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Reviewed by:
  • Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War
  • Harold D. Langley
Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. By Michael J. Bennett. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8078-2870-X. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xv, 337. $34.95.

This study of the enlisted men of the Union navy aims to avoid stereotypes and mythology and to present sailors as they really were. To do this, Michael J. Bennett, a lawyer and an independent historian, used letters, diaries, and journals of 169 common sailors. He also compiled statistical information on those who enlisted from April 1861 to April 1865. This involved selecting every twenty-fifth name from every rendezvous or recruiting report from all such stations that operated during the war. Published memoirs, books, and articles by and about sailors, the navy and the Civil War added to the documentation as did unpublished master's theses and doctoral dissertations. Subject files at the National Archives provided additional material on some topics. The author's goals were to present the social origins of sailors and why they enlisted; to recapture what it was like to adjust to, and interact with, new companions and a strange and sometimes deadly world of wood, metal, heat, guns, noise, and routine. This examination of the naval experiences that were common to most sailors also looks at the influence of such issues as war, race, religion, and monotony on their lives. Much of the best evidence comes from the writings of young men to whom everything was strange, new, and different. Bennett concludes that sailors shared few of the motivations that induced men to join the army. They had to learn much more than the soldier to become proficient fighting men, and they functioned in a harsher and more stressful environment with few opportunities for change. At the end of the war, many men left the navy angry about the treatment they had received as well as their lack of liberty, pay, and prize money.

The accuracy of the author's statistical sample will depend on future research. For some time to come it is apt to be the accepted scholarly standard. A wider use of Navy Department archives would have strengthened the documentation on some topics. As the author notes, most of the focus is on the experiences of white sailors in the blockading squadrons, where the majority of them served, and in the gun boats on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. There are only a few references to those who served in the cruisers and in the Pacific Squadron. The emphasis on shared experiences does not allow for examples of uncommon courage. The book contains an illustration of an event for which a sailor won the Medal of Honor, but the circumstance and the man are not noted in the text. Missing also are any references to the more than 300 Medals of Honor that were won by navy enlisted men during the Civil War. Nevertheless, this well written book is a valuable addition to the historiography on American sailors and on the Union navy during the Civil War.

Harold D. Langley
Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.


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Archived 2010
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