Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War
By Michael J. Bennett
Published 2004, University of North Carolina Press
If you are looking for a book that gives a strong feeling for what it might have been like to serve on a ship (blue water or brown water) during the Civil War, this is an excellent resource. Told with an emphasis on the sailors’ point of view—as opposed to the officers’—it builds a picture of the men who served, how they responded to the conditions on board, how they transitioned from being Landsmen to being true sailors, how they struggled with race relations both early on and later as the war evolved, and what they experienced during battle. A 337 page book with nearly 100 pages of reference notes, Mr. Bennett draws heavily from quotes (diaries, memoirs, and letters), giving a vivid picture of the men’s life on board and what they themselves thought of it. He references scholarly works and gathers statistics to bolster his theses and give him fodder for his astute analysis.
His theses are interesting. He starts with the premise that the men who became sailors, recruited from the back rooms of bars, were not at all like the common soldier, who came from a more rural, genteel background. To quote the author, “They came from poor, working class neighborhoods of large Eastern cities.” The navy was 3% farmers, the army 50%. The navy was 50% skilled labor (coopers, carpenters, firemen, blacksmiths, shoemakers, machinists, etc.), the army was 25% skilled. Black Americans, who had a significant presence in the navy before the war, became %15 of the navy, while before 1862 Blacks were not even allowed to fight in the army, and after 1862 their regiments were segregated.
He then goes on to build a profile of “sailor psychology”: hardscrabble, proud, manly-men, hard drinking and profane, generous to a fault while simultaneously being absolutely unforgiving of weakness in each other. Having illustrated those men well with diary entries, officer reports, quotes from letters, etc., he then puts them in a ship: confined, smelly, noisy, sweaty with the constant toil of drill and naval routine, isolated from civilians and, in the case of the blue water sailors on blockade, a life that was deadly monotonous. How, far from land in a crowded place, they could not escape. He gives an excellent picture of what these men became under such pressure, the various means by which they coped, or didn’t. He has a whole chapter devoted to the particular strains of the brown water sailor, who was constantly under fire, fighting a guerrilla war with Southern militias up and down the western riverbanks. Only feet from both banks at times, they were floating targets for snipers, furious and sudden attacks, sabotage, and mines (which they called “torpedoes”). Add that to their difficult life on board.
Then he introduces the strains of race relations in a period of our history when slavery and the rights of Blacks were being vigorously fought over. He gives a thoughtful analysis of this as well, using more diary entries, letters etc., but unfortunately only from the white sailor’s point of view. This he paints well: the strong need to maintain pride in their social position; the long-learned resentments and assumptions about who their fellow Black sailors were, and who they should be. How, as more and more Blacks who entered service became skilled and were eventually allowed by the navy to advance, the strain increased for their white counterparts. The rough, unforgiving white sailor, put upon by all the strains of the navy and feeling little better than a slave himself, suddenly losing his position as higher man on the totem pole. It was explosive, reminiscent of modern times in its furious struggle to carve out a privileged place again. It’s unfortunate that the author gives us little for other half of this: how the Black sailors (those who were already sailors and those who entered service, freeborn or escaped slave) viewed this situation and coped with this dynamic. Their lives must have had yet another layer of added difficulty.
And lastly, Mr. Bennett takes all of these men and puts them under fire, giving a hair-raising description of what it was like to be bombarded on a ship: the whistling of solid shot and the screaming of shells; parts of the ship breaking off and becoming lethal missiles, sticking as “splinters” into whatever they hit; bodies and limbs flying, blood making the decks slick. Graphic and terrifying. With the author’s help, the reader feels like they are there with the sailors under bombardment. Per the author, the definition of courage became “a sailor who clung to his post without fanfare, under extreme exposure or while wounded….”
In all, this is a non-fiction book ready made for people who like a story well-told, with clear writing, intriguing theses, and the courage to draw interesting conclusions and support them. Highly recommended for naval war enthusiasts.