They That Went Down to the Sea in Ships: Confederate Naval Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

The Civil War is one of my favorite subjects, and Civil War military research has become my favorite genealogical research area. I can happily invest hours investigating an individual’s or family’s experiences during that time period, whether the work pertains to my family or to a client’s family. Until recently, the majority of my research has dealt with soldiers and land battles. My current project, however, involves researching an individual who served in the Confederate Navy, and I have discovered that such research is an entirely different kettle of fish.

If you are researching a Confederate soldier, the basic work is relatively straightforward. First, there are compiled service records (CSRs) created by the War Department between 1903 and 1927 and placed in Record Group 109. These records, for the most part, bring together into one set of abstract cards all records for an individual soldier. Not only is there a consolidated index to the CSRs (Record Group 109; National Archives microfilm publication M253) that is arranged alphabetically by the soldier’s surname, but there are also indices to the compiled service records of Confederate soldiers who served in organizations from a specific state or territory (for example, Alabama soldiers are included in M374), organizational indices by unit (M861), and “Unfiled Papers and Slips Belonging to Confederate Compiled Service Records” (M347) which provides surname access to records that could not be confidently matched to a specific soldier’s CSR. In addition,, in partnership with the National Archives, has digitized and made CSRs available online (much better quality than microfilm prints) and therefore accessible from your home (by subscription), or perhaps at your local library. Such convenient access can spoil us.

The records of naval personnel, however, pose a challenge to researchers.

Naval records in Record Group 109 (War Department Collection of Confederate Records) are very incomplete and consist mainly of registers of naval personnel, letters sent by the Bureau of Ordinance and Hydrography, items related to the Confederate naval academy (aboard the CSS Patrick Henry), and papers relating to specific vessels. It is generally believed that naval records were removed from Richmond, Virginia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then destroyed when the Confederate Navy Yard there was abandoned in 1865. A collection of manuscript items was later brought together and is now located at the National Archives in Record Group 45 (Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library). These include such items as logs and journals of naval vessels and privateers, muster rolls and payrolls for naval vessels and marine detachments, some correspondence, and a collection of shipping articles signed by Confederate seamen.

More important for researchers, however, is the fact that there are no compiled service records for naval personnel and no consolidated index to those who served in the Confederate Navy – a significant impediment to access to an individual’s service information. A research rule of thumb for an individual in the navy is that if you can place him on a ship, you can follow him throughout his career. Unfortunately, the name of the ship may be exactly the piece of information that you are trying to uncover while at the same time it is exactly the piece of information you need in order to locate records pertaining to your seaman. Catch-22!

Let’s look at the case of J. W. Pugh of Norfolk, Virginia, to illustrate what can be found. I must confess to start, that the client knew that Joseph W. Pugh had served as a temporary pilot on the CSS Patrick Henry beginning in August 1861, but wanted documentation and any further information that might be available. This preliminary knowledge allowed direct access to a number of records that were located in NARA microfilm publication M1091 “Subject File of the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865” (Record Group 45). This group of records is arranged in seventeen separate subject categories including naval ship design, construction, etc.; ordnance; communications; engineering; battles and casualties to ships; instructions; nautical technology and science; medical; personnel; operations of naval ships and fleet units; naval bases including navy yards and stations; prisoners and prisons; merchant ships and commerce; governmental relationships; supplies; pensions; and history. I was able to locate J. W. Pugh in records pertaining to CSS Patrick Henry in the complements, rolls, and lists of persons serving in or with vessels or stations section within personnel. These records documented Pugh’s service with the CSS Patrick Henry between September 1861 and May 1862. Further information on Pugh was found in the personnel subsection on pilots. The name of the ship and the information about Pugh’s responsibilities onboard obviated a frame-by-frame review of the personnel section in the hope of locating him aboard a vessel. However, no mention of J. W. Pugh was found in M260, “Records Relating to Confederate Naval and Marine Personnel,” so given his temporary pilot designation in several of the records, he may not have served as a formal member of the naval service.

While the National Archives does hold a significant proportion of Confederate Naval records, I decided to consult staff at the Museum of the Confederacy Library in Richmond, Virginia, to see if I could learn more about J. W. Pugh and document additional information provided by the client. While at the Museum Library, I read a copy of a letter in a collection of correspondence from George Weber, who served on the Patrick Henry, and his brother Lewis. In the letter, dated September 6, 1861 and written from the ship’s location about twelve miles above Newport News, Virginia, George described the Yankee blockade on the James River. “We sometimes send out spying expeditions to examine them [the Union vessels]. They [the expeditions] consist of one of the Lieutenants, the pilot and a sailor, and go out in our small canoe. They make quite a romantic appearance on setting out, dressed like fishermen.” The pilot to which George Weber referred was J. W. Pugh and the letter provides anecdotal information about Pugh’s activities aboard the Patrick Henry.

Secondary resources provide information that enriches the documentation found in original records, but careful analysis of their content is essential. For example, Robert Driver’s Confederate Sailors, Marines and Signalmen from Virginia and Maryland (Heritage Books, 2007) includes a J. W. Pugh and a Jno W. Pugh, but lists John W. Pugh as the pilot on the Patrick Henry and indicates that J. W. Pugh was noted only in postwar records. My research suggests that this information is incorrect and that information pertaining to J. W. Pugh and Jno W. Pugh has become confused. After some research into the issue, I located the June 30-August 31, 1862 muster roll of Brooke’s Battery (held by the Museum of the Confederacy Library) that lists John W. Pugh as having enlisted from Fauquier County and as serving at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River. While the Patrick Henry was anchored off the bluff and its crew assisted the battery during the battle at Drewry’s Bluff (May 1862), it would appear that John W. Pugh was not J. W. Pugh, the pilot from Norfolk. Comparison of several documents indicates that Joseph W. Pugh was always noted as J. W. Pugh, and that John W. Pugh was always noted as Jno W. Pugh. Ongoing research will investigate the identity issue further, but this example underscores the importance of original record research and the need for analysis of all findings. A Google search for the CSS Patrick Henry provided several sites with historical information and pictures on the vessel. John M. Coski’s Capital Navy, The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron (Savas Beatie, 2005) provides an excellent discussion of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in which the CSS Patrick Henry participated, as well as the battle at Drewry’s Bluff, and the later conversion of the Patrick Henry into the Confederacy’s naval academy. Manuscript resources include Capt. J. H. Rochelle’s (former Executive Officer on the Patrick Henry) first-hand account of the battle off Hampton Roads in Volume XIV of the Southern Historical Society Papers.

A significant source for Confederate naval research is Cornell University’s online version of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. Finding aids include the National Archives and Records Administration’s printed flier RR#919, “Military Service in the Confederate Navy and Marine Corps, 1861-1865;” Henry Putney Beers’ The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America (NARA, 1986); the Preliminary Inventory of the War Department Collection of Confederate Records (Record Group 109) (Iberian, 1994); and the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives (NARA, 1995).

Web sites of interest include Cyndi’s List and the Confederate States Navy Museum, Library and Research Institute in Mobile, Alabama.

Confederate naval research can be very challenging, but very rewarding when needed information is located. Anyone want to create a consolidated index?

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