The Union Navy was the United States Navy (USN) during the American Civil War, when it fought the Confederate States Navy (CSN). The term is sometimes used carelessly[citation needed] to include vessels of war used on the rivers of the interior while they were under the control of the United States Army, also called the Union Army.

United States Navy
Naval jack of the United States (1859–1861).svg
Naval jack of the United States (1859–1861) at the start of the U.S. Civil War
Founded13 October 1775 (1775-10-13)[1]
Country United States
RoleSea control
Maritime security
Size84,415 personnel
671 vessels
Part ofSeal of the United States Department of the Navy.svg Department of the Navy
Motto(s)"Semper Fortis" (English: "Always Courageous"), (official)
ColorsBlue and gold[2][3]
Anniversaries13 October
Commander-in-Chief President Abraham Lincoln
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Wartime missionsEdit

The primary missions of the Union Navy were:

1. Maintain the blockade of Confederate ports by restraining all blockade runners; declared by President Lincoln on April 19, 1861, and continued until the end of the Rebellion.
2. Meet in combat the war vessels of the CSN.
3. Carry the war to places in the seceded states inaccessible to the Union Army but could be reached by water.
4. Support the Army by providing gunfire support, rapid transport, and communications on the interior rivers.[4]

Administrative organizationEdit

The system of naval bureaus was revised in the summer of 1862. Some of the older bureaus were rearranged or had their names altered. The most radical change was the creation of the Bureau of Steam Engineering.[5]

Department of the Navy[6]
Bureau of Yards and Docks[7]
Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting[7]
Bureau of Navigation[7]
Bureau of Ordnance[7]
Bureau of Construction and Repair[7]
Bureau of Steam Engineering[7]
Bureau of Provisions and Clothing[7]
Bureau of Medicine and Surgery[7]


To accomplish its wartime missions, the Union Navy had to undergo a profound technical and institutional transformation. During the war, sailing vessels were completely supplanted by ships propelled by steam for combat purposes. Vessels of widely differing character were built from the keel up in response to peculiar problems they would encounter. Wooden hulls were first protected by armor plating and soon replaced by iron or steel throughout. Guns were reduced in number but increased in size and range; the reduction was partially compensated by mounting the guns in rotating turrets or pivoting the gun on a curved deck track so they could be turned to fire in any direction.

The institutional changes that were introduced during the war were equally significant. The Bureau of Steam Engineering was added to the bureau system, testimony to the U.S. Navy's conversion from sail to steam. Most important, from the standpoint of Army-Navy cooperation in joint operations, the set of officer ranks was redefined so that each rank in the U.S. Army had its equivalent in the U.S. Navy. Establishing the ranks of admirals also implied a change of naval doctrine, from one favoring single-ship operations to that of employing whole fleets.

A doctrinal shift took place at the same time. Before the war, the United States Navy emphasized single-ship operations, but the nature of the conflict soon made whole fleets necessary. Already at the Battle of Port Royal (November 7, 1861), 77 vessels, including 19 warships, were employed.[8] This was the largest naval expedition ever sailed under the U.S. flag, but the record did not last long. Subsequent operations at New Orleans, Mobile, and several positions in the interior confirmed the importance of large fleets in modern naval operations.


USS Conestoga, a converted gunboat that served on the Mississippi River.

At the start of the war, the Union Navy had 42 ships in commission. Another 48 were laid up and listed as available for service as soon as crews could be assembled and trained, but few were appropriate. Most were sailing vessels, some were hopelessly outdated, and one (USS Michigan) served on Lake Erie and could not be moved to the ocean.[9] During the war, the number in commission was increased by more than a factor 15, so that at the end the U.S. Navy had 671 vessels.[10]

The variety of ship types represented was even more significant than the increase in raw numbers, some of the forms not previously seen in naval war. The nature of the conflict, much of which occurred in the continent's interior or shallow harbors along the coast, meant that vessels designed for use on the open seas were less useful than more specialized ships. To confront the forms of combat that came about, the federal government developed a new type of warship, the monitor, based on the original, USS Monitor.[11] The U.S. Navy took over a class of armored river gunboats created for the U.S. Army but designed by naval personnel, the Eads gunboats.[12] So-called double-enders were produced to maneuver in the confined waters of the rivers and harbors.[13] The Union Navy experimented with submarines before the Confederacy produced its famed CSS Hunley; the result, USS Alligator failed primarily because of lack of suitable targets.[14] Building on Confederate designs, the Union Navy produced and used torpedo boats, small vessels that mounted spar torpedoes and were forerunners of both the modern torpedo and destroyer type of warship.[15]

Because of haste in their design and construction, most of the vessels taken into the U.S. Navy in this period of rapid expansion incorporated flaws that would make them unsuitable for use in a permanent defense system. Accordingly, at the war's end, most of them were soon stricken from the service rather than mothballed. The number of ships at sea fell back to its prewar level.[16]


Part of the crew of USS Monitor, after her encounter with CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack)
Crewmen of USS Lehigh in 1864 or 1865.

During the war, the Union Navy had a total of 84,415 personnel. The Union Navy suffered 6,233 casualties, with 4,523 deaths from all causes. 2,112 Union sailors were killed by enemy action, and 2,411 died by disease or injury. The Union Navy suffered at least 1,710 personnel wounded in action, injured, or disabled by disease.[17] The Union Navy started the war with 8,000 men, 7,600 enlisted men of all ratings and some 1,200 commissioned officers. The number of hands in the Union Navy grew five times its original strength at the war's outbreak. As with many pre-war sailors, most of these new hands were volunteers who desired to serve in the navy temporarily rather than make the navy a career. Most of these volunteers were rated as "Land's Men" by recruiters meaning they had little or no experience at sea in their civilian lives. However, many sailors from the United States pre-war merchant marine joined the navy, and they were often given higher ratings due to their background and experience.[18] A key part of the Union Navy's recruiting efforts was the offer of higher pay than a volunteer for the Union Army would receive and the promise of greater freedom or the opportunity to see more of the country and world. When the Draft was introduced, the Navy tried to recruit volunteers by offering service at sea as a better-paying alternative to being drafted into the Army; this incentive was especially meant to attract professional sailors who could be drafted the same as any other civilian and would rather see combat in an environment they were more familiar with.[19]


U.S. sailors from USS Hunchback on the James River; approximately a fifth of the sailors in the photograph are Black. Nearly 10,000 sailors of the Union Navy in the American Civil War were black,[20][21] with seven of them being awarded the Medal of Honor.[22]

Union sailors differed from their counterparts on land, soldiers. The sailors were typically unemployed, working-class men from urban areas, including recent immigrants. Unlike soldiers, few were farmers. They seldom enlisted to preserve the Union, end slavery, or display their courage; instead, many were coerced into joining.[23] According to Michael Bennett:

The typical Union sailor was a hard, pragmatic, and cynical man who bore little patience for patriotism, reform, and religion. He drank too much, fought too much, and prayed too little. He preferred adventure to stability and went for quick and lucrative jobs rather than steady and slow employ under the tightening strictures of the new market economy. He was rough, dirty, and profane. Out of date before his time, he was aggressively masculine in a Northern society bent on gentling men. Overall, Union sailors proved less committed to emerging Northern values and were less ideological than soldiers for whom the broader issues of freedom, market success, and constitutional government proved constant touchstones during the war.[24]

Nevertheless, Union navy sailors and marines were awarded 325 Medals of Honor for Civil War valor, with immigrants receiving 39 percent of the awards: Ireland (50), England (25), and Scotland (13).[25]

Before the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had never prohibited African Americans from serving. However, regulations in place since 1840 had required them to be limited to no more than 5% of all enlisted personnel.[26] Thus unlike the army, the Union navy did not prohibit African Americans from serving at the start of the war and was racially integrated.[27] Approximately 10,000, or around 17%, of Union Navy sailors were black;[20][21] seven of them were awarded the Medal of Honor.[22] The tension between white and "contraband" (black) sailors was high and remained serious during the war. Bennett argues:

For the most part, white sailors rejected contrabands as sailors. They did so owing to a tangled mix of racial prejudices, unflattering stereotypes that equated sailors with enslaved people, and working-class people's fears of blacks as labor competition. The combination of all of these tensions eventually triggered a social war—referred to as "frictions" by sailors—as whites racially harassed, sometimes violently, formerly enslaved people serving alongside them.[28]


The blockade of all ports in the seceded states was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln on April 19, 1861, one of the first acts of his administration following the bombardment of Fort Sumter.[29] It existed mostly on paper in the early days of the conflict but became increasingly tighter as it continued. Although the blockade was never perfect,[30] Southern exports of cotton fell 95 percent. As a result, the South had to restructure itself to emphasize food and munition production for internal use. This also contributed to the Confederacy's isolation and hastened its currency's devaluation.

For administration of the blockade, the Navy was divided into four squadrons: the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, East Gulf, and West Gulf Blockading Squadrons.[31] (A fifth squadron, the Mississippi River Squadron, was created in late 1862 to operate in the Vicksburg campaign and its consequences; it was not involved with the blockade.)[32]


"The Splendid Naval Triumph on the Mississippi, April 24th, 1862" (Currier and Ives lithograph)

Two early invasions of the South were meant primarily to improve the blockade, leading to further actions. Following the capture of Cape Hatteras, much of eastern North Carolina was soon occupied by the Union Army.[33] The easy success in North Carolina was not repeated after the seizure of Port Royal in South Carolina, as determined resistance prevented the significant expansion of the beachhead there. Charleston did not fall until the last days of the war.[34] The later capture of Fernandina, Florida, was intended from the start to provide a southern anchor for the Atlantic blockade. It led to the capture of Jacksonville and the southern sounds of Georgia, but this was not part of a larger scheme of conquest. It reflected mostly a decision by the Confederate government to retire from the coast, except for a few major ports.[35] Late in the war, Mobile Bay was taken by fleet action, but there was no immediate attempt to take Mobile itself.

The capture of New Orleans was only marginally connected with the blockade, as New Orleans was already well sealed off.[36] However, it was important for several other reasons. The passage of the forts below the city by Farragut's fleet showed that fixed fortifications could not defend against a steam-powered fleet, so it was crucial for the emergence of the Navy as equal to the Army in national defense. It also demonstrated the possibility of attacking the Confederacy along the line of the Mississippi River. It thus was an important, even vital, predecessor of the campaign that ultimately split the Confederacy. Finally, it cast doubt on the ability of the Confederacy to defend itself, thus giving European nations reason not to grant diplomatic recognition.

The final important naval action of the war was the second assault on Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. It was one of the few actions of the war on the coast in which the Army and Navy cooperated fully.[37] The capture of the fort sealed off Wilmington, the last Confederate port to remain open. The death of the Confederacy followed in a little more than three months.


Coastal and oceanEdit

Encounter between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama, off the coast of Cherbourg, France, 19 June 1864.
Hatteras Inlet
Port Royal
Burnside Expedition: Battle of Roanoke Island
Battle of Elizabeth City
Battle of New Bern
Siege of Fort Macon
Hampton Roads
New Orleans (Forts Jackson and St. Philip)
Drewry's Bluff
Galveston Harbor
Charleston Harbor
Fort Wagner (Morris Island)
Albemarle Sound
Sinking of CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge
Mobile Bay
First Battle of Fort Fisher
Second Battle of Fort Fisher
Trent's Reach

There were numerous small or one-to-one battles far away from the coasts between ocean-going Union vessels and blockade runners, often in the Caribbean but also in the Atlantic, the Battle of Cherbourg being the most famous example.

Inland watersEdit

Forts Henry and Donelson
Island No. 10
Plum Point Bend
St. Charles, Arkansas (White River expedition)
Vicksburg campaign
Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman)
Yazoo Pass Expedition
Steele's Bayou Expedition
Battle of Grand Gulf
Red River expedition

Not included in this list are several incidents in which the Navy took part more or less incidentally. These include Shiloh and Malvern Hill. They are not on the list because naval personnel were not involved in planning or preparing for the battle.

Ranks and rank insigniaEdit

The highest rank available to a U.S. naval officer when the war began was that of Commodore.[38] This created problems when many ships had to operate together with no clearly established chain of command. Even worse, when the Navy worked with the Army in joint operations, the customary rank equivalency between the two services meant that the naval captain, equivalent to an army colonel, would always be inferior to every Army general present. After the existing arrangement had been used for the first year of the war, the case was made that the nation's interests would be better served by organizing the Navy along lines more like that of the Royal Navy of Great Britain. A set of officer ranks was established in the summer of 1862 that precisely matched the Army ranks.[39] The most visible change was that some individuals would be designated commodore, rear admiral, vice admiral, and finally admiral, all new formal ranks, and equivalent to, respectively, brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general.


Commissioned officer rank structure of the Union Navy[40]
Title Commodore Captain Commander Lieutenant Master
Sleeve lace
Warrant and petty officer rank structure of the Union Navy[41]
Title Passed Midshipman Midshipman Boatswain / Gunner / Carpenter / Sailmaker Master's mate Rated Master's Mate
Epaulette None None None None
Sleeve lace


Commissioned officer rank structure of the Union Navy[42]
Title Rear admiral Commodore Captain Commander Lieutenant
Lieutenant Master Ensign
Warrant and petty officer rank structure of the Union Navy[43]
Title Midshipman Boatswain / Gunner / Carpenter / Sailmaker Master's Mate Rated Master's Mate


Commissioned officer rank structure of the Union Navy[44][45]
Title Vice admiral Rear admiral Commodore Captain Commander Lieutenant
Lieutenant Master Ensign
Introduced in 1865
Introduced in 1865
Warrant and petty officer rank structure of the Union Navy[46]
Title Midshipman Boatswain / Gunner / Carpenter / Sailmaker Master's Mate Petty Officer
Petty Officers

Chief Petty Officer

Master-at-Arms of the ship he serves in.[47]

Petty Officers of the Line

Rank and succession to command:[48]

  1. Boatswain's Mate
  2. Gunner's Mate
  3. Signal Quartermaster
  4. Coxswain to Commander-in-Chief
  5. Captain of Forecastle
  6. Coxswain
  7. Captain of Main-top
  8. Captain of Fore-top
  9. Captain of Mizzen-top
  10. Captain of Afterguard
  11. Quarter Gunner
  12. 2nd Captain of Forecastle
  13. 2nd Captain of Main-top
  14. 2nd Captain of Fore-top
  15. 2nd Captain of Mizzen-top

Petty Officers of the Staff

Rank next after Master-at-Arms:[47]

  1. Yeoman
  2. Surgeon's Steward
  3. Paymaster's Steward
  4. Master of the Band
  5. Schoolmaster
  6. Ship's Writer

Rank next after Gunner's Mate:[47]

  1. Carpenter's Mate
  2. Armorer
  3. Sailmaker's Mate

Rank next after Captain of the Afterguard:[47]

  1. Painter
  2. Cooper
  3. Armorer's Mate

Rank next after Quarter-Gunner:[47]

  1. Ship's Corporal
  2. Captain of the Hold
  3. Ship's Cook
  4. Baker
Enlisted Pay Ratings
  1. Able Seaman (three years experience at sea and able to work aloft)
  2. Seaman (one year experience at sea)
  3. Landsman (no previous sea experience)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Establishment of the Navy, 13 October 1775". Naval History and Heritage Command. Archived from the original on 28 April 2017. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  2. ^ "US Navy Traditions, Customs, & Core Values". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 10 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2018. The Navy's colors themselves have special meaning: Blue represents the ocean and seas; gold is the color of integrity and valor.
  3. ^ Carlos Cabo. "Pantone colors. Convert Pantone colors to RAL, CMYK, RGB, Hex, HSL, HSB, JSON". Archived from the original on 29 December 2015. Retrieved 29 December 2015.
  4. ^ Matthew Pinsker, ed., "Presidential Proclamation (April 19, 1861)," Lincoln's Writings: The Multi-Media Edition, (accessed September 20, 2021).
  5. ^ Tucker, Blue and gray navies, pp. 2–3.
  6. ^ Callahan, Edward W. (1901). List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775.1900. New York, pp, 1,2.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Callahan, op.cit. 1901, pp. 4-5.
  8. ^ Browning, Success is all that was expected, pp. 23–42.
  9. ^ Soley, The blockade and the cruisers, Appendix A. The number of ships in commission should probably be reduced to 41, as one vessel, sloop USS Levant, had left Hawaii on September 18, 1860, bound for Aspinwall (present-day Colon, Panama), and was never seen again. See DANFS.[1] Archived 2014-11-09 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Tucker, Spencer (2006), Blue & Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat, Naval Institute Press, p. 1.
  11. ^ Gibbons, Warships and naval battles of the Civil War, pp. 24–25.
  12. ^ Gibbons, Warships and naval battles of the Civil War, pp. 16–17.
  13. ^ Gibbons, Warships and naval battles of the Civil War, pp. 106–107.
  14. ^ Tucker, pp. 267–268.
  15. ^ Tucker, pp. 260–261.
  16. ^ Tucker, p. 365.
  17. ^ Leland, Anne and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu. American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics Washington, DC, Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2010. Retrieved April 24, 2014. p. 2.
  18. ^ McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861–1865 pp. 25-29
  19. ^[bare URL PDF]
  20. ^ a b McPherson, James M.; Lamb, Brian (May 22, 1994). "James McPherson: What They Fought For, 1861-1865". Booknotes. C-SPAN. Archived from the original on March 9, 2016. Retrieved March 9, 2016. About 180,000 black soldiers and an estimated 10,000 black sailors fought in the Union Army and Navy, all of them in late 1862 or later, except for some blacks who enrolled in the Navy earlier.
  21. ^ a b Loewen, James W. (2007). "John Brown and Abraham Lincoln". Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-1-56584-100-0. OCLC 29877812. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  22. ^ a b Hanna, C. W. African American recipients of the Medal of Honor. p. 3. Note: Hanna includes Clement Dees in his count, while this list does not, because Dees's medal was rescinded.
  23. ^ Michael J. Bennett, "Dissenters from the American Mood: Why Men Became Yankee Sailors During the Civil War." North & South (2005) 8#2: 12–21.
  24. ^ Michael J. Bennett (2005). Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. U of North Carolina Press. p. x. ISBN 9780807863244.
  25. ^ "Medal of Honor Recipients". "US Army Center of Military History".
  26. ^ "African Americans in the U.S. Navy During the Civil War".
  27. ^ "Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War". National Archives. 15 August 2016.
  28. ^ Bennett, p. 150
  29. ^ Civil War naval chronology, p. I-9.
  30. ^ Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, pp. 221–226.
  31. ^ Tucker, Blue and gray navies, p. 4.
  32. ^ Tucker, Blue and gray navies, p. 150.
  33. ^ Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, pp. 27–36.
  34. ^ Tucker, Blue and gray navies, p. 255.
  35. ^ Browning, the success is all that was expected, pp. 66–73.
  36. ^ Dufour, The night the war was lost, pp. 59–70.
  37. ^ Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, pp. 293–297.
  38. ^ Soley, The blockade and the cruisers,, pp. 1–6.
  39. ^ Soley, The Blockade and the cruisers, pp. 6–8.
  40. ^ "Sea or Line Officers, 1861-July 31, 1862". Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  41. ^ "Cont". Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  42. ^ "Sea or Line Officers, July 31, 1862-January 28, 1864". Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  43. ^ "Cont". Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  44. ^ US Navy (23 August 2017). "Uniform Regulations, 1866". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  45. ^ "Line Officers, January 28, 1864-1866". Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  46. ^ Secretary of the Navy (1865). Regulations for the Government of the United States Navy. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, pp. 6, 372.
  47. ^ a b c d e Secretary of the Navy (1865), op.cit., p. 7.
  48. ^ Secretary of the Navy (1865), op.cit., p. 6.

Further readingEdit

  • Anderson, Bern, By Sea and By River: The Naval History of the Civil War. Knopf, 1962. Reprint, Da Capo, 1989, ISBN 0-306-80367-4.
  • Bennett, Michael J. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War (2004). online
  • Browning, Robert M. Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. University of Alabama Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8173-5019-5.
  • Browning, Robert M. Jr., Success is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Brassey's, Inc., 2002, ISBN 1-57488-514-6.
  • Dufour, Charles L., The Night the War Was Lost. University of Nebraska Press, 1994, ISBN 0-8032-6599-9.
  • Gibbon, Tony, Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War. Gallery Books, 1989, ISBN 0-8317-9301-5.
  • Jones, Virgil Carrington, The Civil War at Sea (3 vols.) Holt, 1960–2.
  • Leland, Anne and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu. American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics Washington, DC, Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2010. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
  • * McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 University of North Carolina Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-8078-3588-3 277 pages.
  • Musicant, Ivan, Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. HarperCollins, 1995, ISBN 0-06-016482-4.
  • Ramold, Steven J. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy (2007).
  • Soley, James Russell, The Blockade and the Cruisers. C. Scribner's Sons, 1883; Reprint Edition, Blue and Grey Press, n.d.
  • Tucker, Spencer, Blue and Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat. Naval Institute Press, 2006, ISBN 1-59114-882-0.
  • Wise, Stephen R., Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, ISBN 0-87249-554-X.