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Animals on Board

When one considers animals in the context of the Civil War, their immediate thought may likely turn to cavalry. The horses involved in equestrian charges and tactical actions were placed in just as much harm’s way as their riders. Alternatively, one may think of the use of beasts of burden such as oxen and mules in transporting the vast quantities of supplies needed by the moving armies of the United States and Confederacy. However, other animals were also present during the war and filled a diverse range of roles. Recently, historians have turned their attention to the roles of animals and how their presence shaped the daily experiences of the Civil War era. While much of this scholarship has focused on animals in the armies, an examination of animals in the navies can inform new depictions of life at sea during the war.

Animals not designated for food rations were banned aboard ships in both the United States and Confederate navies. Yet, just like alcohol or gambling, which were likewise banned, animals were found on board most ships during the Civil War. These animals, called “mascots,” frequently served the same function then as they do in present day households, companionship that may have reminded sailors of pets at home. Animals in this role could stave off loneliness for sailors away from family or soothe sorrow associated with the experiences of war. In this way, these mascots allow us to draw connections between how animals impacted human emotions in the nineteenth century and people’s relationship with pets today.

USS Hunchback crew

These mascots fulfilled other purposes beyond companionship. For instance, some crews used their dogs during shore leave on hunting        expeditions. These dogs facilitated a social activity that both entertained sailors as well as supported a shared boost of morale among a ship’s crew. Cats served a practical purpose as the primary rodent-hunters on ships. These cats controlled the populations of rats and mice on board, thus playing an important role in limiting the spread of disease. Furthermore, cats have long been considered lucky in the     superstitions of maritime folkways. In many maritime cultures, the presence of a cat on board historically promised safe travel as well as the lack of disease outbreaks. Therefore, cats fostered positive outlooks among crews.

While the most common, cats and dogs alone were not the full range of animals used as mascots. For instance, the USS Fernandina   became known for its collection of animals, including an owl with clipped wings and at least two racoons. The USS Wabash and the USS  Tyler both carried a black bear aboard. The bear was removed from the Wabash following an attack on the ship’s quartermaster which cost the man his leg. Other more exotic mascot choices included eagles, snakes, and an alligator. These mascots served as both a source of entertainment as well as a perhaps underappreciated source of pride for a crew. The fact that these mascots were frequently present in the crew photographs further suggests their significance to the ship.

dog on ship

One more animal has long been associated with the United States Navy—goats. During the Civil War, sailors often ate much better than their counterparts on land. This was in part due to the surprising amount of access to livestock, dairy, and fresh produce on board the vessels. No animal became a more common food source for the Navy than goats which provided both milk and meat. Much more than cows, sheep, or even chickens, goats thrived on board ships in the worst conditions because of both their balance and resistance to illnesses associated with maritime life. Although now a mascot rather than a typical food source, the goat remains an important symbol for the U.S. Navy to this day.

At the National Civil War Naval Museum, our staff is focused on telling the stories of life in the navies including the interactions between the sailors themselves. However, to gain a more complete picture of life at sea, it is important to remember that humans were not the only life on board naval vessels during the Civil War.

Logan Barrett

Director of History & Collections

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