Ratings Focus: Landsmen

Our new “Ratings Focus” series takes a look at the different ratings you are encountering on the American Civil War Muster Rolls. The aim of these posts is to explain the roles and responsibilities of men who held a particular rating, and how that may have changed during the conflict. To start, we are taking a look at one of the most common-and most important- the rating of Landsman.

For adult white-men (over 17), the Landsman rating was the bottom rung of the shipboard ladder during the American Civil War. Officially, as the name implies, it was assigned to men who had no prior maritime experience or skills of relevance to naval life. As a result, the lot of Landsmen on board wartime vessels could be an extremely difficult one. They could usually expect to undertake the most menial of tasks, including things like moving heavy loads, physically maintaining the vessel and cleaning the decks. If they stayed in the Navy long enough, the passage of years and the acquisition of skills could eventually lead to their promotion to ratings like Ordinary Seaman and eventually Seaman, which we will look at in a later post.

Landsmen were the dogsbodies of Civil War crews. Their lack of experience and maritime knowledge often marked them out for disdain and ridicule from more experienced crewmen. In his book Two Years Before the Mast, published two decades before the Civil War, Richard Henry Dana offered up his experiences of being a new Landsman, in an account that would no doubt have felt familiar to many who followed in his footsteps after 1861:

The change…to the loose duck trousers, checked shirt, and tarpaulin hat of a sailor…was soon made; and I supposed that I should pass very well for a Jack tar. But it is impossible to deceive the practised eye in these matters; and while I thought myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt, known for a landsman by every one on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. The trousers, tight around the hips, and thence hanging long and loose around the feet, a superabundance of checked shirt, a low-crowned, well-varnished black hat, worn on the back of the head, with half a fathom of black ribbon hanging over the left eye, and a slip-tie to the black silk neckerchief, with sundry other minutiae, are signs, the want of which betrays the beginner at once. Besides the points in my dress which were out of the way, doubtless my complexion and hands were quite enough to distinguish me from the regular salt who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half opened, as though just ready to grasp a rope.

In his final estimation, Dana felt that “there is no so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.”

Crew of the Monitor, 1862 (Library of Congress)

During the Civil War, most of the new sailors who signed on for the Landsman’s $12 a month were poor, unskilled labourers drawn from the major urban centres of the East Coast. Large numbers were immigrants. They may have been regular objects of disdain, but without Landsmen the U.S. Navy would not have been able to prosecute the war against the Confederacy. Although the least skilled of the naval deckhands, they were often needed in great quantities- sometimes even more so than experienced seamen. Indeed, in the middle of the war, the shortage of Landsmen was so acute that the government was willing to pay recruiters $10 a head for securing these unskilled men, but only $3 a head for Seamen and Ordinary Seamen. The peaks and troughs of skilled recruitment into the Navy during the war also meant that not all Landsmen were completely clueless when it came maritime matters. For example there is evidence that early in the conflict so many sailors were secured from the merchant and fishing fleets that some were initially rated as Landsmen.

As was often the case during the Civil War, there were exceptions to the general Landsman rating rule when it came to African Americans. Landsman may have been the lowest rank for adult white-men (and free-born adult African Americans), but that was not the case for the formerly enslaved. Although the service quickly turned to thousands of these “Contrabands” to help meet its manpower needs, initially they were restricted to the adolescent rating of “Boys”, no matter what maritime experience they possessed. It was the summer of 1862 before promotion to the rank of Landsman was officially opened to them, and December 1862 before they could be enlisted at that rating. It was not until February 1863 that maritime skills were taken into consideration, finally allowing for initial recruitment above Landsman for some formerly enslaved men.

As you work through the Ratings Workflow on Zooniverse, keep an eye out for the Landsmen you encounter, and in particular have a look at their background and experience level. Are you finding anyone who seems an unusual fit for that Rating? As always, we would love to hear of any interesting discoveries you make, or questions that the records raise- pop on over to Talk to let us know! We will return with another Ratings Focus post soon, taking a “deep dive” into another of the ranks you are coming across during transcription.

Further Reading

Bennett, Michael J. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Browning Jr., Robert M. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Fire Ant Books, 2003.

Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. Henry Altemus Company, 1895.

Ramold, Steven. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy. Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Ringle, Dennis J. Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy. Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Tomblin, Barbara Brooks. Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

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