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
During 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 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
White 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
The 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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.