Life aboard a Civil War naval vessel was filled with long periods of tedious work punctuated with durations of extreme terror. However, sailors’ daily experiences also included moments in which they turned toward sources of entertainment and recreation to stave off boredom. Officers understood the importance of these distractions for the morale of the crew, and even overlooked some illicit pastimes in favor of maintaining high spirits. Entertainment such as reading, writing, music, and gaming, all provided escapes from the grinding routines of labor and war.
Private and solitary moments for sailors were filled by the reading of books, newspapers, and other periodicals. Sailors read everything from nonfiction such as George Bancroft’s History of the United States to novels written by literary masters such as Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some ships included libraries offering hundreds of books. In fact, Admiral David Farragut’s USS Hartford featured an impressive collection until the library was destroyed by a Confederate shell during the Battle of New Orleans.
Letter reading and writing became a deeply emotional pastime for sailors connecting with family and friends at home. Excitement swept through a ship’s crew with the arrival of the postal service. The absence of a letter from home could leave a sailor despondent and frustrated. The USS Paul Jones’s George S. Paul exhibited this frustration in writing to his family “After this I want you to be more punctual about writing to me or I shall not write home. There are enough of you at home to write once a week.”
Other forms of entertainment encouraged socializing and camaraderie aboard ship. A distinct music culture has long been a feature of maritime life and the Civil War era was no exception. Musicians were assigned to larger ships to serve as official ship bands. Smaller vessels could still count on folk instruments such as fiddles, banjos, and squeezeboxes being found amongst the crew. Raphael Semmes of the CSS Alabama ensured his crew had a violin and a tambourine. The songs preferred by sailors included “Sugar in the Hold,” “The Gal I Left Behind Me,” and songs celebrating naval achievements such as “The Battle of New Orleans” and the “The Battle of Port Royal.”
Gaming in the form of cards, dominoes, and dice was also frequently found aboard Civil War ships. Popular card games included poker, rummy, euchre, and faro. Sailors played several variations of 28-piece dominoes including board and draw. Chuck-a-luck was a favorite dice game. Despite Article 7 of the United States Navy Regulations making gambling illegal and punishable by court-martial, gambling remained a constant aboard ship on both sides during the Civil War. Just how popular was gaming during the era? Milton Bradley, founder of the famed board game manufacturer, successfully entered the gaming business in the 1860s largely due to soldiers and sailors embracing his first game, The Checkered Game of Life
Civil War sailors sought escape from both the misery and boredom of war. Examining how they spent their free time provides an enriched depiction of their wartime experiences. Further, their relatable moments amusement and diversion reinforces their humanity.
Logan Barrett, Historian