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The Antebellum Navy

"Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy" by Dennis Ringle
Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute Press

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, at a cost of over six hundred thousand lives and untold human suffering, officers, politicians, and historians substituted the pen for the sword and the rifled musket and embarked on a campaign to inform society of the heroic actions of the war's participants. Most books published over the next 130 years concentrated on the exploits of the army, its officers, and the political leaders who directed the nation during the conflict. Unfortunately, these writers ignored the contributions of the Union navy, and in particular the life and contributions of the enlisted sailor.

President Abraham Lincoln's call for a blockade of the Confederate coastline and the accumulation of additional wartime duties required the U.S. Navy to expand rapidly. The navy's ability to recruit men from all walks of life, with the majority of the recruits possessing little or no maritime background, filled the manifest of the proliferating fleet. What is more important, however, was the navy's ability to weld this heterogeneous group of men into an efficient fighting force that helped defeat the South. In addition, these men successfully ushered in the age of iron ships and laid the foundation for America's emergence as a global power by the end of the century.

During the Civil War, approximately 118,000 men served in the Union navy, blockading over 3,500 miles of southern coastline, convoying merchant ships, pursuing Confederate commerce raiders, and conducting combined operations with the Union Army. This rapid expansion of forces and missions was the product of necessity, opportunity, the vision of a few, and most importantly the sweat and ingenuity of the enlisted sailors. Every aspect of the sailor's background and life-from his recruitment, clothing, and training to his wages, daily shipboard routine, entertainment, diet, medical treatment, and combat experience-influenced his performance at sea and helped pave the way to final victory.

The common sailor who served in Mr. Lincoln's navy during the war enjoyed a better quality of life than did his predecessor in the antebellum navy. The technological advances in steam engineering and the development of ironclad ships substantially enhanced shipboard life. Of greater importance during the decades preceding the Civil War, a handful of dedicated men and women embarked on a reform campaign to improve the living conditions of the common sailor.

The impetus for this campaign came from Congress's concern about the increasing number of foreign sailors serving in the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. To alleviate this reliance on foreign sailors, Congress enacted legislation in March 1813 permitting only American citizens, blacks, and natives of the United States to serve on board navy ships and private vessels. To replace the foreigners, the navy appealed to the patriotism of the American citizens and offered sailors prize money for enemy vessels captured.

When the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war with Great Britain, removed the lure of prize money, hundreds of enlisted men returned to their civilian communities. Other able-bodied tars opted for the better pay and living conditions on privately owned merchant vessels. The navy soon realized that if it was to compete with the merchant service for recruits, it would have to improve the living conditions aboard its own ships. In the decades following the war, some navy officers, with the critical assistance of several political activists and congressmen, embarked on an ambitious naval reform program dedicated to improving the living conditions aboard navy ships.

In this effort, naval reformers drew inspiration and assistance from the proliferation of reform movements that swept civilian society in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Naval reformers solicited the services and assets of the religious, temperance, prison, and abolitionist civilian reform movements to improve the quality of life for the sailors. To improve the sailor's life aboard ship, the reformers had to attack simultaneously several perceived vices that they believed discouraged men from joining the navy. Naval reformers believed that the key to success lay in their ability to improve the sailor's religious awareness, to increase his pay, to abolish flogging, and to eliminate the "spirit" ration aboard ship.

Ironically, the first naval reformers concentrated their efforts on improving the sailor's life on shore and not aboard ship. The early reformers mainly consisted of chaplains and other clergy and women. These individuals believed that spiritual salvation was beyond the sailor's realm unless they removed the sinful temptations of prostitutes, alcohol, and "con men" from the sailor's life in port because the sailor's transgressions were most visible when he was ashore. Initially, the religious reformers lacked a medium for spreading their message. In 1825, a group of prominent citizens, influenced by the work of the religious naval reformers, founded the American Seaman's Friend Society, dedicated to improving the living conditions of sailors. Within two years of its founding, the organization produced the influential Sailor's Magazine and Naval Journal. The magazine grew in popularity among the tars and became the primary propaganda tool for the religious reformers and the American Seaman's Friend Society.

Besides the publication of the Sailor's Magazine and Naval Journal, the Seaman's Society provided respectable lodging for sailors while they waited for their ship's arrival in port. Funded by the society, these new boardinghouses contained small libraries consisting of bibles and religious tracts. The homes also operated small banks and provided nonalcoholic beverages. For a sailor away from his home, the boardinghouses provided a comfortable and safe alternative to most of the vices available to the sailor in seaport towns. Although the religious naval reform took years to gain momentum, it did not lose energy as did the civilian evangelical crusade in the late 1830s. The naval movement continued to carry the social reform banner for the sailor throughout the antebellum period.

In the 1830s, the religious movement prepared to expand its reform platform and tackled a more sensitive political issue, the abolishment of flogging on board ship. Since the navy's inception in 1775, its officers had relied on flogging as the primary means of punishing a sailor. The navy permitted its commanding officers to "award" a sailor a maximum of twelve lashes on his bare back for violating a variety of rules and regulations. Among other things, a sailor received a whipping for indulging in profanity, becoming drunk, fighting, beating a black sailor, smoking after taps, or not washing. The civilian community also liberally used the whip on slaves and in prisons during the antebellum period.

As early as 1820, however, the naval reformers, with the support of several Northern legislators, tried to eliminate flogging from the navy as an inhumane and immoral practice. In that year, naval reformers failed in their first attempt to influence Congress to approve a law abolishing flogging in the navy. The majority of the votes sustaining the practice of flogging came from Southern legislators, who were logically concerned that the abolishment of flogging in the navy would raise questions about the use of whips to discipline slaves.

Opponents of flogging welcomed the support in the 1840s from the growing antislavery movement. Naval reformers drew similarities between the terrible life of a slave and a sailor, and as the abolitionist movement gained momentum, so did the naval reform movement in its effort to abolish flogging. In 1848, the navy reported to Congress that it had awarded 5,936 floggings during the period 1846-47. Several members of Congress, shocked by the alarming number of floggings, renewed their efforts to abolish flogging in the navy. As the months passed, the number of individuals supporting the reform grew.

Finally, in the late summer of 1850, the House of Representatives approved the abolishment of flogging by a wide margin. In the Senate, the vote was much closer, with the measure passing by a narrow two-vote margin. Northern congressmen cast all twenty-six votes supporting the abolishment of flogging. The final victory of naval reformers was due to the increased awareness of the abolitionist movement and the "spirit of compromise" in the air after the recent passage of the Missouri Compromise." Naval reformers had achieved a major victory in the battle to improve the quality of life for the sailor on board ships.

Naval reformers received even stiffer opposition from Congress when they attempted to abolish the "spirit" ration issued to the sailors aboard ship. In 1740, Adm. Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy introduced to the British navy a beverage consisting of a half-pint of rum and one quart of water. Admiral Vernon believed that the mixture would reduce the inebriating effects because the larger amount of liquid prevented the sailor from consuming the alcohol in one swallow. The tars, pleased with their new alcoholic drink, called it "grog" in honor of Admiral Vernon, who frequently wore a cape made of grogram cloth."

At its inception during the American Revolution, the fledgling U.S. Navy adopted this traditional beverage. In 1806, in a move to purchase items made in the United States, the navy substituted American-made whiskey for rum. Although the type of alcohol changed, U.S. sailors still referred to their spirit ration as grog. The American tar, like his British counterpart, received a total daily ration of eight ounces: four ounces in the morning and four additional ounces in the afternoon. Initially the navy placed no age limit on who received the grog ration. The first person to advocate the removal of grog on board ship was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a distinguished physician and early leader of the civilian temperance movement." Rush enlightened the public through lectures and published articles about the negative influence of alcohol on the health of an individual. In 1828, the Sailor's Magazine published temperance articles calling for the end of grog in the navy.

A year later, several members of Congress, influenced by the naval and civilian temperance movement, proposed legislation calling for an increase in the sailors' pay in lieu of their coveted grog ration. Congress defeated the bill, and again the voting was regional. The Southern congressmen opposed the bill, believing the government did not have the right to legislate moral values. Farm lobbyists from the west also opposed the reform. For years western farmers had sold their surplus grain to distilleries, which in turn sold a portion of their spirits to the Navy. Congress continued to defeat the abolishment of grog throughout the 1830s. In 1842, partly because of the continued effort of the naval reformers and the civilian temperance movement, Congress passed a bill reducing the amount of whiskey from eight ounces to four. The legislators also stipulated that only enlisted men twenty-one years or older could draw the grog ration.

In 1848, when the navy published the number of floggings awarded to sailors, Congress noted that almost 80 percent of the floggings were due to alcohol-related abuses. The number of congressmen in favor of the grog ration, however, remained large enough to defeat any legislation recommending the elimination of the ration. Naval reformers would have to wait until the outbreak of the Civil War and the abdication of the Southern congressmen before they could muster enough votes to abolish grog in the navy.

Despite the improvements in the sailor's lifestyle in the early nineteenth century, low wages remained the principle obstacle inhibiting enlistments in the navy. This issue also drew the attention of the naval reform movement. This time the reformers had to influence not only Congress, but the president of the United States. Although the navy periodically issued small bonuses to sailors from its annual operating budget, the president controlled the tar's annual salary. In 1820, an able seaman received only $12.00 a month, an ordinary seaman $10.00, and a boy $7.00. To compete with the merchant marine for sailors the navy routinely authorized bonuses ranging from $2.00 to $3.00 for enlisting, but the small bonuses failed to provide enough incentive to ensure a constant flow of recruits.

In 1854, following years of aggressive lobbying by naval reformers, President Franklin Pierce authorized wages comparable to those in the merchant service. After thirty-four years without a wage increase, the tars enjoyed a substantial pay raise. Able seamen now received $18.00 a month, ordinary seaman $14.00, and even the boy rating pay increased a dollar a month. To create a career naval force, the navy also continued the practice of awarding bonuses to sailors. In 1855, as a reenlistment incentive, the navy authorized a payment of three months' wages to a sailor if he reenlisted within three months of his discharge.

The battle for increased pay was not the only naval monetary reform movement of this period. In 1842, Congress passed a law that eliminated the profits accrued by the ship's purser for merchandise sold to sailors on board naval vessels. Before passage of this law, pursers procured their merchandise from civilian merchants. Acting as a retail agent, the purser resold the items to the tars. This practice allowed the purser to pocket all profits from his sales. Since the ship's purser operated the only store on board ship, he enjoyed a unique monopoly and usually sold items to the sailors at inflated prices. In view of the paltry wages earned by the sailor, it was not unusual for a sailor to return from a deployment in debt to the price-gouging purser. The passage of this new law stipulated that the purser procure his merchandise using public funds. As a result, the purser could no longer pocket his profits. As compensation for the lost revenue, the navy increased the purser's salary from $480 a year to a handsome $1,500 to $3,500 a year.

From 1816 through 1850, the efforts of naval reformers greatly enhanced the quality of life for the common sailor and improved the navy's ability to meet its manning requirements. The sum of these reforms was essential to develop the navy as a career option for proven sailors. The abolishment of flogging, increased pay, fixed prices for items bought at sea, respectable boardinghouses, and a reduction in the grog ration and the age limitation on the ration all contributed to increased enlistments and the establishment of a career-oriented enlisted force in the navy. Many men, finding the navy of the 1850s a more humane place to apply their nautical skills, reenlisted in the navy instead of joining the merchant force. These career men provided an important nucleus for the navy as the service rapidly expanded during the Civil War.

Although naval reformers achieved most of their goals during the antebellum period, the parallel achievements of scientists and engineers were equally critical to improving the life of the common sailor. In the summer of 1815, the navy commissioned the world's first sail and steam-powered warship, USS Fulton. Although Fulton successfully passed her sea trials, the navy placed her in ordinary in 1816 . The brief success of Fulton provided the foundation for future navy ships powered by sail and steam. In 1837, the navy commissioned its second sail- and steam-powered warship, USS Fulton II. The vessel enjoyed relative success during her twenty-five year career. Included in her laurels was her defeat of the British steamer Great Western in a race off the New York coast.

When Capt. Matthew C. Perry assumed command of Fulton II in 1837, he recommended to the navy that the crew on a steam warship include a complement of engineers. He established as a minimum complement, five engineering officers, twelve firemen, and ten coal heavers. Foreseeing the potential professional friction between the fledgling engineering division and the well-established deck divisions, Perry recommended that the engineering division remain autonomous from the deck divisions. He even went so far as to provide equal status to the engineering officers and allowed them to live in the officers' quarters." Under Perry's tutelage, Fulton If s engineering performance inspired enough confidence in the navy's hierarchy to lead the navy to embark on an even more ambitious combined sail- and steam-powered shipbuilding program.

Although Fulton IIs engineering performance was successful, the navy believed that sail, not steam, was the primary motive force for a vessel. Senior navy officials viewed steam as an auxiliary propulsion system used only to assist ships during difficult maneuvering situations. The navy's shipbuilding program throughout the next twenty years reflected this uneasy marriage between sail and steam. In 1842, the navy commissioned the side-wheel sail and steam warships Missouri and Mississippi. Following closely on the heels of these two impressive ships, the navy built the first propeller-driven warship, P-rinceton. By 1847, Susquehanna, Powhatan, Saranac, and San Jacinto joined the fleet of combined sail- and steam-powered ships.

On 6 April 1854, Congress approved the funds for the navy to build six first-class combined sail and steam frigates. The first ship commissioned was USS Merrimac. USS Wabash, Minnesota, Roanoke, Colorado, and Niagara followed Merrimac down the ways between 1856 and 1857. At the time of these ships' commissioning, naval authorities at home and abroad rated them the most dominant in the world .31 The aggressive shipbuilding program of the navy during the 1840s and 1850s demonstrated to the world the navy's commitment to steam-powered warships.

The expansion of steam engineering required the navy to shift a portion of its recruiting efforts from enlisting deck sailors to skilled engineers. This was no easy task, considering the shortages of skilled engineers in the merchant marine and civilian industry. To obtain the requisite skilled engineers, in 1847 the president authorized a substantially higher annual wage for enlisted engineers. As a result of this pay raise, a first-class fireman received a very competitive $30.00 dollars a month. The first-class fireman's equivalent deck rating, able seaman, only received $12.00 a month. Even the unskilled but labor-intensive billet of coal heaver received $15.00 dollars a month for this dirty, backbreaking work. The substantial pay raise for the engineering ratings enabled the navy to meet its manning goals in the engineering division and to expand considerably its steam-powered fleet in the 1850s.

Adoption of steam propulsion provided significant technological advances to shipboard life. Steam-powered ships distilled freshwater for drinking, thus eliminating water shortages and harmful bacteria-infested water. Steam propulsion also allowed ships to complete their assigned schedules on time despite the presence of fog or the lack of wind.

The advantages of these antebellum steam-powered warships, however, had only been realized under peacetime conditions. The question remained: How would the engineers and equipment withstand the rigors of combat?

On the eve of the Civil War, the navy possessed a strong nucleus of competent career engineers and deck sailors. These men were capable of training recruits and merchant marine transfers during the navy's rapid expansion during the first year of the Civil War. As one Southern state after another seceded from the Union during the first quarter of 1861, the navy's handful of ships continued on deployment around the globe.

When President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office during the first week of March 1861, 70 percent of the navy's ships were on deployment; only twelve ships were in home waters. The navy had six ships in the East Indies, three in the Mediterranean, three off the coast of South America, eight patrolling the African coast, and seven in the Pacific Ocean. On 12 April 1861, the Civil War began when Southerners fired upon Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. One week later, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the rebellious Southern states and directed the navy to conduct the blockade by a competent force large enough to execute his proclamation." This presidential order required the navy to initiate an effective blockade of 185 harbors and approximately 3,500 miles of southern coastline. To accomplish this task, the secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, had at his disposal only forty-two ships and 7,600 men. To make matters worse, 322 naval officers resigned their commissions and offered their services to the South .

The president soon realized that the current naval force of 7,600 men was insufficient to execute a competent blockade. On 3 May 1861 he authorized the navy to increase its ranks by 18,000 men for one to three years . Three months later Congress authorized the navy to enlist as many men as it deemed necessary to operate its ships efficiently. By the end of the war four years later, 118,000 wore the Union blue of the U.S. Navy.

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