General Information

Sailors on picket duty on the Mobile Blockade. Harper's Weekly, 13 FEB 1864

Some general information on topics related to this site.

Life in the Civil War-era Navy

In 1865, an anonymous officer wrote a series of articles in Army-Navy Journal detailing shipboard life in the Navy then as a guide for the large number of new officers who were being commissioned into the service at the time as temporary officers from the civilian merchant fleet. I have transcribed the entire series of articles here.

In addition, I have transcribed the 1865 edition of "Navy Regulations". Both publications will give an overview of what shipboard life was like then.

"Boat Code"

The National Archives is in the process of digitizing the Civil War-era US Navy deck logs. They are partially in what was called "boat code" - see this example from the Ossipee log of a communication sent from the Hartford. To read them, consult Thorton Jenkin's "Code of Flotilla and Boat Squadron Signals for the United States Navy" to translate them into English. The boat code in the Ossipee log example reads literally "the commander in chief - with the fleet - to - return - thanks - permission given - father - for us - signal - victory - over - enemy - on the - morning - of the - fifth" (the more readable form as recorded in history books is "The admiral desires the fleet to return thanks to Almighty God for the signal victory over the enemy on the morning of the 5th")

Rates and Ratings

Rates and ratings in the 19th century Navy prior to 1885 were a bit different than today. In those days most sailors were undes and the rating you held was summed up with the phrase "needs of the Navy" and would change depending on the command you were attached to and your competency (see Seaman Chauncey P. Dean for example). It was basically sort of like the idea behind MAPs but your promotion was temporary and when you left the ship, you reverted to your permanent rate. As for rates, you earned them the old fashioned way...time and experience (you couldn't make rank by holding lumpia sales and being the command collateral queen to polish up your evals then, sorry). And no, the term LPO didn't exist in the Civil War-era Navy even though I use it on this page for clarification.

In the 1860s, there were no chiefs as known today (those wouldn't come for another 30 years). Rather then, the "chief" petty officer was the Master-at-Arms due to his positional authority under the Navy Regulations of the day over the rest of the petty officers attached to the command.

A few obsolete ranks, rates and ratings listed on these sites:

Boy - An apprentice rate for teenagers. The rate was disestablished in 1893. The Navy during the Civil War in regards to enlistment of teenagers operated under an Act of Congress dated 2 March 1837 authorizing the enlistment of boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen.

Captain of the Afterguard/Forecastle/etc - Basically a division LPO. See the 1865 article "Usage and Routine in the Navy" for a detailed description of their division's duties.

Captain of the Hold - Rating established 1838; disestablished 1893. Basically a petty officer in what is now the storekeeper/logistics specialist rating.

Coal Heaver - Rate established 1842, renamed to "Coal Passer" 1893. Coal Passer renamed to Fireman 3rd Class in 1917. Fireman 3rd class renamed to Fireman Recruit in 1948. In the old Navy, in theory you could climb your way up the ranks from coal heaver through Fireman 1st Class to being commissioned as a third Assistant Engineer and eventually work your way up to Chief Engineer. The Third Assistant Engineer of the U.S.S. Ida, Sanford Curran, who died as a result of his injuries when she struck a mine in 1865, first enlisted in the Navy as a 2nd Class Fireman in 1859.

Fireman - Rate established 1842; pay grades 1st and 2nd class established 1847; Fireman 1st class renamed to Fireman in 1948, Fireman 2nd class renamed to Fireman Apprentice in 1948.

Landsman - The lowest enlisted deck rate in the 19th and early 20th centuries for usually inexperienced personnel who did the unskilled menial labor aboard ship. The rate existed from 1838 to 1921 and was roughly equivalent to today's Seaman Recruit. As a view into the racial attitudes of the era, it wasn't unusual for black sailors to hold the rate of landsman even if they were in the service long enough that if they were white, they would be petty officers.

Master - Rank was renamed "lieutenant junior grade" on 3 March 1883.

Master's Mate - In modern Navy terms, master's mates were basically what are now known as chief petty officers but with the privileges of an officer. In the West Gulf Squadron due to the lack of officers, master's mates were often tasked with the duties of ensigns with the exception of commanding vessels and prizes. After the war, they were called just "Mates".

Ordinary Seaman - Second lowest enlisted deck rate in the 19th century for personnel with at least 3 years experience at sea either Navy or civilian. Rate established 1797, renamed to Seaman 2nd class 1917. Seaman 2nd class renamed to Seaman Apprentice in 1948.


The temporary shipboard duty formally known as "Food Service Attendant" and informally called "cranking", did for all intents and purposes exist in a form in the 19th century Navy. Each section messed together for meals and one of them was chosen by the master-at-arms to serve for a few weeks at a time as that mess's cook. A description of the practice can be read in chapter 15 of Herman Melville's book White-Jacket, describing his experiences during his cruise aboard the Constitution's sister ship U.S.S. United States.

As a FYI, per a 19th century Naval dictionary in my possession, "cranking" was not a term in the lexicon of sailors of the era (the only piece of Navy-specific slang in that dictionary that appears to have survived into the 21st century amusingly is "sea lawyer").

As for food served aboard a typical man-of-war of the era, from the diary of a Hartford Marine who dutifully recorded what was served for dinner (never apparently twice in a row): pork and beans, rice, beef bullion and coffee, "sea pie" (basically salt pork or corned beef between a "crust" of hardtack), dandyfunk (a pudding of hardtack boiled in water with molasses and grease from salted meats), "salt horse" (salted beef) and lastly the old Navy's equivalent of "hamsters" when it comes to apparent favorite galley food - duff.

From an 1852 report of a cruise aboard the Cumberland explaining what duff was and how it was made: "...Every Thursday the week's rations of flour and dried fruit are issued and made into a batter, with grease from salted meats, technically "slush." This batter, when boiled in a bag, with an iron spoon in the center of it, it is called "duff." By the common appetite for this article of diet, it appears that the materials of which it is composed are highly important to the economy; but that, coming in this indigestible form, and once a week only, and forming them, with molasses, almost the entire dinner of the day, it excites gluttony and gastric disorder..."

Receiving Ships

The references to the "receiving ships" in the bios (the Potomac, Portsmouth, North Carolina, etc.), the best way to describe one would be think of a berthing barge slash floating version of RTC Great Lakes.

Uniform allowances

Unlike the Civil War-era Army, the Navy did not issue uniforms. Prior to the latter end of the 19th century, sailors had to take an advancement on their pay and buy their uniforms with it, which put them in debt to the Navy for a hundred bucks or so. Demoralized sailors stuck aboard their ship since they had no money to go ashore on liberty was a common cause of desertions as well as a topic of bitching on the berth deck. Eventually big Navy figured out that perhaps it would be a good idea to fix this problem and the initial suggestion of giving sailors what would eventually become the modern uniform allowance can be read in the publication "Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1865-1866".

As an added note on that page linked to in the SECNAV annual report above, see the section below "sailor outfits" suggesting selling timber lands. One of those reserve lands that was retained by the government instead of being sold off as proposed is the preserve across the bay from Pensacola in Gulf Breeze called Naval Live Oaks Area

Sailors and Alcohol

To clear up a big misconception I occasionally see online - 19th century sailors were not shitfaced drunk 24/7 even while on watch or on duty. Yes they went ashore on liberty and did stupid shit after a few beers, that is a tale as old as ships going to sea...see the unfortunate example of a Pinola sailor who died after he got drunk and stuck his hand in a tiger cage while on liberty in New Orleans with his shipmates.

But even in the age of sail and the daily tot of booze (which was ended in 1862), big Navy was just as militant about alcohol then as now and you were expected to be sober when not on liberty. If you showed up for quarters with the smell of booze on your breath, your CoC didn't play and you'd very likely end up in the brig on bread & water for a few days as a result (or prior to SEP 1850, flogged).

When the Navy did give out a daily tot of alcohol, it was actually whiskey, not rum that was given out despite the popular misconception. Rum was a British product, and while the Berry Amendment did not exist until 1941, the U.S. Navy started to buy America-made products as a rule after independence as a F-U to the Brits, which meant whiskey was the liquor of choice to be served on the deckplates...err deckplanks.

For further reading on the old Navy and alcohol, see Harold Langley's "Social Reform in the United States Navy, 1798-1862" for a history of the effort to finally end the liquor ration among other reforms.

West Gulf Squadron Court Martial Records

As for sailors and marines in the Civil War-era Navy, they'd fit right in with a number of their modern counterparts judging by the court martial proceedings for the West Gulf Squadron. Transcribed straight from the records, they are blow-by-blow accounts of real events that you won't find in a history book.

Integration in the Navy

Unlike the Army, the Civil War-era Navy was integrated among the enlisted ranks. Whether you were black or white, you stood the same watches, wore the same uniform, earned the same pay and were treated mostly the same under proscribed regulations.

Unfortunately the integrating ended at the petty officer rate...unlike white sailors, black sailors were barred from obtaining a commission as an officer. One example I found among Farragut's letters of a sailor being screwed by that policy was that of Jesse Dinton. Dinton was a Mobile Bay pilot who apparently knew the upper bay and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta like the back of his hand. But he was black and thus was barred from receiving an appointment as an ensign by Navy policy. Farragut wrote a letter to SECNAV Welles couched in "very respectively sir this policy is stupid" language basically saying since he was unable to appoint Dinton as an ensign per Navy regulations, the Navy was going to at least pay him as one.

And nor did the integrating extended to death. While the Civil War-era Navy buried its dead on land in a section of cemeteries away from the Army, black sailors were usually buried away from their white shipmates. Chalmette for example, buried white sailors in what was then called square 9 and black sailors in square 74.

Despite the equality among the enlisted the Navy in theory practiced, it also wasn't unusual for officers and white enlisted to harbor racist attitudes towards their black shipmates. See the three part Prologue article " Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War" for more reading.