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  • Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War
  • Robert M. Browning Jr.
Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. By Michael J. Bennett. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 360. Cloth, $34.95.)

Civil War historians have scrutinized Union armies, corps, and even regiments but have largely ignored the nearly 120,000 sailors who served in the United States Navy. Michael J. Bennett's Union Jacks strives to provide a more complete image of the Civil War sailor than any previous work. A sampling of 4,500 rendezvous reports augments Bennett's extensive research, using hundreds of letters, diaries, and journals. He tackles the comprehensive question of who these men were, the circumstances and experiences that made them unique, and myths and notions of naval service. [End Page 222] Bennett argues that Jack Tar differed in many ways from his soldier counterpart. Most sailors did not hold the same values as the men in the Army. As a whole, they did not enlist for patriotic reasons or to preserve the Union. Neither did they hope to end slavery nor to prove their courage in service to the country. Those from the working classes, immigrants, and former slaves filled the Navy's ranks. Many joined for the lure of prize money, some to escape legal problems, and others because it offered them an outlet to use specific skills. Still others joined because they believed there would be less privation and danger, that they would receive better food and live in more comfort than those in army ranks. Despite the preconceived notions, naval service was generally far different from what the recruits expected.

Naval service could be grueling, but most of the men were not prepared for the detrimental effects of mind-numbing monotony. The sailors generally lived in virtual isolation among a community of similar souls. The lack of spiritual guidance only intensified the imposed isolation. Rarely allowed on shore, sailors had almost no contact with the outside world. Bennett describes well the differences between the sailors on the Western rivers and the blockade. According to Bennett, the crews on ships serving the interior waters had larger numbers of malcontents, alcoholics, and criminals than those on blockading ships. Theft, murder, and mayhem accentuated the conflicts between sailors and civilians along the western rivers.

Bennett also dispels the image of jolly Jack Tar and dismisses the myth that sailors were happy wards of the Navy. On shore sailors could be a rowdy lot and sometimes found trouble quickly; alcohol being one of the key factors. Bennett explains that the sailors generated this behavior because they needed to escape the confines of the ship as well as the social atmosphere on board. During infrequent trips ashore the sailors' need to detach themselves from their confining environment generated disorderly conduct.

Bennett advances the current scholarship in his interpretation on racial interaction in the Navy. Despite the fact that a sailor's existence is comparable with the institution of slavery, and that the tars frequently compared themselves to slaves, Bennett maintains that the sailors harbored vicious, condescending prejudice toward their black shipmates. The author argues that initially black people were accepted on board because the ships were short-handed and that African Americans, who generally performed the most difficult and onerous tasks, remained in the lowest social position. This meshed neatly with current racial prejudice. Bennett claims that racial tensions increased after the Emancipation Proclamation and as the black tars advanced beyond their initial ratings. Prejudiced sailors in close and constant [End Page 223] contact created a real problem that often resulted in violence exceeding anything in the segregated Army. Racial disharmony, more pronounced on the Western waters, forced the Navy Department to segregate the warships by issuing an instruction to mandate this.

Bennett also argues that the armed forces had markedly different views of combat. Many men joined the Navy thinking that ships were safe environments in which to fight and that death rates were lower. The author portrays the sailors' view of death as less callous and more caring to the deceased, in part because they lived where they died. Bennett believes that the seamen could not...


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pp. 222-224
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