Bluejacket Community Discoveries: The Seaman Born at Sea

There is no doubt that the Civil War Bluejackets “Where Born” Workflow on Zooniverse offers some of the most compelling detail about our sailors. The entries in that column lay bare the wide range of ethnicities that could be present on a single vessel, each of them contributing something different to the onboard community. Occasionally the “Where Born” column can also throw up an unusual entry. That was the case when Zooniverse community member @monkalie was working on a Muster from the steamer USS Aries. @monkalie spotted that the ship’s Master-at-Arms, Michael Ryan, had a particularly appropriate origin given his mariner’s trade- he was born “at sea”. We decided to take a closer look at Michael’s service and life.

The 1st April 1864 Muster Sheet of USS Aries, where @monkalie spotted that Michael Ryan was recorded as born “At Sea” (Click to Enlarge). Michael’s entry is two-thirds of the way down the page (Image: NARA).

Aside from Michael Ryan’s presence on board, the Aries was an interesting vessel in her own right. She had actually been built in Sunderland, North East England in 1862, entering the American Civil War as a Blockade Runner seeking to supply the Confederacy. While trying to run the Union Blockade in March 1863 she was chased down and forced aground by USS Stettin at Bull Bay, South Carolina. Just a few months later she was back in service along the Atlantic coast, but this time flying the Stars and Stripes. From November 1863 to February 1865 Aries served as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, before later transferring to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. She had a successful U.S. career, participating in actions such as those at Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and capturing prizes such as the Ceres, Dare and Ranger. Although she was sold out of Federal service at the close of the war, Aries went on to have a long career as a merchantman, staying in operation all the way through to 1908. (1)

The Laing Shipbuilding Yard in Deptford, Sunderland as it appeared in the 19th century. The Aries was built here. (Image: Robinson Library, Newcastle University)

What then of Michael Ryan? Aside from noting his nativity, the USS Aries Muster also records that he enlisted early in the war, in June 1861. He was stated to be a citizen of the state of Maryland, was 28-year-old and was by trade a mariner. Michael had grey eyes, black hair and a florid complexion, and was 5 feet 3 1/4 inches in height.

By linking naval records we uncovered Michael’s original naval rendezvous enlistment, which revealed that Michael had first signed-on at Annapolis, Maryland (the Aries Muster incorrectly lists Boston). On joining Michael was assigned the rating of Ordinary Seaman, and sent to the receiving ship USS Allegheny in Annapolis for training. Soon afterwards he was assigned to the crew of frigate USS St. Lawrence. As part of her compliment he participated in one of the most famous naval battles in history, at Hampton Roads, Virginia in March 1862. There Michael and his shipmates were among the wooden U.S. vessels engaged by the ironclad CSS Virginia (also known as the Merrimac) prior to the arrival of the USS Monitor.

The USS St Lawrence, where Michael spent the majority of his Civil War Naval service, and on-board which he participated in the Battle of Hampton Roads. (Image: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Michael survived the clash of the ironclads unscathed, but almost immediately afterwards he suffered a severe injury, as the St Lawrence was making her way to Key West, Florida. He recalled that he:

lost the end of the index of his right hand…just before the frigate arrived at Key West from Fortress Monroe after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac…[it] being caught in the gasket [a length of rope used to hold a stowed sail in place], that the officer Woods ordered the sails to be hoisted before he [Michael]…answered the sail clear[ed] and…he had to cut the gasket to keep from being thrown overboard, that his finger…had to be taken off, which operation was performed on the way to Key West and on board…

Despite the severity of his wound, Michael was able to continue in service, staying with the St Lawrence until May 1863. After a brief stint on the receiving ship USS Ohio, he was assigned to service on the Aries, where @monkalie discovered him. The Muster records that Michael performed a very important role aboard the former Blockade Runner- that of Master-at-Arms. A Petty Officer position, the Master-at-Arms had responsibility for policing the ship, preserving order, and making sure crewmen obeyed regulations- bringing notice of any infractions to an officer. That Michael was entrusted with a role such as this was testament to both his experience and character. Experience was something he certainly had in abundance, as is made evident from an examination of his pre-war life.

The USS Aries as she looked when Michael Ryan was her Master-at-Arms. (Image: Naval History & Heritage Command)

We know from Michael’s later pension application that he had not been 28 when he enlisted in 1861, but 30. As noted on the Muster, he was born “At Sea” on 15th September 1830. Michael was unable to write, and such errors in dates were commonplace among people who grew-up partially literate. Intriguingly, the application also adds further detail to his birthplace, revealing that it took place at sea in the “Gulf of Mexico.” Perhaps Michael had come into the world on an immigrant ship bound for New Orleans- his surname suggests potential Irish origins- or perhaps his family were at sea for some other reason. Whatever the cause of his nautical nativity, the sea was in his blood, and it stayed there throughout Michael’s entire life.

Another way we can seek to track Michael is through census returns. The 1850 Census finds 18-year-old “Michael Rine” living in St Michaels, Talbot County, Maryland- the town Michael would call home for most of his life. He was already working on the water, boarding in the home of George and Sarah Hopkins (George was also a seaman). Located across Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis, St Michaels sits astride the Miles River, and during this period was home to a thriving seafood industry, most particularly oysters. Michael was almost certainly engaged in this work. Ten years on, the 1860 Census for St Michaels finds him boarding in a home of another maritime family, this time that of Elisha Thomas. It was probably from under this roof that Michael took the decision to cross the Bay and enlist in the U.S. Navy. He certainly was not alone in his decision. The Civil War Bluejackets Project has already encountered numerous eastern-seaboard Oystermen who were attracted to service early in the war, providing the U.S. with vital maritime experience as the nation sought to rapidly increase its naval capacity.

African American Oystermen at work on the Chesapeake in the 1870s. Although it seems a relatively peaceful occupation, the oyster-industry boom in the Chesapeake brought forth a period of unrest known as the “Oyster Wars,” which you can read more about here (Image: Harper’s Weekly)

Following his wartime service aboard the St Lawrence and Aries, which ended in the summer of 1864, Michael went back to what he knew best. But things were different now. He had graduated into the senior ranks of watermen who spent their days searching for the Chesapeake’s underwater bounty. Michael married, and by 1870 it had become his turn to let our rooms to youngsters following the trade. The census that year records that he and his wife Margaret were sharing their home with 22-year-old sailor John Keithley, his 17-year-old sister Alice Keithley and 17-year-old Frank Norton, who was “cutting oysters.” Michael and Margaret started a family, with John (b. 1871) Alice (b.1874) both explicitly named for the Keithleys who shared the family home, testament to their close relationship. Sadly the couple’s third child, Odia (b.1876) didn’t live far beyond her third birthday, passing away in 1879.

By 1880 the Ryans had moved, but not very far. Their new home was only a little ways up Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at Queenstown in Queen Anne’s County. This was the first census where Michael was explicitly described as an “oysterman”, though he had almost certainly been engaged with the trade for much of his life. Margaret passed away in 1888, and as the years wore on the toll of a mariner’s life began to tell on Michael’s body. As his health failed, he came to rely more on his daughter Alice (who went by the name Faith). Now married herself, Michael spent a lot of time under Faith’s roof, even moving to Baltimore for a time. But by 1910 they were all back in their original home of St Michaels. By then on the verge of turning 80, the old Civil War veteran was unable to work, but Michael still had his occupation recorded as a “Waterman”.

The 1910 Census showing Michael living with his daughter and son-in-law in St Michaels (Click to Enlarge). As with his 1864 USS Aries Muster entry, he is described as born “At Sea”. (Image: NARA)

Michael Ryan died aged 82 on 18th December 1912 and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, St. Michaels. He may have been born “at sea”, but the town and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay were his lifelong home. Most of that life was spent making a living from its rich oysterbeds, save for a dramatic three-year hiatus when he donned the Bluejacket and became a Master-at-Arms in the United States Navy. It was a story that would have sounded familiar to many longtime oystermen of America’s 19th century Atlantic seaboard.

Many thanks to @monkalie for bringing Michael Ryan to our attention, allowing us the opportunity to explore the life and conflict of one of the Oystermen who took up arms for Uncle Sam. Remember, if you would like to “climb aboard” and help us to uncover more stories like this one, visit our Zooniverse Project Page here, and let your discoveries begin!


Paul H. Silverstone 1989. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 78.

U.S. Federal Censuses.

U.S. Naval Records.

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