The Union navy often does not receive the attention it deserves when it comes to the American Civil War. This is particularly true of the Irish involvement; the Irish contribution to the Union navy was proportionately greater than that to Union armies. Of the 118,044 men who served as Union ‘Jacks’ during the war, some 20% were Irish. Many served in the unglamorous blockading squadrons that attempted to stifle Confederate trade along the Confederacy’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. One of them described what it was like. (1)
Life on the Union blockade was characterised by depressing monotony, with a seemingly never-ending daily routine only occasionally interspersed with efforts to run down Rebel blockade-runners- a task which more often than not ended in failure. Acting Assistant Surgeon George B. Higginbotham served on board the U.S.S. Grand Gulf, part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina. The Irishman occasionally described life on the blockade for readers of the New York Irish-American. In a letter of 20th July 1864 he told of the trials of life on the blockade:
Gentlemen- In the absence of any definite, tangible news to send, I have ventured to enclose you a summary of what we have not been doing and my cogitations thereupon. You are aware that life in a “man-of-war,” unless she is occupied in fighting, or catching prizes, is rather a monotonous affair, and we prove the truth of this assertion every day, for about all we have to do is, as Shaftesbury says-
“To love the public, to study universal good, and to promote the interest of the whole world, so far as lies within our power.”
Mails from New York are getting extremely irregular; the last batch of papers which came brought us the tidings of the capture and sinking of the privateer ‘Alabama’, which, in the face of the many canards published, is almost too good to be true; but which ought to have been done two years ago. Yet, “better late than never.” We have rumors of the ‘Florida’ being in our proximity. If we could only get a glimpse of her we would send our “cartes-des-visites” on board in a hundred-pounder shell. If it were a possible thing to do so; and after that would feel quite satisfied (provided she went to Davy Jones’ locker), to come to New York for a week or two. But Deo Volente [God Willing].
The blockade is bordering on rather inefficiency at just this present time, as scarce a night passes that a blockade-runner does not get in, and as many come out: and when we get a chance to drive a shot through them, it seems as if fate was against us. Two or three nights since, one our fleet saw a blockade-runner trying to get in. The captain challenged; received no answer, and then gave the order to “fire.” But it seems by accounts that the captain of the gun could not find his primer; and, after that, he could not find the “vent-hole,” because of the dark; so by the time he was ready to fire, the Anglo-rebel was nicely out of range up to Wilmington.
I will bet a small amount that the captain of that gun was not an Irishman; for Irishmen never miss finding a place in the night time when they want to look for it. The ‘Grand Gulf’, however, is all right. When we see a thing in the shape of a “runner” we give her as much as she wants either in speed or metal, though having broken our propeller while chasing the ‘Young Republic’, we have lost a trifle of our former superiority. (2)
Life was sometimes fulfilling for the blockaders. A few months previously (6th March, 1864) Higginbotham had penned more positive news for the readers back home:
Gentlemen- I wish to inform you and your readers of the Irish-American that we are doing something on the Blockade. After a very exciting chase of three hours and thirty minutes, we have just captured the very fast side-wheel Anglo-rebel steamer ‘Mary Annie’ (blockade runner), one day from Wilmington to Nassau. We sighted the ‘Mary Annie’ at daylight, and chasing dead to windward forced her to throw overboard much of her cargo of cotton, and she, although light and in perfect running order, was overhauled and captured in a stern chase , “which is notoriously a long one,” by one of those very cruisers which the enemies of the Government have made so much ado against. This also corroborated the character of the ‘Grand Gulf’, in regard to the capture of the ‘Banshee’, the credit of which was given so hastily to the transport steamer ‘Fulton’, but which, like the present capture, was, under the goodness of God, owing to our superior speed , our hundred-pounder Parrot, and the intelligence of our noble commander, Geo. B. Ransom.
We return thanks to those of the Navy Department who furnished us the necessary repairs; and we assure you, Gentlemen, and those who read your very valuable journal, that we are after another ‘Mary Annie’. I regret that I cannot meet you on the 17th inst. Remember me when you are celebrating the National Anniversary. “Tho’ lost to sight to memory dear.” (3)
Many Union sailors lived in hope of the prize-money they would share if they were fortunate enough to capture a blockade-runner. Given the numbers of Irishmen in the service, Higginbotham expressed his hope that those who had secured a prize would remember those across the Atlantic:
Some of our boys in the steamer are already counting up their prize money by hundreds of dollars. I sincerely hope that they will remember, many of them, at least, their friends in the old country; for it seems as if there was never a more favorable opportunity for young persons to come to this country. There is plenty of room and plenty of work here; and if the emigrants can only get solidly started, they can go on without much trouble for the future…There is many a poor acquaintance in “ould” Ireland, to whom the accession of a pound or two given would be an act of charity which would be blessed of God; and yet would not be missed out of the purses of those giving it. No doubt, when the vessel is paid off, by many of our lads, the Irish at home will be remembered. (4)
George B. Higginbotham would go on to serve aboard the U.S.S. Union later in the war. That he was highly regarded by his comrades is clear from an account written by Francis McDermott, who had served as Master Machinist at the Union’s Key West base in Florida. While serving there Higginbotham had seemingly gone the extra mile for his patients, at times giving up his own bed so that ill sailors could avail of it. When the men of the U.S. gunboat Alabama had been struck down by yellow-fever, it’s Commander spoke of the doctor’s ‘skilful and unremitting attention’ towards the sick. Even after the war was over he remained on the Atlantic coast. In 1866 on Tybee Island, Georgia he was active in the Quarantine Hospital where a cholera outbreak was killing up to 17 people a day. Dr. Higginbotham survived to return to his home in New York, and in late 1866 he was finally able to resume his medical practice at 142 Court Street, opposite Dean Street in Brooklyn. (5)
(1) Bennett 2004: 5, 9; (2) Irish-American 6th August 1864; (3) Irish-American 9th April 1864 (4) Irish-American 6th August 1864; (5) Irish-American 17th September 1864, Irish-American 26th September 1863, Irish-American 7th December 1866;
Bennett, Michael J. 2004. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War.
New York Irish-American 26th September 1863. Dr. G.B. Higginbotham.
New York Irish-American 9th April 1864. A Voice From the Navy.
New York Irish-American 6th August 1864. A Voice From the Navy.
New York Irish-American 17th September 1864. Surgeon George B. Higginbotham.
New York Irish-American 7th December 1866. Dr. George B. Higginbotham.