New-York Historical Society

The Sailor’s Life

The USS San Jacinto, shortly after its construction at the New York Naval Shipyard. Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, October 25, 1851.

Sometimes primary sources overturn history’s misconceptions while at others they simply illustrate common knowledge. The latter is a task by a cache of records from the Richard Worsam Meade 2nd Papers in conveying the colorful life of a sailor.

The documents in question all cover the Civil War service of the USS San Jacinto, a screw frigate that enforced the Union blockade of the Confederacy. Among the material in Meade’s Papers is a “Prisoner’s Report”, showing disciplinary actions taken against the crew. It’s far from shocking that the most common indiscretions are drunkenness, fighting, insolence, using insulting language and stealing. But other colorful misdeeds include smuggling liquor aboard, attempted murder, cutting another man’s hammock, “urinating in an officer’s hand & face basin” and “reading books while on post.” Punishment most often came in “double irons”, but also employed were “sentrys charge”, solitary confinement, court martial or the sweat box — and sometimes these an added bread and water rations was imposed.

Page from the "Prisoner's Report of the U.S. Ship San Jacinto", 1862-1865. Naval History Society Collection - R.W. Meade 2nd papers, MS 439

Another revealing item is a “blacklist” that also tracks transgressions. The most curious offense is “for having [h]is coat in lucky bag.” If you’re not a sailor, you’re probably wondering what nefarious act this entails. It turns out a “lucky bag” was essentially a lost-and-found. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A receptacle on a man-of-war for all clothes and other articles of private property carelessly left by their owners.” As items were discovered left in various places on the ship, they would be placed in the lucky bag. If the sailor did not retrieve it they would be punished when the articles were ultimately re-patriated.

Following rules was clearly a challenge for some crew members, so it’s not surprising to discover a list or two of deserters. In order to identify the scofflaw they provide a rather detailed description of each man (as depicted in the list below) — name, age, where born, previous occupation, and even eye and hair color, complexion, height. And, of course, these being sailors, there was often an additional note describing tattoos. Those range from your standard anchor, crucifix, or female figure tattoos to the more distinctive, goddess of liberty, an “Indian chief on left thigh”, a Masonic symbol, and curiously, a “basket + flowers.”

"Names and Description Lists of Deserters from the 'U.S.S. San Jacinto.'" Naval History Society Collection - R.W. Meade 2nd Papers, MS 439

 

1 Comment to The Sailor’s Life

  1. March 5, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    A question regarding the source for this blog entry:

    Does the referenced source material cover the month of December 1864?
    I am trying to ascertain what happened to Albert Cannon who served on the San Jacinto and who reportedly died, I assume, on board on 25 December 1864.

    Thank you.

    Alex

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