Living Conditions in the 19th Century U.S. Navy

Navy Department,
Washington, March 17, 1869.

Related Resource:
Shipboard Life in the US Navy, 1775-1899: A Select Bibliography

Rations
Education & Training
Ventilation
Water on Board Ship
Heating
Health on Shipboard
Clothing
Religious Life
Recreation
Berthing

Rations

Rations per week per Man according to Regulations of 1818.

Suet-1/2 pound 6 ½ cents
Cheese-6 ounces 6 ½ cents
Beef-3 ½ pounds 29 cents
Pork-3 pounds 28 ½ cents
Flour-1 pound 4 cents
Bread-98 ounces 30 ½ cents
Butter-2 ounces 3 cents
Sugar-7 ounces 7 cents
Tea-4 ounces 12 cents
Peas-1 pint 34 cents
Rice-1 pint 5 cents
Molasses-1/2 pint 3 cents
Vinegar-1/2 pint 2 cents
Spirits-3 ½ pints 35 cents

Very young boys, both enlisted and midshipmen, were prohibited from the use of spirits but were given money instead. This age was raised to 21 in 1842 by an Act of Congress. The same year raisins, dried apples, other fruits, coffee, cocoa, pickles, cranberries and "sour crout" were added to the ration, to be used in lieu of other parts of it, not to exceed the value set by law. The spirit ration for enlisted men was abolished by law in 1862.

Until refrigeration was available on ship board salt beef and pork, also butter and fish, were preserved in brine and frequently became so bad they had to be thrown overboard. Fresh meat and vegetables were used in port by both officers and crew and fishing tackle was standard equipment in order to provide fresh fish whenever possible. Turtles, turtle eggs, cocoanuts, fruits and vegetables were secured whenever possible. The captain sometimes turned the deck into a veritable farmyard with live pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens for use after leaving port.

A supply of ships bread or biscuit sufficient for several weeks was taken on board before sailing. This, too, often spoiled. Corn meal and potatoes were also provided in quantities. Potatoes and onions were good for scurvy.

Education and Training

Prior to the establishment of the Naval Academy larger ships were provided with schoolmasters for the education of the midshipmen, most of whom entered the navy very young. They received their training on ship board from their superior officers. On vessels without schoolmasters they were instructed by the chaplains, or the captain's clerk acting as a chaplain. Schools for the instruction of junior officers were established at Norfolk, New York, and at the Naval Asylum at Philadelphia, with less pretentious ones at the Washington Navy Yard and at Sacketts Harbor [New York]. None of these except Sacketts Harbor gave instructions to enlisted men. They received their preliminary training on board the receiving ships provided they were not hurried straight from the recruiting station to sea. Little was done to give them any real education.

Regulations issued in 1865 directed the chaplain to "instruct in the principles of the Christian religion the boys and such other persons as the Commander of the vessel may commit to his care." Also, if there was no schoolmaster on board, he was to apply to the Commanding Officer to detail a person of the crew to instruct, under his direction, the boys of the vessel, in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Commanding officers by the regulations of 1870 were to cause the ordinary seaman, landsmen, and boys to be instructed in steering, heaving the lead, knotting and splicing, in rowing, in the use of the palm and needle, etc, that they might become qualified for rating as seamen and petty officers. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was not officially opened until 28 October 1911. The Naval Apprentice System which was originally established by law in 1837 for enlisting boys not under thirteen nor over eighteen years of age, to serve until the age of twenty-one, was revived around 1875. Under this system the education and training of boys was greatly increased. Under it apprentices were taken on cruises similar to those of the midshipmen.

Occasionally a promising youth on board ship was given an acting appointment but as a rule the man who entered service by way of the recruiting office remained one of "the people" the rest of his life.

Ventilation

Regulations of 1818 directed that wind sails and ventilators were to be kept in continual operation. Regulations continued to emphasize the importance of the comfort and health of the men. In 1893 the captain was directed to see that the ship was well ventilated, dry, at a comfortable temperature, and well supplied with light.

Water on board ship

Ships carried enough water when they sailed to last during a normal cruise. It was carried in wooden casks stowed in the hold. For one reason or another it sometimes became so stagnant it could not be used. In that case men were sent ashore at the first opportunity to secure a fresh supply. Until then both officers and men were put on short supply. Normally they were provided with one half gallon per man on foreign voyages and more on the home station. Regulations of 1818 read "In rivers men are not to be permitted to drink the water alongside the ship, but casks are to be filled with the water if fresh, and the mud and other impurities allowed to settle before it is used." Boiling water, or purifying it by any other process was not practiced until many years later.

Heating

Heating in the old sailing ships, many of which were in use until the late 1870s, was almost non-existent. The only fire allowed on board was the one in the galley on which the food was prepared. Wood or coal was used as fuel. The cabin and sick bay were heated by hot shot partially buried in sand in an iron bucket. The quarters of the enlisted men were unheated. Hanging or charcoal stoves were used to dry between decks but were used to dry between decks but were of no value in heating the ship. With the advent of steam it became possible to heat our ships. Just when steam-heat was first used has not been found.

Health on Shipboard

Commanding Officers were enjoined to keep the ship dry by ventilation and by the use of stoves below decks. Bedding and clothes were aired as often as possible and men were not to be allowed to sleep in wet clothes nor in a wet bed. However, a glance at the list of clothing allowed each man shows how impossible it must have been to keep them dry. Clothing was to be suitable for the season and climate. Flannel shirts were encouraged for both summer and winter.

The men were encouraged to wash themselves two or three times a week depending on the climate and to change their linen at least twice weekly. In the sailing ship bath tubs looking like giant sized cake tins were used on the forecastle and in the chains. By 1893 bath and wash rooms were supplied with hot and cold water and were kept open evenings to accommodate the men.

The captain was directed to pay special attention to the sick and wounded, to provide them with a comfortable place, with berths, cradles, cots, buckets with covers, and other conveniences. Those with contagious diseases were to be kept apart from the rest. Nurses were to be selected from the crew by the surgeon. When sick or wounded were removed from ship to ship or to a hospital they were to be accompanied by an officer and a surgeon or one of his mates. Hospital ships came into use around the Civil War period.

Rheumatism, consumption, syphilis, debility and scurvy were the most frequent causes of medical discharges. Yellow fever and small pox were prevalent at certain seasons and in certain climates. Many officers continued service on shipboard during the last stages of consumption because of the lack of any sort of retirement benefits.

Larger ships, such as frigates, had a surgeon and two or three surgeon's mates aboard while the very small vessels had none. All were provided with medicine chests. On ships without a doctor the sick and wounded were cared for by the captain or a member of the crew. When cruising in company with a ship with a surgeon help came from it. Dr. Thomas Harris, a surgeon in the navy from 1812 to 1861 and an advocate of better training naval surgeons wrote that many of them never had performed an operation before being called to operate in an emergency or during a battle.

Special foods were provided for the sick including jellies, juice of lemons, limes, and oranges. Hospital stores, medicines, etc., for officers and 400 men for twelve months was estimated at $2,500 in 1800. Surgeons in the early navy and the executive officer later were required to inspect the cook's coppers, mess utensils, provisions and liquors.

Sick call was held on the gun deck at 9 a.m. daily, and the binnacle list excusing men from duty by the surgeon, or for other causes, was posted each morning.

Hospitals were scarce and many of them poorly located and badly furnished.

Clothing

Slops for First Year per Man, Regulations of 1818.
(This list shows how difficult it was to keep the men clean and dry.)

1 Pea jacket (to serve for two years.)
2 Blue cloth jackets (for winter)
2 Blue cloth trousers (for winter)
2 White flannel shirts
2 White flannel drawers
2 Pairs white yarn stockings
2 Black handkerchiefs
2 Duck frocks (for summer)
2 Duck trousers (for summer)
4 pairs shoes
1 mattress
2 Blankets
1 Hammock
1 Red cloth vest
2 Hats-black

Each man was allowed to buy from the purser yearly 25 pounds of soap, 3 tin pots, 3 spoons, 2 bottles of mustard, ½ pound of pepper, 4 knives, 4 combs, 3 brushes, 3 yards of riband [ribbon], needles and thread in reasonable quantities.

Religious Life

There never were enough naval chaplains to supply all the seagoing ships consequently only the larger ones were provided with them. Many of these were not ordained ministers but did double duty as chaplain and clerk on board. Where there was no chaplain the captain officiated at funerals and divine services which were held twice a day with a sermon on Sunday, unless prevented by bad weather or other extraordinary circumstances. All officers and men who could be spared were required to attend.

By 1862 the regulations were modified to read "shall cause divine service to be performed on Sunday, whenever the weather and other circumstances allow it to be done: … recommended to all officers, seamen, and others in the naval service diligently to attend at every performance of the worship of Almighty God."

Many of the chaplains were a real force for good among the men.

Recreation

In the early navy there was no organized recreation on board or for the officers and men when they went ashore. Around 1825 and later libraries were put on board ships, generally under the charge of the chaplain or clerk. They were dry reading in most cases apparently selected for the edification of the officers but available to the men also. Music was another outlet for the men as an extra-curricular activity. Bands were formed of men enlisted as, and performing the duties of seamen, ordinary seamen, etc. Instruments were paid for by subscription, etc. Later newspapers were printed on board and theatricals were a favorite diversion.

Whenever possible liberty was granted to as many officers and men as was practicable. The officers went on sightseeing trips; went hunting; visited in the homes of the better people of the cities who made them welcome. This was true especially in the Mediterranean. The men did not fare so well. There were no organizations on shore to furnish entertainment; no homes open to them. For the most part they spent most of their time in the part of the city frequented by sailors from ships of other countries and all too frequently came home late and in sorry condition.

Occasionally the men were allowed by the captain to "skylark" on shipboard on some special occasion but for the most part there was little for him to do but "shoot the breeze." He was permitted to smoke, but even there there were certain restrictions. Regulations of 1818 allowed no smoking in any part of the ship except the galley. Those of 1870 directed the Commander to permit a lighted lantern to be hung up in a suitable place during meal hours, and after evening quarters until tattoo, or the setting of the watch, from which pipes or cigars may be lighted. No pipes or cigars were to be lighted at the galley or on the berth deck.

Berthing

The captain slept and messed alone in the cabin of the ship unless it was a flagship in which case he shared the cabin accommodations with the flag officer. If there were two cabins the commodore selected one for his own use and the captain took the other. If there was only one cabin the captain was entitled to one-third of the space divided off by a fore-and-aft bulk-head.

Wardroom-officers which included all commissioned officers except those ranking with ensign lived in apartments which included mess and state rooms on the berth deck. Rooms were assigned according to rank.

Steerage officers which included clerks, midshipmen, mates, cadet engineers, cadet midshipmen, ensigns when not in charge of a watch and division, and all officers ranking with ensign, slept in that part of the berth deck of a man-of-war just forward of the wardroom, and furnished with lockers, mess tables, and sometimes berths.

Enlisted personnel which included petty officers slept in canvas hammocks slung on the berth deck. When suspended, this canvas formed a receptacle for a mattress and blanket; when not in use, the canvas was wrapped tightly around the bedding and bound with a lashing and stowed in the nettings in clear weather and below when for any reason, such as rain, they could not be taken on deck. During his first year (Regs. of 1818) a man was allowed one mattress and two blankets.

Source: Alma R. Lawrence to Commander J.W. McCormick, Serial 261P29 of 11 Aug 1952, Living Conditions in the US Navy File, box 6, ZV Files, Navy Department Library, Naval History & Heritage Command, Washington, DC.