Lucius Waterman: A Civil War Sailor

By Erin McGough, Collections Manager

Pair of shoulder straps, U.S. Navy, ca. 1861, Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, 2012.007a,b

Most of our blogs, indeed most Civil War researchers, have focused on Army service during the Civil War. But these shoulder straps from the Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society give us the opportunity to examine life in the Navy during the Civil War. They are believed to have been owned by Lucius Austin Waterman (1832-1895) of Duxbury, who served as an Acting Ensign from 1862/63 until August 1865. During that time, Waterman served on several ships including the Aries, Philadelphia, and Passaic, all of which participated in the North American Blockading Squadron.

At the time of Waterman’s enlistment, military service in the Navy was not viewed with the same sense of honor that life in the army warranted. Part of this is because of negative stereotypes such as “drunk as a sailor” which predate the Civil War and give the impression of sailors as dirty, low-class, and difficult characters. This perception, unfortunately, was enforced by the actual demographic of sailors in the mid-19th century, many of whom were lower-class men from the East Coast cities, often immigrants driven by economic realities. Sailors did not, in short, fulfill the romantic notion of patriots serving their country. To complicate matters, until 1864, men who joined the Navy were denied draft exemptions and received no credit towards recruiting quotas for their home districts.[1]

The public’s perception of sailors, and the general feeling that enlisted sailors were attempting to dodge real service, made recruitment difficult for the Navy. Abraham Lincoln’s declaration on April 19, 1861 established the Union blockade and called for tremendous resources as it closed over 3,500 miles of coastline to Confederate traffic as well as 180 ports, including major ones at New Orleans and Mobile. The establishment of the blockade required the commissioning of 500 new ships and a tremendous recruiting effort. The Navy sometimes resorted to high-pressure tactics to enlist new sailors; other men volunteered because they had the impression that the living conditions on board ship would be better than those in the army’s infantry.

Lucius Austin Waterman (1832-1895), ca. 1863, Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society

So why would Waterman, in particular, join the Navy? Perhaps Waterman felt that the Navy was a more natural fit for him, given his background. He entered the Navy at the relatively late age of 31 with the title of Acting Ensign, a junior officer’s title but one which would distinguish him from the rougher seamen filling the bottom ranks. We can surmise that a son of Duxbury, with its seafaring history, would have a good understanding of sailing. Indeed, Waterman was the son of Capt. Martin Waterman (1793-1860), a ship master and maritime businessman from Duxbury. And the 1860 census, taken just before the war began, lists Lucius Waterman’s occupation as a “mariner.” Given these facts, Waterman would have been of great value to the U.S. Navy, which despite its increase in recruitment, was still in need of experienced sailors. He may even have received one of the signing bonuses that the Navy provided to men with experience.

It is also possible Waterman was lured by the potential for great fortune while serving in the blockade. Blockade runners were Confederate and, mostly, British ships attempting to evade the Union lines. If captured, these ships were sold at auction, with the proceeds split among the sailors of the capturing ship. As an example, the U.S.S. Aeolus seized the ship Hope in 1864. The Captain of the Aeolus earned $13,000 as a result of the capture (almost $200,000 today) and the cabin boy earned $533 – a princely amount in comparison to an infantry soldier’s pay of $13/month. Some ships were even more lucrative: the Memphis brought in $510,000 ($7.5 million today). In 4 years of war, over $25 million in prize money was awarded.[2]

The U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Confederacy was very successful in stopping the flow of goods, and constraining the Confederate economy. Because of the blockade, cotton exports from the South fell to almost nothing and severe shortages in goods resulted in terrible inflation. Even when the Confederacy could produce enough supplies for themselves, the blockade prevented the shipment of goods by water, making the Confederate Army reliant on the vulnerable railroads. The Confederate Army simply could not equip itself given these realities, and the Union’s successful blockade was a major factor in winning the Civil War.

As for Lucius Waterman, he was discharged in 1865 but Navy life must have suited him, as he re-enlisted in 1866 and served an additional three years on board the Aroostook. The Aroostook went in 1866 to Asia via the Indian Ocean. They arrived in Hong Kong in 1867 and joined the Asiatic Squadron. Later, the ship would participate in the opening of the ports of Kobe and Osaka to foreign trade, and in the spring of 1869, the ship returned to Japan to protect the U.S. citizens endangered by the Japanese Civil War. Waterman returned home in the spring of 1869, moved to Boston, married and had children. He died in 1895 of “La Grippe” (influenza) while working as a salesman in Malden and summering in Duxbury. He is buried in Duxbury.


[1] Bennett, Michael J. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Found at Google Books, http://books.google.com (accessed August 2012).
[2] Barrett, John G. The Civil War in North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 1963). Found at Google Books, http://books.google.com (accessed August 2012).

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