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Women in the U.S. Navy: Historic Documents

History of Women on Navy Ships in the Nineteenth Century; Memorandum from Alma R. Lawrence, Operational Archives Branch, for Lt. Morton, R-2511a, Main Navy. 23 Feb. 1951.


The practice of carrying women to sea on board U.S. ships-of-war was forbidden by navy regulations of 1802, 1818, 1841, 1857, 1876, 1881, 1896, 1900, 1905, 1909, and 1920. The wording changed but the meaning was the same.

The regulation of 1802 read: "He (Captain or commander) is not to carry any women to sea without orders from the navy office, or the commander of the squadron."

Regulations of 1818 are practically the same as those of 1802 but in 1841 and 1857 the wording was changed to read: "Women are not to be taken to sea from the United States in any vessel of the Navy without permission from the Secretary of the Navy: nor when on foreign service, without the express permission of the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet or squadron, or of the senior officer present and then only to make a passage from one port to another."

By regulations of 1881 it was not permissible to carry them to sea in a naval vessel but "Officers commanding fleets, squadrons, divisions, or ships, shall not permit women to reside on board of, or take passage in, any ship of the Navy in commission, except by special permission of the Secretary of the Navy."

In conformity with the above and other regulations on the subject, commanding officers did occasionally take their wives and other female relatives to sea with them. Some examples which come to mind are:

Commodore Charles Stewart took his wife with him on the U.S.S. Franklin while he was in command of the squadron on the west coast of South America, 1821-23. Mrs. Stewart's name figured in a small way in Stewart's trial by court martial after his return home.

Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson was in command of the Mediterranean Squadron, 1832-33, U.S.S. United States, flagship. He took his wife and his daughter George Ann with him and apparently they remained on shipboard throughout the cruise. They are mentioned several times by Midshipman Stuyvesant Fish who kept a journal of the cruise of the United States. Young Fish took a dim view of ladies on board naval ships, speaking of Mrs. Patterson and her daughter thus:

"The females have been already wished home a thousand times by every officer, as they have already given difficulty and will cause, eventually, the cruise to be disagreeable. They rule when the ship is to sail, already."

Commodore Isaac Hull carried his wife and at least one of her sisters on every cruise made by him after his marriage in 1813. On his cruise to the Mediterranean in 1838-41, his wife and two of her sisters accompanied him and lived aboard the flagship Ohio. A great deal of trouble developed, culminating in charges and counter charges followed by courtsmartials.

Mrs. Reynolds, wife of Lieutenant William Reynolds, on board U.S.S. Plymouth at Naples in June, 1845, was reported as being too sick to be carried to sea or be moved ashore.

Mrs. Farragut and a female relative accompanied Admiral Farragut on his triumphal tour to Europe in 1867- 1868, on the U.S.S. Franklin.

A strange case is set forth in a journal by Midshipman Henry Wadsworth, U.S. Navy, on board the U.S.S. Chesapeake, 2 April 1803.

"On the 22d Febry it being the day after we left Algiers: Mrs. Low (wife to James Low Captain of the Forecastle) bore a son, in the Boatswain's Store Room: on the 31st inst. (March). the babe was baptiz'd in the Midshipmen's apartment: the Contriver of this business, was Melancthon Taylor Woolsey a Mid: who stood Godfather on the occasion & provided a handsome collation of Wine & Fruit: Mrs Low being unwell Mrs Hays the Gunner's Lady officiated: Divine Service by Rev. Alex McFarlan. The childs name Melancthon Woolsey Low: - All was conducted with true decorum & decency no doubt to the great satisfaction of the parents, as Mr. Woolsey's attention to them must in some measure have ameliorated the unhappy situation of the Lady who was so unfortunate to conceive & bare, on the Salt Sea. NB. The other Ladies of the Bayviz. Mrs. Watson: the Boatswain's Wife, Mrs. Myres the Carpenter's Lady with Mrs. Crosby the corporal's Lady: got drunk in their own Quarters out of pure spite not being invited to celebrate the Christening of Melancthon Woolsey Low."

Wondering if these women went out from or returned to the United States in the Chesapeake an investigation was made with the following results:

No list of passengers was found. James Low, seaman on board the U.S.S. Chesapeake in the Mediterranean, returned home in her and was detached at Washington D.C., in June, 1803. James Watson, boatswain, Robert Myres, carpenter, and John Hayes, gunner, also returned at that time. There were 88 supernumeraries on board according to the rolls of the ship but none of them appear to be women and the name of the infant Melancthon Woolsey Low is not found on the list.

The Mediterranean Squadron was plagued at that time with the problem of American sailors marrying native women and it is quite possible that that is what these men had done. Regulations issued in January, 1802, which was prior to the date on which the Chesapeake sailed for the Mediterranean, forbad the carrying of any women to sea without orders from the Navy Office, or the commander of the squadron, but women were allowed to come on board when the ship was in port.

Source: Document in folder, Women in the Navy Folder, ZV files, Box 13, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC.