The 118,000 sailors who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War can provide us vital insight into racial, ethnic and class life in mid-19th century America, revealing details about ‘everyday’ people during this critical period in U.S. history. Of these 118,000, c. 30 percent were born in Britain or Ireland and there were also many first-generation Irish and British Americans. Initially recruited in port cities, these immigrants provide an excellent case study of urban working-class lives at that time. Also, though free black men could join the navy (though not the army), before the Civil War, thousands more recently enslaved African Americans joined as the war progressed and Emancipation became official government policy, thereby entering official government records for the first time.
There were two major naval campaigns in the Civil War. The first was the blockading of Confederate ports on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to deprive the rebel states of supplies and to halt exports. The other campaign, which featured a fifth or Mississippi River ‘Brown Water’ squadron, focused on controlling the internal waterways of the United States in support of land campaigns, especially efforts to capture Vicksburg and control the Mississippi and its tributaries. The Atlantic squadrons worked primarily from east coast ports such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, cities with the largest numbers of foreign, especially British and Irish, immigrants along with large populations of African Americans. In the river squadron, increased recruitment of recently enslaved African Americans was common. This fact brought many northern sailors, native- and foreign-born, into direct and close contact, for the first time, with large numbers of recently enslaved men. For the moment we are focusing on vessels which were active in the Mississippi River squadron.