An AHRC Funded Project Exploring Ordinary Civil War Sailors

The story of common sailors in the United States ‘Union’ Navy (USN), the ‘Bluejackets’ (so named for their distinctive shell-jacket uniform) has been understudied in the history of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The 118,000 or so Bluejackets, over 30 percent of whom were British or Irish, and c.15 percent were African American, waged war against the Confederate States, through the maintenance of a blockade along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and support of the land war effort through control of the rivers of the American interior. The Civil War Bluejackets project (CWB) uses publicly available digitised ship muster rolls, which included information such as name, age, and place of birth, in innovative ways to provide a new history of these sailors in the US ‘Union’ Navy by focusing on the experiences of British, Irish, and African American sailors to tell us more about race, ethnicity and class in mid-nineteenth century America. Working with project partner the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean & Ecosystem Studies (CICOES), who have used USN records through crowdsourced citizen-supported research to analyse climate-change data, CWB brings together historians and information scientists to produce a new crowdsourced Civil War Sailor Internet Resource, publicly accessible through It promotes research in the history of sailors, the Civil War, and the social history of the 19th century. It is also useful for those interested in family history, particularly African American genealogists, because many of the formerly enslaved first appeared in their own right with full names on ship musters as they sought to make their black lives matter claiming equality through naval service. CWB provides a mass analysis of digitised data, opening research avenues that simply are not possible through traditional direct archival research.

Through this exploitation of big data, CWB’s analysis helps us understand better the dynamics of racial, ethnic, and class identities in mid-19th century America. The USN recruited in port cities, thus attracting predominantly urban working class, often immigrant, crews. As the war progressed to become one for emancipation after 1 January 1863, recruitment of African Americans grew substantially. Naval vessels became increasingly multiracial as well as multiethnic. In contrast, African Americans who served in the US Union Army did so in racially segregated regiments with white officers. Unlike Union soldiers, Bluejackets of all races and ethnicities lived together in close quarters over long periods of time. Their experiences provide an excellent case study to examine race relations among working-class Americans in the mid-19th century. The muster rolls alone provide the opportunity to measure fully how integrated the navy was, but linking the sailors on them to other records, particularly pension files, provides for deeper analysis of racial, ethnic, and class identities and, most significantly, if and how much they changed over time.

Also, from the mid-17th century, ships were often hotbeds of radical ideas and practices. Despite a hierarchical structure, with the captain being the virtual dictator of life onboard, there remained elements of equality among the crew. Skills often trumped traditional class and racial boundaries. Black sailors could have higher ranks than white ones and could order white men to complete certain tasks and chores. CWB will also examine how traditions of seafaring work in the USN, as it expanded its size and its racial diversity, changed over the duration the war, and how Bluejackets’ experience compares or contrasts with other national navies in the long 19th century (1787-1914). Thus, the project will include other scholars of common navy sailors in a conference, held in collaboration with project partner the US Naval Academy Museum, to explore similarities and differences with the US experience.