Though sectional tensions had been building within the United States for several years, the outbreak of the Civil War found both the Union and the Confederacy largely unprepared to fight a major war. Both sides had to scramble to build up their military forces. For example, in April 1861 the Union Navy consisted of about 9,000 men and 89 vessels, many of which were not in commission. By 1865, it had grown to some 670 vessels, and more than 118,000 men had been in naval service at some point during the war, a tremendous buildup in such a short time.
Those thousands of Northern sailors performed myriad shipboard tasks, some more glamorous than others, but all requiring hard work and skill. By examining how the crew of one ship, USS Constellation, functioned, one can get a sense of the work performed by the men who served aboard warships in that conflict. Although the wind-powered ship lacked the engineering department found on a steam-powered vessel equipped with engines, her other shipboard duties were essentially the same as most Navy ships.
Constellation was a relatively new ship in 1861, having only been commissioned in 1855, and was the last sail-powered vessel built for the U.S. Navy. The three-masted ship was considered a sloop-of-war, or corvette, though at 186 feet in gun-deck length she was the largest ship of that class built by the U.S. Navy to date. Prior to the war she had patrolled the Mediterranean region and African waters, enforcing the 1808 law that made the importation of slaves to the United States illegal. During the conflict Constellation took part in no major fights; she served the dull but necessary duty of guarding Northern merchant ships against Confederate commerce raiders and performing blockade duty.
In order to staff ships like Constellation and meet the increased need for manpower, the U.S. Navy accepted men of all backgrounds. A naval recruit had to be 18 or older, stand at least 4 feet 8 inches high, and pass a brief physical examination before signing his’shipping article,’ or enlistment papers. Recruits under 18 had to have consent of parents or guardian, and the average age of a Union sailor was 25. The usual term of enlistment was three years or one cruise, and a ‘Jack Tar’ or ‘Webfoot,’ as sailors were known in the slang of the day, could expect to be at sea much of that time.
According to an old Navy adage, it took six years to make a fully capable seaman. At that rate, a typical recruit would be well into his mid-20s before attaining the necessary proficiency. The apprentice or ‘boy’ rank was a means for the Navy to allow youths between ages 13 and 18 to join so they could be developed into fully trained sailors at a younger age. Also, every port had many orphans and runaways eager to volunteer, and some as young as 11 found their way aboard ships of war. By regulation, sailors under 18 could make up no more than 5 percent of a ship’s crew, and Constellation‘s muster roll shows that 17 boys shipped out in March 1862. They learned seamanship while acting as messengers, cook’s helpers, sick bay attendants and officers’ servants. In combat or during drill, the boys carried powder cartridges to the guns. Because many small things aboard ship were referred to as ‘monkeys,’ the boys’ hazardous duty earned them the nickname ‘powder monkeys.’
The Navy, unlike the Army, accepted men of African descent before the Emancipation Proclamation became effective in 1863, although their numbers, like those of boys, were restricted to no more than 5 percent of a crew. In further contrast to the U.S. Army, black sailors received the same pay as their white shipmates. Those who enlisted at the start of the war were mostly free men living in Northern port cities. As the war progressed, the need for manpower led Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to suggest to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron commander that he open stations ashore for recruiting ‘contrabands,’ as blacks who fled slavery for the protection of Union forces were called. By the end of the war, African Americans accounted for more than 10 percent of the Navy’s enlisted strength. Constellation‘s muster rolls show that 15 blacks served aboard her during the Civil War. The most experienced was James Evans. A free man, he enlisted in Boston on November 15, 1861, as a seaman, indicating that he had previous naval experience. By March 1863 he had been promoted to the petty officer rating of coxswain, one of seven authorized for the ship.
A raw recruit, white or black, over 18 years of age was given the rank of landsman. Sixty-nine of those greenhorns were on Constellation‘s muster roll in 1863, and they performed the dirtiest, heaviest and most menial shipboard tasks and endured the harassment of their mates. With at least three years’ experience, or upon re-enlisting, a landsman could be promoted to ordinary seaman. The skill and knowledge required of an ordinary seaman included handling and splicing ropes and lines and working aloft on the lower mast stages and yards. When fully rigged, a ship of Constellation‘s size had some five miles of rigging, so ordinary seamen had quite a bit to learn. Constellation‘s March 1863 roles listed 82 men of that rank. Seaman, the next step up, required the sailor to have at least six years’ experience and instinctively ‘know all the ropes’ by name and use. Fifty-seven seamen were on Constellation in the spring of 1863.
The captain rated or promoted the most reliable and experienced seaman as petty officers to occupy positions of intermediate authority, and he relied on them for advice on the safety, operation and maintenance of the ship. The skipper also rated petty officers based on previously acquired skills or training. Constellation had 59 petty officers to help supervise the ship’s 283 enlisted crew members. The leading petty officers were the Navy equivalent to Army and Marine Corps sergeants. The master-at-arms, the highest-ranking, was responsible for discipline. The yeoman was in charge of storing and issuing the material for ship maintenance and operation and keeping the account books of the various departments. Leading petty officers known as mates assisted the master, boatswain, gunner, sail maker and carpenter. Others known as stewards could serve on the staffs of the paymaster and surgeon.
Those with the lesser petty officer ratings, equal to corporals, saw duty as quartermasters, who steered the ship and assisted with navigation and signaling; quarter gunners, who helped maintain the cannons and trained the gun crews; and armorers, who took care of the cutlasses, pikes, battle-axes, pistols and shoulder weapons that constituted the ship’s cache of small arms. When a ship went to battle stations, every gun had at least one petty officer acting as its gun captain.
Lesser petty officers could also be coopers and painters in the carpenter’s department, cooks and cabin and wardroom stewards, and the master-at-arms’ corporals, or assistants. The lower grade petty officers of the boatswain’s department supervised the sailing deck. They were known as captains of the forecastle, the forward area of the spar, or top, deck; the tops, or masts; the afterguard, or aft area of the ship; and the hold.
Moses A. Safford, a Kittery, Maine, attorney when the war began, accepted an appointment as one of Constellation‘s yeomen on December 26, 1861. Safford’s 1862–65 shipboard diary provides a petty officer’s perspective on life aboard a Union man-of-war.
John Glenn of Troy, N.Y., who was said to have once been a prizefighter, was appointed Constellation‘s master-at-arms in November 1861. Yeoman Safford was Glenn’s messmate and described him as a ‘very jolly, good-natured man although he has a reputation of having been `on his muscle,” due to his tendency to resort to brute strength to enforce discipline and the rules of the ship.
Most Navy ships had a contingent of Marines aboard, who functioned as shipboard infantry during a fight. They helped the captain maintain order, assisted in repelling enemy boarders, climbed into the rigging to act as sharpshooters and spearheaded boarding parties against enemy vessels and landing parties ashore. Like the other branches of service, the Marine Corps expanded during the Civil War, growing from 1,800 officers and men to approximately 4,100. Constellation‘s records indicate that 45 men served in the Marine Guard from 1862 to 1865 and were commanded by 2nd (later 1st) Lt. Robert O’Neil Ford. In descending order of rank, his detachment included one lieutenant, one orderly sergeant, one sergeant, three corporals, 36 privates and three musicians.
Marine Orderly Sergeant William P. Schwartz wrote in a letter to his brother that he’spent much of the time exercising the large guns and preparing everything for action in case of need.’ When the ship’s company was called to General Quarters, some Marines could be distributed among the gun divisions, or could make up an entire gun crew. Schwartz stated he ‘was particularly busy’ drilling the Marines on both large and small arms. The Marines were usually formed into a single division on the spar deck. From there, the captain could order them where they were needed most.
Although they participated in few major land battles, Marines from the blockading squadrons conducted numerous raids along the Confederate coastline throughout the Civil War. Constellation‘s leathernecks regularly practiced launching such operations. Yeoman Safford commented on an 1862 practice landing: ‘All our boats are put over and completely armed and equipped, and are landed through the surf. Everyone gets wet, but the imitation of landing an armed expedition was really very credibly done.’
Marines also provided a force capable of stopping fights and other disturbances among the sailors. As Sergeant Schwartz explained in another letter, the Marines were charged with ‘keeping order in the ship.’ They guarded the captain’s cabin; the spirit room, where paint and other combustible liquids were kept; and the brig, or disciplinary holding cells. Sailors resented the ‘police’ function of the Marines, fueling a service rivalry.
Constellation‘s complement of officers, aside from the captain, usually numbered about 20. Line officers were responsible for sailing and fighting the ship and commanded the crew when at quarters, or battle stations. A first lieutenant was the senior line officer and was a vessel’s executive officer (second-in-command) until the Navy created the rank of lieutenant commander in July 1862, which then became the rank of Constellation‘s executive officer.
Civil, or staff, officers were in charge of specialized departments. The surgeon managed the medical department. The paymaster, formerly called the purser, accounted for the crew’s payroll, purchased supplies and equipment, and sold comfort items and sundries to the crew while at sea. The captain’s secretary served as the ship’s administrative officer, while the master, formerly called the sailing master, was responsible for navigation. Master was also the title of the transitional rank for line officers between midshipman and lieutenant. Midshipmen were junior line officers who had passed their academic work at the naval academy but were waiting for their final examination for commissioning. Once a midshipman passed his exams, he became a passed midshipmen until promoted to master or lieutenant. In 1862 the Navy created the rank of ensign to replace the grade of passed midshipman.
Unexamined midshipmen and the’shipped’ master’s mates, who assisted the master, were considered’superior’ warrant officers. Clerks were civil officers, equivalent in grade to midshipmen. The four ‘inferior’ warrant officers were the technical experts responsible for sailing, fighting and maintaining the ship and its equipment. They managed sailing and deck operations. The gunner supervised the training of gun crews, the maintenance of the guns and small arms, and preparation and storage of the ammunition. The inferior warrant officers and the gunner were on the line side. The carpenter and sail maker were on the staff side and supervised the craftsmen who maintained the ship’s wooden structure and mended sails. Men of long experience in the ranks, they represented the lowest links in the officer chain. Captains could also appoint deserving petty officers to acting warrant officer billets.
No one exerted more influence on the men’s lives and morale than did the captain, who sat at the top of the ship’s chain of command. He was ultimately responsible for the training, health, welfare and discipline of the crew and for transforming the men from a collection of veterans and recruits into an efficient team.
Each gun crew had an even number of men, with titles reflective of their duties, plus a powder monkey. The gun crew functions had a ‘first’ and’second’ man assigned to each position. The petty officer who served as the first gun captain gave commands, primed, aimed and fired the weapons. Spongers swabbed the tubes to extinguish burning embers left from the previous shot, and rammed home the new powder cartridges and projectiles. Loaders assisted the spongers by placing ammunition in the muzzle. Shot- or shellmen procured the projectiles and passed them to the loaders. Handspikemen raised the breach of the gun so the quoin, or wedge, could be moved forward or backward under the barrel to adjust the range by elevating or depressing the muzzle. Train and side tacklemen hauled on the ropes that ran the guns in and out of the gunport, and adjusted the weapon’s train, or direction left and right. If a first became disabled, his second assumed his duties. If the ship had to fight on both sides, the first crew captains, spongers and loaders of each gun would man one gun, while their respective seconds served the gun on the opposite side of the deck. The powder monkey and tacklemen were considered’shifting men’ and moved as required to serve both guns between shots.
Two rifled cannons, mounted on pivot carriages located on the spar deck, formed the 3rd Division on Constellation. The pivot mounts permitted the rifles to fire at greater elevations and on a wider arc than did those on the gun deck, and with fewer crewmen. A 30-pounder Parrott rifle was located on the forecastle, near the bow. Serviced by a crew of nine, it fired a 29-pound conical shell to a maximum range of 6,700 yards. A crew of seven worked the stern-mounted 20-pounder Parrott rifle. That gun could fire its 19-pound shell 4,400 yards.
Three bronze, 12-pounder Dahlgren boat howitzers, each manned by eight sailors, complemented Constellation‘s heavier guns. Those weapons could fire exploding shells and canister and were used with the ship’s boats–row-powered cutters with auxiliary sails large enough to transport a landing party or attack enemy vessels in shallow water. Upon landing, the crew could mount the piece on its wrought-iron field carriage and move the gun with drag ropes. A small wheel at the end of the trail eased movement and was turned up when the gun went into action. The field carriage also allowed the howitzers to be used on the spar deck in an emergency.
While the gun crews assembled at their guns and prepared them for firing, the rest of the ship’s company reported to their stations. The 4th Division, also known as the Master’s Division, was composed of 24 enlisted men who were stationed in the mast tops and those who attended to the rigging, sails and steering of the vessel as well as to the ship’s signals. The executive officer, the vessel’s second-in-command, controlled the 4th Division from the quarterdeck. The location of the ship’s wheel on the spar deck allowed the executive officer to assume command immediately if the captain was wounded, thereby preventing any confusion or delay in the passing of the orders. The master, who also took station on the quarterdeck, and the boatswain, who positioned himself on the forecastle, assisted the executive officer. The assignment of the line officers to divisions by their descending order of seniority was done to place the least experienced lieutenants closest to the quarterdeck, where they could be observed, supervised and mentored by the warship’s captain and executive officer.
A midshipman commanded the 5th Division, also called the Powder Division. It supplied the gun crews with ammunition and consisted of men whose routine duties were below deck. The gunner took charge of the large magazine and forward shell rooms; the gunner’s mate supervised the smaller magazine and aft shot locker. Three chains of sailors passed the powder cartridges in leather passing boxes upward through scuttles, or holes, in each deck until the boxes reached the gun deck, where powder boys carried them to their guns. The empty passing boxes were returned through canvas chutes to the magazines, where they were reloaded, and the process repeated. Shells and solid shot were placed in wooden boxes and hoisted up through hatches to the appropriate deck. The projectiles were then placed in racks or boxes near the guns, while the empty boxes were returned below and reloaded in a continuous process. The officer in charge of the Powder Division also saw to lowering the wounded to the hold and conveying them to the surgeon’s station.
During battle, men of the carpenter’s and sail maker’s departments reported to the Powder Division but worked under the direction of their respective warrant officers. They removed nonload-bearing stanchions (support columns) and bulkheads (interior walls) and placed gratings over the hatches to facilitate handling of guns and passing of ammunition and to minimize the effects of flying splinters. They then secured all portholes, prepared the pumps for controlling leaks, rigged the fire engine and checked the flood cocks. During a fight, they stood by with plugs and patches to repair shot holes, clear wreckage and fight fires. The master-at-arms and his corporals extinguished galley, fires and all unauthorized lights and ensured the safe use of lamps where they were required. They had loose gunpowder swept from the deck or dumped into tubs of water to prevent accidental ignition.
The surgeon, along with the assistant surgeons, surgeon’s steward and nurses, established an aid station in the cockpit, a section of the after orlop deck below the waterline. They prepared tourniquets and distributed them to the divisions.
While the various divisions were forming for battle, the paymaster secured the cash, books and stores in the wardroom, while his steward safeguarded the property in his custody and kept an eye on the spirit room. The Marines formed ranks on the quarterdeck, loaded their muskets and fixed bayonets. Under the command of their lieutenant, they stood by to execute the captain’s orders. Pistols, cutlasses, muskets, boarding pikes and battle-axes were distributed to sailors from the armory. In addition to their duties on the guns, each member of a gun crew was designated a member of either the 1st or 2nd division of boarders. In a close-in fight, the secondary member of the gun crew of each piece, and all petty officers on the spar deck except those at the wheel and overseeing the direction of the ship, were with the first group of boarders and were armed with pistols and cutlasses. The primary members of each gun crew went with the second wave of boarders, if necessary. When the order to ‘board the enemy’ was given, the gun crews blasted away at the enemy’s gun deck and hull. The spar deck guns and the howitzers were loaded with grapeshot or canister to sweep the enemy’s deck. The Marines and musket-equipped seamen fired at visible enemy personnel. After gunfire had effectively raked the deck of an enemy ship, grappling hooks would be used to pull the ships together, and the boarders would leap onto their opponent’s deck and take the fight to the enemy.
Conversely, the order ‘prepare to repel boarders’ was issued when a ship was threatened with an enemy assault. One-fourth of the men in each gun crew and the remainder of the Master’s Division, except those designated as boarders or on the wheel, were assigned as pikemen. They formed behind those crewmen armed with cutlasses. The Marines, with bayonets fixed, formed behind the pikemen to cover them. At the command ‘repel boarders,’ grape and musketry were brought to bear upon the enemy as they prepared to attack. Men remaining on the broadside guns continued to fire, and stood by with pikes to repel enemy attempting to enter through gun ports or quarter galleries. The howitzers, charged with canister, stood ready should the enemy gain a foothold on the spar deck. When the emergency became desperate enough to call all hands from below, the pikemen took up muskets and left their pikes for the members of the Powder Division to use as they came on deck.
One member of each gun crew was designated a fireman and equipped with a fire bucket and battle-ax to extinguish flames and clear wreckage. All members of the spar deck gun crews, except the first captains, spongers, loaders and powder boys, were also assigned as sail trimmers. Besides reinforcing the Master’s Division in trimming sails, they also supplemented the firemen and pumpmen, or assembled to be armed with muskets for use as a landing force, and were usually crew members of the ship’s boats. Each gun crew also furnished one man for the pump.
Yeoman Safford remarked, ‘Our men have been doing some really extraordinary work at target practice.’ As their proficiency grew, he added, ‘Both our Captain and Executive have the confidence of the men.’ As an ultimate testament to their readiness, while recognizing the limitations of their vessel, Safford proudly proclaimed: ‘Our men were very eager for a fight. I do not know what we could have done with a steam ship, but before she had finished us they would have known they were in a fight!’
Had they been ‘in a fight,’ the men of Constellation would have had to instinctively perform in the chaos and confusion of battle the skills they had mastered. As the gun decks filled with choking smoke and deafening noise that made sailors’ ears bleed, men often stripped to the waist. Shot, shells, shrapnel, musket balls and splinters swept across open decks and pounded into the sides of ships, adding to the unholy din. Men would soon begin to fall, and they would be taken to the cockpit as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, amputating a mangled limb was usually the only hope for saving a wounded man’s life.
One sailor on USS Hartford wrote of his experience in a naval battle: ‘Shot after shot came through the side, mowing down the men, deluging the decks with blood, and scattering fragments of humanity so thickly that it was difficult to stand on the deck….A solid shot coming through the bow struck a gunner on the deck, completely severing his head from his body. One poor fellow lost both legs by a cannon ball; as he fell he threw up both arms, just in time to have them carried away by another shot.’
Constellation‘s crew did not see any fighting, but the hard work and drill of her sailors and Marines epitomize the efforts of all those who secured the seas for the Union. President Abraham Lincoln summed up the value of the Federal naval contribution when he said: ‘Nor must Uncle Sam’s web feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Wherever the ground has been a little damp they have made their tracks.’
Glenn F. Williams is the former curator and historian for USS Constellation.He currently works for the American Battlefield Protection Program.
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