Ratings Focus: “Ordinary Seamen” & “Seamen”

Our last Ratings Focus post looked at the lowest adult rank on board Civil War vessels, that of “Landsman” (you can read that here). For this installment, we are taking a look at the backgrounds, roles and responsibilities of Ordinary Seamen and Seamen, vital positions within wartime crews, and ones that indicated a sailor who had amassed a degree of maritime experience.

Crew on the deck of a U.S. vessel during the war. Partially and fully experienced Ordinary Seamen and Seamen were vital elements of a ship’s crew. “Old Salts” like the sailor standing at left in this image were expected to pass their knowledge onto the men around them (Library of Congress)

The rating (rank) above the lowly Landsman was that of “Ordinary Seaman”. Being rated at this level implied that the man in question had gained some experience (and demonstrated competence) at the fundamentals of a sailor’s life. Francis Asbury Roe, who during the Civil War commanded vessels like USS Katahdin and USS Sassacus, described these men as the link connecting Landsmen with “fully developed” seamen. In order to achieve this rating, the men generally had to have two to three years naval experience behind them, although there is some indication that Landsmen who had previously completed an enlistment or cruise were also considered for advancement.

As well as showing promise, the needs of the service at different points in the conflict played a role in determining if men could move up to ratings like that of Ordinary Seaman. At certain stages of the war the Navy had a dearth of experienced Seamen, while at other times Landsmen were their highest recruitment priority. Depending on the needs of the moment, the Navy sometimes offered higher ratings (and the higher pay that came with it) in order to attract men into Bluejackets. But the reverse was also true- when Landsmen were prioritised, even a recruit with previous maritime experience could find themselves rated at that level. Much of this was dictated by the proportions of Landsmen, Ordinary Seamen and Seamen required for each vessel. According to Roe, the ideal on a Civil War era vessel was to have about half a ship’s crew as Landsmen or Boys, with the other half divided equally between Ordinary Seamen and Seamen.

A group of U.S. sailors pose for an image at a New York Photography Studio. The picture gives a good impression of the range of ages and experience that were present among wartime crews, from the “Old Salt,” standing second from left, to the young boy at centre (Library of Congress)

Once an Ordinary Seamen could demonstrate a high degree of maritime competence- when they had become an “Old Salt”- they could aspire to the rating of Seaman. This was the highest of the non-Petty Officer ranks, and it was from this group of men that a ship’s commander selected his Petty Officers (effectively the Navy equivalent of the Army’s non-commissioned officers). Seamen were expected to be fully versed in all the duties of being a sailor, and it was generally only achieved after six, ten or more year’s maritime service. Seamen were vital to the effective running of a vessel, given the degree of experience they could pass on to the Ordinary Seamen and especially the numerous Landsmen around them. As Roe put it, “they are the men who are expected to be found in dark nights, on occasions of peril, and where leaders are specially needed.” It has become apparent in the early months of our Civil War Bluejackets Project that many such experienced mariners were attracted to the wartime U.S. Navy from across the globe. A significant number of them dispersed again after the conflict’s conclusion, as they went to follow the different opportunities afforded to experienced mariners on the world’s oceans.

Sailors aboard USS Pocahontas arrayed around one of their guns during the Civil War. This image would include all three of the primary crew ratings, Landsmen, Ordinary Seaman, and Seaman. The man standing fourth in line at right is surely an “Old Salt” (Library of Congress)

Ordinary Seamen and Seamen were vital to the effective running of Civil War U.S. vessels, particularly as the service relied so heavily on a major influx of untutored Landsmen to meet their rapidly expanding manpower needs. In practice they were generally sprinkled throughout the crew, as officers sought to make sure that wherever Landsmen were performing duties there was always someone with maritime knowledge amongst them (we will have more on how ship’s crews were separated into “watches” and “messes” in a later post). During the war, recruiters would often scour places like maritime boarding houses in an effort to attract these old hands from the merchant service, and during the summer of 1864 the Navy even procured permission from the Army to allow the transfer (if desired) of any man with such maritime experience into the naval service. Their stories are an important part of the tale of the Civil War Bluejackets, and the data on them from the Muster Sheets promises to tell us much about just how the Navy went about filling these vital positions within the Union fleet.

We are interested to hear from those of you working on our Zooniverse Ratings Workflow to find out more about the type of Ordinary Seamen and Seamen you are encountering- be sure to drop us a line on Talk to let us know what you find! We will be back soon with another Ratings Focus post, shedding some light on another facet of the naval crews you are in the midst of uncovering.

Further Reading

Browning Jr., Robert M. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in the Civil War (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).

Roe, F.A. Naval Duties and Discipline, with the Policy and Principles of Naval Organization (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1865).

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