The Immigrant in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

Immigrants and blacks gave the Union Navy a huge manpower advantage.

The Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery often found their Confederate enemies an equal match on the battlefield. The Union navy’s power, however, was only seriously contested once by the Confederates. That was on March 8, 1862 when the ironclad CSS Virginia succeeded in destroying two wooden Union ships and dispersing the Union naval force on the James River in Virginia. The threat ended the next day when the brand new United States ironclad Monitor arrived and fought the Virginia to a draw. The Monitor, a revolutionary design in warships, was the handiwork of Swedish immigrant John Ericsson.1

monitor-v-merrimcackDuring the classic Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimack), the revolutionary ship design of Swedish immigrant John Ericsson changed navies around the world.

Aside from the famous fight between the ironclads, the Union navy was dominant on the waters during the Civil War. While much of the focus of naval historians has been on the Union advantage in ships, the Union had a major advantage in manpower. That edge was largely due to immigrants.2

The image of the Union soldier is a young man, fresh off the farm, ready to fight for his native land. If the typical Union infantryman was a farm boy, his naval equivalent was thoroughly urban.. According to the ground-breaking study of the navy Union Jacks, more than three-quarters of Union naval personnel came from the East Coast. Out of the 118,000 men who enlisted in the navy during the war, 35,000 were from New York State, 20,000 were from Massachusetts, and 14,000 were from Pennsylvania. Only 3% were farmers before the war, according to research conducted by Michael Bennett. More than half came from the primarily urban working class, ranging from skilled workers to day laborers. Roughly a third reported being unemployed at the time they joined the navy.3

The urban unemployed formed such a large segment of naval recruits that it is likely that one-in-three men in the navy may have joined to escape starvation. Unemployment may have been a particular stimulant to the enlistment of Irish immigrants. Four-out—of ten Irish recruits were out of work when they entered the navy. 4

The navy recruited primarily in the port cities where new immigrants were most likely to live. Recruitment was helped by the economic chaos caused by the war. There had been a downturn in commercial shipping right after the war started which put many immigrants along the docks out of work. Still, while it may not be too surprising that immigrants were drawn to naval service, the numbers certainly astound. While immigrants made up 27% of the Northern male military age population, they represented 45% of navy recruits.5

south-street-paintingSouth Street on Manhattan’s East River was partially idled when the Civil War broke out. New York received coastal shipments of cotton from the South which was warehoused in the city. It was then shipped across the Atlantic to Britain’s textile mills. War interrupted the trade and left many dockworkers and warehousemen without work.

In his study of enlisted men in the navy, Michael Bennett says that there was an additional reason why immigrants often preferred ships to soldiering. He writes that immigrants often saw the navy as less nativist than the army. Some immigrants in the army even transferred to the navy when they encountered anti-immigrantism in the land force. Once on board ship, the immigrants frequently encountered the same bigotry from their American-born officers, but at least the other sailors and landsmen were likely to be fellow immigrants.6

Among immigrants, the Irish were the most disproportionately attracted to the navy. Irish made up 7% of soldiers, but they were 20% of naval enlistments. Irish from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were crucial to manning the fleet.7

sailor-enlistmentsWhite native-born men formed a minority of naval personnel during the Civil War. Ships carried Irish, German, English, and Canadian immigrants, as well as blacks recruited in Northern cities and off of coastal plantations in the South.

England was the second most common place of birth for immigrant navy men, making up 10% of enlistees. English immigrants had traditionally played an important role in American merchant shipping. Canadians were third, making up 5% of recruits. The one immigrant group that appeared to distain naval service was the Germans. Although they made up 9% of the army, they were only 4% of the navy.8

The immigrant presence was visible on nearly every ship in the navy, but on some it was particularly high. A crewman on the famous ironclad Monitor wrote that “on a crew of 40 there is only 8 of us American born.”9

navy-hunchbackThe crew of the gunboat Hunchback. This ship was originally a New York ferryboat. It was purchased by the navy soon after the war began and was converted to a fighting vessel the following month. Although the banjo player is the most prominent African American in the photo, a cluster of standing black men can be seen on the right. Unlike in the army, black men served next to white on ships, although often at lower pay grades.

On the ships, many immigrants were thrown in with African Americans for the first time. While the army barred the recruitment of blacks during the first year of the war, the navy had black crewman even before the firing on Fort Sumter. As naval ships patrolled the Confederate coastline, escaped slaves would join ships crews. Approximately one—in—seven navy men was black. 10

In all, roughly 60% of the men in the navy were blacks or immigrants.White men born in the United States were in the minority in the water-borne branch of the military.11

Video: Historian Michael Bennett Discusses Life on Union Ships

Video: Civil War Era Song The Monitor and Merrimack


The Civil War Trust has a list of ten facts you need to know about Civil War navies.

Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett was an important source for this article. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the enlisted men of the United States Navy during the war.

1. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011); War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James McPherson published by Univ. of North Carolina Press (2012); From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War by Robert Browning published by Univ. of Alabama Press (1993); Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War by Robert Browning published by Brassey’s Inc. (2002); Navy in the Civil War, The: Vol. 1, The Blockade and the Cruisers by James Russell Soley published by Scribners (1887); Monitor by James Tertius de Kay, published by Walker (1997) p. 154; The First Fight of Iron-Clads by John Taylor Wood in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol 1 pp 692-711; The Original United States Warship “Monitor” published by the Bushnell National Memorial Association (1899) p. 24; The Building of “The Monitor”  by John Ericsson in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol 1 pp. 730-745. Thanks to Mark Jenkins for recommending sources.
2. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011)
3. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 5-6.
4. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 6-8.
5. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 8—9.
6. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 9.
7. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011)
8. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 9-10.
9. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011) p. 11.
10. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011)
11. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett published by University of North Carolina Press (2011)

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority



Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.