to mark out the greatest year of recruitment, which came in 1864. The great majority of that year’s Finnish recruits came after the summer, when the financial bounty for those willing to become “draft substitutes” provided a particular financial incentive. Others took the opportunity that year to transfer into the Navy from Army service, a passage smoothed by pre-existing maritime training. Among the latter group were Finns like Frederick Hamblin, a carptener who transferred from the 5th New Hampshire Infantry, and John Soldan, who elected to swap the uniform of the 41st New York for navy bluejacket.

1861 (& Immediate Pre-War)1862186318641865
Date of Enlistment (Based on 152 entries)

As we might expect with a group that largely compromised international mariners, most of the Finns enlisted in the major port cities of the Atlantic seaboard. Nowhere exceeded New York/Brooklyn, where over 55% of them first entered the Navy. Another 20% joined the war effort from Boston, which was followed by Philadelphia, with 7%.

The multiple strands of information we are gathering at Civil War Bluejackets allows us to look at data in different ways, moving from the “macro” to the “micro”. Finnish sailors offer a particularly interesting example of what this can reveal, as demonstrated by the names they served under. Like many other Europeans, the language barrier Finnish sailors faced upon entering a predominantly English-speaking environment caused many-indeed most- to significantly alter their names. While the macro analysis reveals the names they gave and their relative numbers, micro analysis can uncover what drove individual choices. Here Gustaf Höglund, a U.S. sailor from the town of Jakobstad/Pietarsaari** in Finland, explains the process by which he came to be in America, and the name he used when he got there:

When I shipped on board the SS Great Western in England, Liverpool, in the winter of 1861 the Captain requested me to assume another name, the Swedish “Gustaf Höglund” being hard to pronounce in English, and suggested the name of “William Brown.” Of course I accepted his proposal without hesitation and thereafter used that name.

USS Wateree. Gustaf Höglund from Jakobstad/Pietarsaari served on this vessel under the name “William Brown” (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Otto Geers, whose origins were near the city of Turku/Åbo, was another who chose the surname “Brown,” entering it in the records when he exchanged the merchant service for the U.S. Navy in 1862. He spent the next 16 years as the bluejacket “John Brown.” Brown was far and away the most popular surname selected by Finns, with over 11% of the sailors we have so far identified using it. But while some altered their names completely, others opted for surnames that retained at least some of the phonetic elements of their real names. One example of this is Vilhelm Grönroos, who took the name “William Ross” in the U.S. Navy.

Most common surnames used by Finnish sailors (including slight variants)

Unfortunately, the use of aliases by Finnish sailors makes it extremely difficult to determine the original names of the majority. It is likewise challenging to determine where in Finland they called home, given that the origins of the most are only identified to a national level. This problem is further exacerbated by indications that not all Finns had “Finland” recorded as there place of nativity- Russia (Finland was a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia in the 1860s), Sweden and even Germany seem to have been exchanged for Finland on occasion. However, despite such challenges, by linking Naval records across multiple record sets- including muster sheets, rendezvous returns and pension files- we can identify a number of Finnish points of origin (see the map below). Unsurprisingly, what dominates are coastal Finnish towns and cities with strong maritime traditions.

Identified places of origin of Finnish sailors in the American Civil War U.S. Navy. Coastal towns with significant maritime connections predominate. (Background: Google Maps)

Another of the Civil War Bluejackets data points we gathered on these Finnish sailors relates to their tattoos. Recording the tattoos and marks on the body became commonplace in the U.S. Navy towards the end of the Civil War, as increased efforts were made to enable the accurate identification of recruits. Examining tattoos can be particularly revealing when considering the cultural identity of the men. It is unsurprising, given their backgrounds, that maritime symbols dominated- among the Finns with tattoos, anchors were everywhere. Typical were Andrew Nelson and Charles Wilson, both of whom had anchors on their left hands. Charles Fisher had opted for a representation of boat on his right forearm, August Johnson had a brig. Religious symbolism was also popular, and crucifixes were common, such as that of William Brown, who sported a crucifix on his chest. Some sound especially elaborate. John Brown had the Crucifixion of Christ on his right forearm, while Frank Simberman had a depiction of Adam and Eve. Other sailors had their names, initials and date of birth inked on their skin, likely a form of identity mark should the worst occur. John Barry had decided to get a mermaid on his left arm- Edward Mahan a dancing girl on his right. Among the most interesting from a cultural identity perspective are the Finns who got permanent symbols of the United States placed on their bodies. Few outdid Francis Brown, who displayed an American Coat of Arms on his chest, a depiction of Pocahontas and an Eagle on his left arm, and the Goddess of Liberty on his right.

Otto Geers, from near Turku/Åbo in Finland, pictured in U.S. Naval Service where he was known as “John Brown”. (Image: Patrick via Find A Grave)

The relatively small number of Finns who claimed American naval pensions provide us with direct insights into the individual life experiences of an otherwise largely invisible immigrant group. What these pensions make apparent is the cultural and geographical break with Finland that came with American service. In this regard the Finnish experience was far more marked than that of more numerous immigrant groups such as the Irish, British and Germans, who had successfully transplanted some of their cultural identity and who enjoyed easier contact with their home countries. Gustaf Höglund of Jakobstad/Pietarsaari put it well when he characterised his time in the U.S. Navy: “I had no fellow-countrymen…where I was serving, belonging to a far-off country, and people, who I knew at that time in that part of the world…” John Smith from Pori/Björneborg elected to stay in the United States after his Civil War service, but he likewise appears to have had little contact with Finland. He had left a son behind there when he took to the high seas, and seems never to have seen him again. By 1892 the two had not had contact in 11 years, with John admitting that he did not know if his boy was “living or dead.”

But given their calling, it may well be that for most of these Finnish sailors the sea was as much a home to them as Finland once was. Many recounted similar life experiences to that of William Chelman, who explained that he had been “at sea since boyhood.” Their lives were lived on the water, in a job that took them all around the globe. For some, it pitched them up in the United States at a moment of both great strife and opportunity.

This post has just been a quick “first look” at these Finns uncovered by the Civil War Bluejackets Project. Nevertheless, we can already plainly see that sailors such as these represent an important group within the expanding Civil War U.S. Navy. These were not poor recruits drawn from among urban immigrant communities, or highly idealistic volunteers eager to crush the rebellion. Rather they were drawn from a pool of professional international mariners, men who knew the seas and oceans of the world and who were regular visitors to its major port cities. Some of them might not have had much detailed knowledge of America, or even the English language, but they likely proved invaluable- supplying highly-skilled expertise to the United States just when it needed it most. By doing so, they have also provided us with a window, through their naval records, into a seldom explored wartime immigrant group.

If you enjoyed this blog and are interested in helping to create new knowledge like it, please consider becoming a Citizen Science volunteer with Civil War Bluejackets! If you would like to “Climb Aboard”, you can do so via our Zooniverse Page here.

Another of the rare Muster Sheets where two Finns are recorded (Click to Enlarge). Here you can find Emmanuel Nolan and John Nolan listed one after the other on the crew of the gunboat USS Sciota. (Image: NARA)

Notes & References

*The best known Finn to participate in the naval war served the Confederacy. He was Charles Erik Engelbrekt Sjödahl, who under the name Charles Linn captained the Blockade Runner CSS Kate Dale during the conflict.

** All of the Finnish placenames referenced in the naval documentation were given in their Swedish language rather than Finnish language form. This is at least partly due to the large number of Finland-Svensk (Swedish-speaking Finns) who are represented among these sailors. Where placenames are mentioned in the blog, both their Finnish and Swedish forms are given.

(1) Alanen, Arnold R. “Finnish Settlements in the United States: ‘Nesting Places’ and Finntowns”; Kero, Renio “Migration from Finland to North America”; both in Auvo Kostiainen (ed.) Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent, and Integration. Michigan University Press, 2014.

Roinila, Mika. “Finnish Sailors and Soldiers in the American Civil War” in Siirtolaisuus Migration, No. 3, 1996.

2 responses to “Finding Finns: Revealing the Untold Story of Finnish Mariners in the American Civil War”

  1. […] Finding Finns: Revealing the Untold Story of Finnish Mariners in the American Civil War – The … With the help of our Citizen Scientists, Civil War Bluejackets is setting out to reveal new insights into the life of the common U.S. sailor during the American Civil War. The project blog has already examined the experiences of some African American, Irish, British and native-born white American sailors- representatives of the groups who made… […]


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