The enlistment records of many Irish recruits during the Civil War provide detail on age, height, hair/eye colour and complexion. Although informative, this data still leaves us without a picture of life experience, or any insight into character. One exception was those men who enlisted in the Union navy. The marks and scars they acquired during their lifetime were recorded on enlistment, providing us with a unique opportunity to garner more detail about both their appearance and their personalities. Perhaps most fascinating of all are those marks that the Irishmen had chosen for themselves- their tattoos. 

A German Stowaway at Ellis Island. Although taken in 1911 this gives an idea of the types of tattoos prevalent (New York Public Library)

A German Stowaway at Ellis Island. Although taken in 1911 this gives an idea of the types of tattoos prevalent (New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Digital ID: 418057)

I have recently examined the enlistment records of the New York Naval Rendezvous for July 1863 to create a database of those Irishmen who enlisted during that month, 150 years ago. Of 1,064 men who were recorded as signing on between 1st and 31st July, a total of 319 were listed as being of Irish birth. They will form the topic of a number of posts on the site in the coming days. Naval recruits were seen as being of the rougher sort, often with a different set of motivations for enlisting when compared with other branches of service. Many were from extremely poor backgrounds and inhabited some of the most notorious districts of New York, such as the Five Points. By and large they were working class men- to study them is to examine the reality of urban life for the majority of Irish emigrants.

In 1860s New York, tattooing was most popular among the working classes. There were many different motivations for getting ‘inked’, be it for identification purposes, to express feelings for a loved one, or simply to fit in. Of the 319 Irishmen who enlisted in the navy from New York in July 1863, over 30 of them had tattoos:

Name Age Occupation Tattoo
Allan, William 24 Laborer Cross on his right breast, heart on his left breast
Auction, Martin 20 Laborer Anchor on his right hand
Breshnan, John 23 Printer “hoha”? On his right forearm
Cahill, Patrick 21 Seaman Cross on his right arm
Cahill, Peter 30 Fireman Women on both his forearms
Carter, William R. 16 None “12” on his left forearm
Cautlon, Edward 23 None Name on his left forearm
Conway, William 21 Painter “42” on his left arm
Coulter, James 21 Mariner Cross on his right arm, anchor and heart on left arm
Crowley, John 29 Mariner Anchor on his right hand
Donnelly, Patrick 30 Laborer Crucifix on his left forearm, name on his right forearm
Flood, Thomas 21 Printer Soldier on his left forearm
Grady, James 22 Bricklayer “J.G.” and star on his right forearm
Gugerty, Michael 23 Trunk Maker Monument? on his right forearm
Hickay, William 34 Mariner Crucifix on his right forearm
Hill, Thomas 21 Laborer Star on his left hand
Holden, Patrick 22 Fireman “13” on his right forearm
Keough, Philip 23 Bricklayer Tattooed on the arms
Layton, Henry 22 Mariner Star on his left hand
Mansfield, Thomas 17 None Blue spots on his right arm (tattoo or scar?)
McCarthy, John 30 Laborer “J.McC.” on his left forearm
McCarthy, John 35 Mariner “M.P.” on his left wrist
McGill, James 35 Mariner A.M.’ on his right forearm
McNally, William 41 Mariner Woman and “I.C.” on his right arm
Murray, Francis 21 Laborer “F.M.” on this right arm
Murray, Patrick 21 Laborer Name on his right arm, crucifix on his left arm
Reilly, John 25 Machinist Anchor on both his forearms
Smith, Henry 28 Mariner Cross on his right forearm
Staldon, Charles 21 Shoemaker Cross on his right arm
Sweeney, Miles 23 Shipsmith “M.S.” on his right forearm
Whilon, Robert 23 Fireman ” B. O’Brien” on his right forearm
Wogan, William 22 Laborer “17” and “East River” on his right forearm

Table 1. Tattoos of Irish enlistments in the New York Naval Rendezvous,  July 1863 (1)

What was the process these men went through to get tattooed? The best known tattoo artist of the period was Martin Hildebrandt, who operated throughout the American Civil War and in the post-war years had a New York tattoo workshop. In 1876 the New York Times visited him to learn more about the process:

Mr Hildebrandt, with the true modesty of an artist, exhibited his book of drawings. All you had to do, in case you wanted to be marked for life, was to select a particular piece, and in a short time, varying from fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, you could, presenting your arm or your chest as an animated canvas to the artist, have transferred on your person any picture you wanted, at the reasonable price of from fifty cents to $2.50. (2)

Of course many of the working class Irishmen who revealed their tattoos to the recruiters in July 1863 would have been inked by amateur tattooists, often with a varying degree of competence. Hildebrandt’s method was to take a half dozen No.12 needles, that he ‘bound together in a slanting form, which are dipped as the pricking is made into the best India ink or vermilion. The puncture is not made directly up and down, but at an angle, the surface of the skin being only pricked.’ Wet gunpowder and ink were also sometimes used as a colorant to mix into the needle-marks. Once the tattoo was completed, blood and excess colouring were washed off the skin using either water, urine or sometimes rum and brandy. (3)

Examples of some late 19th century tattoos (Wikimedia Commons)

Examples of some late 19th century tattoos (Wikimedia Commons)

What of the different types of tattoos? In his examination of American seafarers’ tattoos between 1796 and 1818, Ira Dye developed a classification for the types of tattoos he encountered. The July 1863 New York Rendezvous sample shows that a number of the Irishmen had elected for similar designs. Initials and names tended to be the most common form. Men like John McCarthy and James Grady were probably concerned with people being able to identify them should some mishap occur, and wanted the initials to serve as a form of identity tag. William McNally had the initials ‘I.C.’ beneath the image of a woman, and it may well be that these were the initials of a loved one. Robert Whilon had ‘B. O’Brien’ tattooed on his arm. This may either represent a woman, friend or it is possible that he was one of many men who elected to enlist under a false name. (4)

A number of the men sported anchors, the tattoo most quintessentially associated with sailors. Although John Crowley and John Coulter were mariners, it is not clear if the other men with anchors- Laborer Martin Auction and Machinist John Reilly- had previous naval experience. Stars were also a popular motif, as were crucifixes. Depictions of crosses may have had some religious significance, but there is also a suggestion that sailors selected them to mark them out for Christian burial; it may also have been regarded as lucky. Within this group of Irishmen crosses were the most common tattoo, with eight of the men carrying them. (5)

An interest in love and women generally can be seen with the selections a number of the men made. William Allan had a heart on his chest, while Fireman Peter Cahill clearly saw himself as somewhat of a paramour, with women on both his arms. Thomas Flood has also elected for a figure, but he chose a soldier rather than a woman, perhaps to remember service in the army or to recall a relative or friend who was fighting for the North. By far the most intriguing set of tattoos are the numbers that adorned some of the men. William Carter, a 16-year-old boy with no profession, had ’12’ on his arm. Painter William Conway had ’42’, Fireman Patrick Holden ’13’ and Laborer William Wogan ’17’ and ‘East River.’ I have been unable to ascertain what these numbers represent. Having considered areas or wards of the city, ladder companies and infantry regiments, none seem to offer a definitive answer. I would be interested to learn if any readers have come across references to such tattoos before, or if they have some suggestion as to what these numbers might represent.** (6)

Tattoos are most commonly associated with sailors in this period. What is fascinating about this group is that although all of them were bound for the navy, it was clear that many of the men who bore tattoos had no previous maritime experience. This allows us to envisage a scenario where a significant proportion of the working class Irish population (and indeed the working class generally) wore tattoos- indeed it must have been a common sight in areas like the Five Points. I hope in the future to extend my look at the Irish recruits in the navy and along the way discover more regarding the tattoos that were prevalent among the Irish community of New York.

*I am indebted to Dr. Matt Lodder for graciously providing information regarding sources and for his advice generally regarding 19th century tattooing and its interpretation.

**With regard to this question, see the contribution by Marc Hermann in the comments section below, which seems to confirm that these are most probably the numbers of Fire Engine, Ladder and Hose Companies.

(1) Naval Enlistment Returns; (2) New York Times 16th January 1876; (3) Dye 1989:531; (4) Ibid:542; (5) Ibid:542, 547; (6) Ibid:544-545;


Naval Enlistment Weekly Returns, New York Rendezvous, July 1863.

New York Times 16th January 1876. Tattooing in New York, A Visit Paid to the Artist.

Dye, Ira 1989. ‘The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818’ in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4, pp. 520-554.

New York Public Library Digital Gallery.