Bluejacket Image Focus: The Faces of Wartime U.S. Sailors at Baton Rouge

Among the many excellent naval images held by the Library of Congress is a Stereograph view (here) that depicts Union bluejackets in the act of resupplying their vessels at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It originally appeared in Volume 1 of the Photographic History of the Civil War, along with another image of a Baton Rouge coaling yard being utilised by the fleet. Thanks to the incredible resolution at which the Library of Congress makes these images available, it is possible for us to virtually “dive in” to explore elements of picture like this in greater detail. Doing so reveals some fantastic portraits of individual bluejackets, captured as they paused from carrying out one of their most arduous duties.

Despite this image’s previous publication, it is not one of the better known depictions of the wartime U.S. Navy. Yet it is one of a relatively few photographs that shows bluejackets in the act of resupplying their vessels- something that was an ever present necessity, consideration (and often gigantic headache!) for those in the naval service. For most ordinary bluejackets, the consistent and regular need to engage in the backbreaking work of recoaling and resupply was a mainstay of their wartime experience. Here we get a rare detailed look at some of them in the midst of such work.

The original stereoscope image (Click Image to Enlarge). It is variously captioned “Gun-Boats at Baton Rouge La. March 1863” and “Coaling Farragut’s Fleet after New Orleans”. The Photographic History dated the image to 1862. It shows a mixed group of men- the majority U.S. sailors- waiting on the quayside with U.S. naval vessels beyond. It is clear they are about to transport supplies to the boats, such as the stacked wood that surrounds them (Library of Congress).
One of the most interesting individuals in the image is standing at right. Utilising the high-resolution version of the photograph, together with some photo-editing software, we can take a clearer look at him (Click Image to Enlarge). A young, lean, bluejacket, this is a character-filled depiction- he almost seems in the act of speaking. He and the other men have evidently been carrying handcarts filled with supplies, which they have recently put down- the sailor is positioned so as to be able to pick up the front handles when the boat arrives. This man is also relatively unusual among the group in that he is stripped down to his white shirt with a scarf (or his jacket?) tied about his neck. At his hip his knife is clearly visible (he is resting his thumb on it), an indispensable part of the Civil War bluejacket kit. Five other men can be seen standing or sitting in the background, in front of a large stack of timber. At least four of the group are sailors, identifiable by their telltale caps.
Another detail from the image following slight enhancement (Click Image to Enlarge). In the foreground here we see a bluejacket resting by sitting in his wooden wheelbarrow (a time honoured tradition on worksites even today!). It is apparently empty, but those of the two barrowers behind him are not- they looked to be filled with wood from the stack immediately beyond them. Both of these sailors are sitting on the handles of their loaded barrows, the middle individual looking directly towards the camera. Just to the right of this section of the image is a sailor taking the opportunity of the pause to work on what appears to be a section of rope. This was clearly not posed, as he was moving his hands when the photographer took the shot- that movement can be seen as the upward movement of his arm, creating a double exposure.
Another interesting character to emerge in the image is this man, looking straight at the camera (Click to Enlarge). Although he appears to be a sailor, he is wearing what seems to be a non-regulation hat. The bottoms of his wide sailor trousers are rolled up above his ankles. He sits on his filled handcart, which from a wider-angle appears to be filled with coal. Behind him is a younger (and perhaps less experienced) sailor, who likewise is looking directly at the photographer, as are the sailor (and soldier?) beyond.

Exploring images such as this in greater detail can offer some interesting insights into Union bluejackets “on the job,” revealing features that at first sight aren’t always apparent. They are also a great opportunity to closely examine the appearance of individual wartime sailors, and consider how that could differ from man to man. Ultimately, photographs like this help us to put faces to the thousands of names our citizen Scientists are exploring as part of the Civil War Bluejackets Zooniverse Project.

Be sure and keep an eye out for another Bluejacket Image Focus post in the near future!

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