USS Carondelet Spotlight: Nativity & Ethnicity on a Union Gunboat

In our first two posts on Civil War Bluejackets we focused on individuals, exploring what they can reveal about immigrant and African American service in the Union Navy. Another of our aims with the muster roll transcription project is to see what the wider data set can tell us, and what questions it might raise. One way of tackling this mass of data is by examining the ethnicity and nativity information provided on the crews. How did the ethnic and nativity makeup change (or not) through time, and what might this have meant? Wartime vessels were in essence enclosed communities, cheek by jowl environments that could cause close bonds to form but could also accentuate frictions and tensions, particularly racial ones. Changing racial and ethnic makeups within these shipboard communities prompt us to think about what impact that might have had on vessel dynamics through the course of the war. They also serve as a reminder that while many Union vessels saw prolonged service, their crews were often far from static. 

The USS Carondelet Crew, 1 January 1863 (Click Image to Enlarge)

In this post we are introducing a bit of the “number crunching” we undertook for USS Carondelet, based on her muster rolls of 1 January 1863 (when the Emancipation Proclamation came into force) and 30 June 1864. They come in the form of pie charts we created from the transcribed and cleaned data. We can look at the information in these pie charts in a number of ways, but first let’s see how nativity breaks down among the crew in the two periods. On 1 January 1863, the Carondelet had a particularly high number of American-born sailors, more in fact then we would expect to find across the Navy as a whole. While it is important to remember that nativity doesn’t equal ethnicity, it is an interesting feature nonetheless. Almost 50% of the crew at this time were white native-born American men. We might expect the Irish-born to dominate as the next highest-nativity group, but in fact they were outnumbered by men we assigned to the “Other Europe” category, European immigrants from outside Britain, Ireland, the German States and Scandinavia. Indeed, the Irish-born proportion of 6% runs at just over a quarter of the percentage we think they may have made up in the entire Union Navy (20%).

This crew breakdown may be due in part to the way in which the gunboat crews were initially gathered together, with a focus on securing experienced sailors at short notice. But 18 months later, that picture had changed (below). By then the Irish-born made up 18% of the crew, trebling their representation on 1 January 1863. While American-born percentage is still high, the proportion of native-born white Americans on the crew has fallen from almost 50% to just over 35%. By this date there was also less “variety” in the non-British and Irish Europeans aboard when compared with 1863 (one of the interesting “constants” on the crew at this time was Jose Alavarez, a native of Chile, who was present in 1863 and 1864). One of our aims is to replicate this type of data across different musters and different ships, a process which may well reveal broader patterns to us, providing us with the potential to tell us a lot about naval service, how it changed during the war, and how dynamics changed from vessel to vessel. For example, these changes raise a number of questions surrounding nativity- were more Irish enlisting in the navy by 1864, or were there just more of them on the Carondelet by then? 

The USS Carondelet Crew, 30 June 1864 (Click Image to Enlarge)

These pie charts also make for interesting with regards to African American service. African Americans already accounted for almost 20% of the crew by 1 January 1863, an indication of the extent to which the gunboats had been enlisting men who were escaping enslavement in 1862- long before the Proclamation came into force. The African American proportion of the crew had jumped to almost 30% by the middle of 1864 (when the total crew was also slightly smaller). Perhaps more significantly, whereas black men had represented just under 30% of the American-born crewmen in January 1863, they made up 45% of the American-born crew by June 1864. The majority of those men had come on board as “contrabands,” demonstrating how the Mississippi River basin gunboats replenished their crew from the areas they passed through, much as the U.S. ocean going vessels did with immigrant sailors when they called into international ports. At least on the Carondelet, this seems to have accelerated following the Emancipation Proclamation, as African American sailors became an ever more integral component of the crew. Future posts will explore what these changing figures meant for the relationship dynamics on board, and the extent to which these these figures are replicated through  the Carondelet‘s service, and within the City-Class Gunboats generally. 

USS Carondelet Spotlight: Reconstructing Individual Lives-Irish Immigrant James Carey

Our first post on Civil War Bluejackets sought to demonstrate how the muster rolls allow for a detailed look at the often hard to reach experiences of formerly enslaved African Americans. They also provide a similar opportunity with working class European immigrants. Given that March marks Irish American Heritage Month in the United States, we decided to take a brief look at one of them. The man we explore is James Carey, who was identified by our volunteer subscribers on the 1863 musters of the USS Carondelet. His story allows us to take a deep dive not only into his own experience and that of the working-class Irish in Philadelphia, but also reveals something of his ship’s community.

On the muster rolls James Carey is recorded as a Quarter Gunner. He was described as being in his mid-twenties and he had previous shipboard experience, given that his profession was listed as sailor. Linking his muster data with his Naval Rendezvous details allows us to determine that he had first enlisted in 1861 and joined the Carondelet around 1863. Unfortunately, that was also the year he lost his life. James Carey died on 1 October 1863 from wounds he received when a torpedo (what we would today call a mine) exploded. His fate caused a pension to be claimed by his dependents, a file which in turn allows us to tell a lot about both him and his family.

James Carey’s vessel, USS Carondelet, tied up at a riverbank during the Civil War (Naval History & Heritage Command NH49991)

The Carondelet‘s muster roll states that James Carey was born in Philadelphia, but this was almost certainly not the case. Through further linkage with the 1860 Federal Census, we can determine that he (along with his family) were listed as being of Irish nativity. Indeed, we are even able to state the Carey’s likely origin point, given that James’s parents Brian Carey and Bridget Kelly were married in Horseleap, Co. Offaly in 1838. This discrepancy is not as unusual as it may seem. The mis-assignation of country of nativity on military documentation was very common among Irish immigrant servicemen, and particularly so in the Navy. It was almost always unidirectional, i.e., where men actually born in Ireland were recorded as being born in the United States. There are a number of reasons as to why this may have occurred. In some cases, officers and recruiters appear to have chosen to misrepresent place of origin, but in others the disinformation may have been the decision of the enlistee. In a world where anti-immigrant nativism was still rife, and for those whose accents may have allowed them to “pass” as American, the opportunity to identify yourself as native-born may have helped mitigate some of the prejudice that came your way. 

Stevedores loading a ship during the 1870s, as portrayed by Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)

As well as raising questions of identity, the Carey file also provides an unusually detailed insight into the lives of working-class Irish immigrants in major cities like Philadelphia, which was home to the second largest Irish American community in the United States. Soon after they arrived, James’s father Brian secured work as a labourer “along the river front…loading and unloading vessels-goods, coal, sand, hoop-poles &c.” Irish immigrants tended to dominate among the crews who carried out this work. Often referred to as stevedores, these men were a vitally important link in the labour-chain, and jealously guarded their jobs. However, it was a position that required bodily strength, and as the years passed, Brian Carey’s position became increasingly precarious due to physical incapacity. No longer able to work full-time, he was forced to seek out employment as a day-labourer, and frequently found that he could only get paid work for an hour at a time. This demonstrates in microcosm the extreme precarity of existence that was the lot of the mid-nineteenth century urban labourer in America. Brian’s situation meant that it fell to his young son James–the future USS Carondelet Quarter Gunner–to take on the role of chief breadwinner for the family. He performed that role for seven years prior to joining the United States Navy. Though he didn’t know it then, the job James Carey performed was one that would eventually help him to progress when he enlisted as a Union bluejacket. He became an oysterman, working the boats of fellow Irish American Philip Fitzpatrick. When times were good and the catch was rich, James could earn up to $30 a month. By the time war came, these experienced Oystermen were a valuable commodity for the Union Navy, and quite a number of them ended up serving on Mississippi ironclads.

It is readily apparent that James was well regarded by his crewmates on the Carondelet. We know this because after his death they took the step of paying for the return of his body to his family, which was an unusual and expensive undertaking. This receipt shows the costs incurred by the undertaker, which included his fare and board, the cost of moving the body, and the price of its journey to the Carey’s tenement home in Philadelphia.

Expenses incurred in shipping James Carey’s body back to Philadelphia (NARA)

As well as revealing how well regarded he was, James’s death also gives us further insight into the ship’s community. Each of the crew who contributed towards transporting James’s body had their names recorded, along with the amount they contributed. All told, 49 of the officers and men made donations of between $2 and $25 to the cause. Of the 18 ordinary “seamen” who gave funds, the muster rolls tell us that the greater proportion of them were either Irish or Irish American, though a number of other crew also contributed. This is what we might expect, given that all indications are that Irish Americans maintained close bonds with each other wherever they served together. Nevertheless, the biggest contributions were made by three of James’s fellow Petty Officers- Pennsylvanian James Roberts, Captain of the Forecastle, who gave $25; Frederick Steinmeyer, from Germany, Captain of the Hold, who contributed $20; and Gunner John Evans, from Cobh, Co. Cork, who also gave $20. Combined, these two pieces of information suggest that while ethnicity was important on the vessel, those of similar rank also shared close ties, and James Carey had successfully moved into a position of broad respect among the Carondelet crew. This provides an important window into the often distinct but frequently overlapping relational spheres and bonds shared among white crewmen on these ironclads. But it also serves as a reminder that whatever prejudices an ethnic Irishman might face on a Union gunboat, his experience was usually markedly different from that of many of the African Americans among the crew. They tended to lead a much more segregated on board life (a topic we will return to later), and most could only dream of the level of acceptance and integration afforded to James Carey.

As well as providing detail on Irish American working-class life in Philadelphia and a glimpse of the Carondelet‘s shipboard community, James Carey’s story also leaves us with unusual detail of a profoundly emotive and painful moment in their family life. It comes in the form of a rare account from an ordinary immigrant of the moment they were informed of a loved one’s death during the American Civil War. Despite its brevity, it is clear that it represented a memory that was seared into the mind of ageing Offaly immigrant Brian Carey. The matter-of-fact fashion in which it was transmitted belies the emotion that clearly accompanied the recollection, as he recalled that “he was at Gloucester, wheeling coal onto a vessel, as he distinctly remembers, the day he got word of his son’s death.” Aside from his many other roles and positions in life and in death, James Carey of USS Carondelet had been Brian and Bridget Carey’s eldest child, and his family felt his loss with a keenness and rawness that still reaches down to us from the span of 160 years.

Some of the USS Carondelet crew who subscribed to have Carey’s body transported (NARA)


USS Carondelet Muster Roll

Philadelphia Naval Rendezvous Enlistment Returns

Index to Rendezvous Reports

1860 U.S. Federal Census

U.S. Naval Pension Files

USS Louisville Spotlight: Uncovering the Story of an Enslaved Mississippi “Field Hand”

The transcription efforts of the volunteers have allowed us to examine both the micro and macro experiences of Union gunboat crewmen on the Mississippi. In essence, this allows us to conduct both a “deep dive” into the story of individuals, and to pull back to gain broader perspectives on these men’s service. An example of one of the former comes in the story of Robert Foley, who the transcription volunteers identified among the crew of USS Louisville. Like many African Americans who ended up serving on the Mississippi gunboats, Foley had broken free from enslavement in order to enlist. He is recorded in the musters as having enlisted on 25 June 1864 at Skipwith Landing, Issaquena County, Mississippi. Remarkably, we have an image of Skipwith Landing from that year (below), which forms part of The Elisha Whittelsey Collection of The Met Museum.

Skipwith Landing, Mississippi during the Civil War (The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Met Museum)

The circumstances of Foley’s enlistment were common to many African Americans who joined Union gunboats on the Mississippi. At the time he joined up the Louisville was anchored at Skipwith Landing while on operations in the area, and he seems to have taken the opportunity while the vessel was there to seize his freedom. Examination of African American enlistment dates onto the gunboats suggests that many occurred at times when the vessels were stationary for a number of days, and word of their presence spread into the local countryside. Once he was enrolled, Foley officially served as a Landsman, the lowest rank in the navy, and the one that formerly enslaved African Americans usually received. However, through most of his service he performed the duties of a fireman, staying on until his discharge on 3 July 1865.

In later years, when he went in search of a pension, Foley described something of his life before the navy. He said he had been born near Natchez, Mississippi, either on 6 June 1837 or 6 April 1838. Foley was entered as a “field hand” when he joined the Louisville, but he later spoke of himself as both a “field hand” and a “house servant”, indicative of the often changing nature of life in bondage. After his discharge, he went back to his family in Issaquena County. He lived there for 32 years before moving to Natchez. When he applied for a pension in 1908 based on his age, the Bureau sought more evidence from him in order to prove how old he was. He replied in his own voice: 

I wants to say to you that I have been afflicted with Rhumitism evry since the war. and instead of getting better it is getting worse. I have stated to you my age truthfully before an the first of next April I will be 72 years old. now my old marster + mistress both are dead and I have stated the truth about my age and that is all I can do. I send you this to consider over hopeing an Early Reply. Robert Foley. 

Foley’s application revealed a lot more about his life. In 1856 or 1857 he had married Pattie Collins in Isaquenna. Because both of them were enslaved, there was no record of their union, save for any that might have been kept by their owners. As he put it, they were “married under the Laws of my Master”. The couple went on to have eight children who survived to adulthood, some of whom were born enslaved, some free. In 1892, he added the quip in his application that he “dont expect any more”. 

The USS Louisville as she appeared around the time Robert joined her (Library of Congress)

The post Emancipation relationship the formerly enslaved had with their past owners could be complex. These men and women were often forced to rely on testimony from their old masters when seeking pensions, especially if they had to prove things such as age and marriage. Foley was one who found himself in this position. One of the people who wrote in support of his claim was Charlotte Blackburn, who told the Bureau that “Robert Foley was born in Natchez April 6th 1837 + is consequently over 70 years of age He belonged to my Uncle in the adjoining place + I have known the family all my life”. Her testimony added the detail that “the servants family [Robert’s family] belonging to her family…she knew [Robert] when he was a child, and, because of his having been once the servant of the late Dr. Stephen Duncan of the same general family…whose home was next to [her] parents home.” In the 1870s Duncan had provided the now emancipated Foley with the date of his birth, so that the formerly enslaved man could record it in his own family bible. A review of the 1860 Census reveals that the Natchez based Duncans had hired enslaved people out all over Issaquena County. An example of some of the Duncan enslaved (who were not named, but only listed by their age and sex) can be seen on the 1860 Slave Schedule below. Foley was one of those recorded in this way.

An extract from the 1860 Slave Schedule showing some of those enslaved under the Duncan family (NARA)

The former Union sailor who lived all his life between Natchez and Isaquenna died in Natchez on 20 December 1914. His story serves as an excellent example of the potential of the muster roll transcriptions. It demonstrates their capacity to facilitate the linking together of multiple record sets, allowing us to uncover something of the often hard to reach experiences of those held in bondage in the South. It also illustrates the complexities often interwoven into those narratives. In 1864, Foley seized his freedom when opportunity presented itself, and helped to secure its permanance through his service. But the segregated Jim Crow society in which he lived during the post-war years meant life remained a constant struggle. Even into the 20th century, he was being forced to revisit his bondage and seek the aid of those who had once enslaved him as he sought to secure the benefits to which his United States service entitled him.

In our next African American focused post, we will take a higher level view, examining what the muster roll transcriptions can tell us about black service when analysed in broader perspective.


U.S. Navy Muster Rolls, USS Louisville, NARA.

U.S. Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, NARA.

Navy Pension Certificate of Robert Foley, NARA.

1860 Slave Schedule, Issaquena County, Mississippi, NARA.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.