Irish in the American Civil War has a long-standing interest in Civil War-era tattoos and markings. Brendan’s new post is the latest instalment in a series focused on the topic- you can check out some of the others via the links below:

Marked Men: The Tattoos of New York Irishmen, 1863

Scarred Men: The Disfigurements of New York Irishmen, 1863

Inked Irishmen: Irish Tattoos in 1860s New York

Marked Boys: The Tattoos of 19th Century Irish and Irish American Reformatory Inmates

In the new tattoo article, Brendan follows up his work on the tattoos of reformatory inmates with those of military prisoners at Clinton Prison, New York. His text is accompanied by a superb resource that Brendan has painstakingly compiled- the details of the tattoos of over 100 of these prisoners, together with information on where each was from. Read on to find out more!

The inmate admission ledgers from Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, which are housed at the New York State Archives, are a fascinating resource that include physical descriptions of thousands of people imprisoned there throughout parts of the nineteenth and twentieth century. While perusing them recently, I stumbled across something unexpected–from 1864-1865, the prison housed several hundred US military prisoners. They included deserters and other offenders from the Army and Navy and civilians convicted of crimes against the US military. The admission ledgers for these inmates often includes detailed descriptions of tattoos and other permanent marks. While the US Navy recorded such information in its rendezvous reports, the Army typically did not, so this seemed an exciting opportunity to learn more about the tattoos of Union soldiers in particular. I recorded the descriptions of all 103 tattooed men in the ledgers. Unfortunately, however, the unit or branch of service of these prisoners was not included, so I decided to dig into other records such as muster roll abstracts, enlistment registers, and even period newspapers to fill in as much of this information as I could.

Tattoo TypeNo. Examples
Female Figure/Bust/Face22
Shield/Coat of Arms10
Male Figure/Bust/Face6
Goddess of Liberty4
Memorial Inscription to Father2

Table 1. The Breakdown of Tattoos recorded on the military prisoners, and their relative numbers (Brendan Hamilton).

Tattoos can provide a fascinating glimpse into the hearts and minds of people–particularly working class people–from a bygone era. What did they deem important enough to permanently mark upon their bodies and what does this reveal about them? In many cases, soldiers’ and sailors’ tattooing decisions were driven by the fear that if they died in combat, their body would be unidentifiable. As a result, many of these men have their initials or name tattooed on them. But this alone does not explain all of the initials, since many clearly do not match the names of their bearers. In some cases, they may have been honoring spouses, lovers, parents, etc. For others it may be a sign that they were serving under an alias, and the initials were inked pre-war, recording a hint of their real names. Many also had images of women tattooed on them. While most of these are not described in detail, the tattoo of 1st Lt. Elbridge W. Guilford of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery was specifically a likeness of the famous Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler. Crosses and crucifixes were popular as well.

Fanny Elssler, the ballerina depicted on the tattoo of 1st Lt. Elbridge W. Guilford. (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery).

There are some rather unique examples of tattoos in the ledgers that really stuck out to me. One that might be of particular interest to our readers is the tattoo of a “hand” that Private Hugh Gribben, a veteran of the 68th Pennsylvania Infantry, displayed on his left arm. A postwar US Army enlistment record for Gribben reveals that he was a native of County Antrim. Could this hand have been a representation of the Red Hand of Ulster, the old heraldic symbol of Ireland’s northern province?

The-coat-of-arms of Hugh Gribben’s native County Antrim, which includes the Red Hand of Ulster. (Wikimedia-Commons).
Admission ledger for Private Hugh Gribben, 68th Pennsylvania Infantry. (New York State).

In addition to regional pride, tattoos could also display pride in one’s vocation. Private Paul Stekle of the 1st New York Veteran Cavalry had a “bullock’s head” on his right arm. Stekle, a German immigrant who was a butcher in his civilian life, probably chose the image of a bull’s head because it was a symbol of butchers that was commonly used in trade signs over their shops. The anchor was, of course, a very commonly seen tattoo, and was frequently worn by men who were sailors either as civilians or in the US Navy. Pride in one’s military unit, branch, or combat arm was a likely motivation for many of the tattoos in these ledgers. Daniel O. Whitman of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery had a tattoo of a “cannon shell” on the back of his left hand. And though shields and hearts were common motifs in period tattooing overall, it is worth noting that several of those in the ledgers with these tattoos were members of the 9th and 24th Union Army Corps, respectively. The corps symbol of the 9th Corps was a shield with a crossed cannon and anchor, while the 24th Corps’ symbol was a heart. Private Alfred T. Hardey of the 4th New Hampshire Infantry, which was part of the 24th Corps from the start of its formation in December 1864, went beyond wearing his heart on his sleeve. He had both a “heart” tattooed on his right hand and a “double heart” on his right arm.

A soldier wearing the distinctive heart-shaped badge of the Union 24th Corps on his hat, Appomattox Court House, Virginia April 1865 (detail). (Library of Congress).

Aside from the tattoos, I also included scars from combat wounds and other distinctive marks. Several of the prisoners convicted of desertion from the US Navy and Regular Army had evidently been branded on their right cheeks with the letter “D” for “deserter.” This brutal form of punishment not only inflicted pain on its victims, but permanently marked them with the evidence of their alleged crime, ensuring that the shame would follow them long after the war.

A piece of branded skin displayed alongside branding implements employed by the British military. (Army Medical Services Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Whatever their reasons for getting them, these tattoos offer a truly fascinating glimpse into working class life in the mid-19th century. The table below provides readers with the full details of the more than 100 military prisoners who bore such markings at Clinton Prison, recording their name, age, birthplace, unit, occupation, crime, and finally, their tattoos.

Allison, Joseph22PennsylvaniaWoman and other marks on right arm, marks on left arm
Arren, James21FloridaUnassigned substituteInk marks on left hand & wrist
Ball, Edwin24MaineDesertionWoman on right arm
Beatty, Franklin20PennsylvaniaAbsence without LeaveAnchor & "F.B." on right arm
Bendell, Lewis43GermanyCitizenSelling Citizens' Clothes to Soldiers"C.B." & "E.B." on right arm
Bradley, Frederick F.24CanadaUnassigned substituteEngineerDesertionWoman on right arm
Brown, William28New YorkDesertionGoddess of Liberty on left arm
Buchanan, John22DelawareScar caused by ball on left arm above elbow. "N.B." & "J.B. E.D.S.S." Lark spot (?) near waist.
Burns, Thomas17New YorkDesertionCross, 2 letters on right arm
Burwell, Alexander21Wardsville, Ontario, Canada12th NY Indep. Btty. Light Art. (prior 26th & 86th NY)LaborerDesertionInk on left arm
Cahill, John24New YorkCitizenBounty BrokerForging Certificates of Enlistment"J.C.," anchor, and star on right arm
Callahan, Alex O.21West Virginia7th WVDesertion"A.D.O.C." on left arm
Carroll, Phillip31Ireland2nd MA Heavy Art.DesertionInk marks on both arms
Clancy, Thomas28IrelandTheftCross on left arm
Clark, Horace45Troy, NYPassing Counterfeit U.S. NotesEagle & star on left arm
Colligan, Peter18New York, NY15th NY Eng.Stone Cutter"P.C." on left arm
Conners, John18ConnecticutStar on right hand, "J.J.M.C." on right arm, "In Memory of the Father" on left arm
Cosgrove, Joseph29Baltimore, MDConspiracy &c"O.U.I." on left arm
Covart, Lewis H.24Yates Co., NY2nd NY Vet. Cav. (prior 1st NY Art.)FarmerDesertionInk marks on right arm
Devoe, Delivan22Turin, NY186th NY (prior 14th NY)PainterDesertionFlag with one star, woman to right of it on right arm, flag surrounded by female head and wreath on front of wrist, monument with inscriptions on the base, "In Memory of my Father" on left arm above elbow, large star & small star between thumb & forefinger
Divilin, James25New YorkCitizenBounty BrokerForging Certificates of EnlistmentInk marks on wrist and hands
Donaghue, Cornelius27IrelandCross, anchor, and shield on left arm
Donovan, Jeremiah D.17Boston, MAUS NavyLarcenyAnchor & cross, "J. + B." enclosed in a heart, "J.M." in ink on right arm, star on right hand, 2 crosses on left arm
Doran, John22ConnecticutAiding DesertionSailor, ship, and flag in red & black ink on right arm
Duane, Jeremiah20Ireland2nd US Art.Soldier"J.D." & small cross in red ink on right arm
Dunlap, Edward24Pennsylvania48th NYDesertionShield on left arm
Finfrock, George49Pennsylvania12th VRC (prior 9th PA Cav.)Cigar MakerInk marks on both arms
Flynn, James23IrelandEagle on left hand, two men sparring on breast
Friedley, John26Switzerland30th MALaborerMisbehavior Before the EnemyAnchor on left arm
Frye, Lewis J.25Pennsylvania3rd USLaborer"L.E.F." on left arm
Gallix, James17Massachusetts9th PA Cav.Violation of the 50th Article of WarAnchor on right arm, man on left arm
Geistwhite, Abram28Pennsylvania93rd PADesertionHeart & dagger on left breast, name on right arm & other marks in ink
Gibbon, Samuel W.21Ohio23rd IN Light Art.Name on right arm, "C.R. Gibson" on left arm
Gibson, William H.15Newark, NJ2nd US (prior 10th NY, US Navy)SailorViolation of the 50th Article of WarCoat of arms on left arm, "W.H.J." on right arm.Alias "William H. Gillson" or "William H. Jillson"
Gribben, Hugh20Antrim, Ireland68th PAAiding & Enticing Men to DesertAnchor on right hand, hand on left armPostwar service in US regulars, birthplace given as Antrim
Guilford, Elbridge W.35Randolph, MA1st MA Heavy Art.BootmakerDesertion & Forgery2 sisters & eagle on right arm, man & woman, ship, Fanny Esler [sic, Elssler] on left arm
Haffey, Billy16Albany Co., NYConspiracy &c"X" on left hand
Haley, Patrick21Ireland192nd NYLaborer"P.H." on right arm
Hanley, Frederick20GermanyDesertionCross on left arm
Hardey, Alfred T.22New Hampshire4th NHFarmerDouble heart on right arm, heart on right hand
Harrison, William25New YorkRobberyInk marks on right arm
Harrison, William H.25PennsylvaniaUS Navy?Dots in ink on both arms
Henratty, James22MarylandEnticing Soldiers to DesertSmall rude figue of a man in blue India ink on right arm just above wrist
Higgins, John17New YorkDesertionInk marks on left arm
Jones, William B.48New YorkDesertionShip on breast, two ships on back, cruxifix & man on left arm, saber cut on right hand
Kendrick, Frank42EnglandViolation of the 9th Article of WarWoman on both arms
Lamphere, Benjamin38New YorkDesertion"J.H.L." on left arm, "J.E.L.," woman, "S.L.," profile of woman on right arm
Lawrence, William A.23Ohio67th OH?LarcenyName in ink on right arm, small finger of right hand off
Levy, Raphael31Prussia (or Poland)30th MAMerchantMisbehavior in the Presence of the Enemies"R.L." on left arm
Lindsey, Alex29New York, NY16th NY Cav. (possible prior service, 53rd NY)TinsmithEagle & shield in red & black ink on right arm, man & woman in red & black ink on right arm
Lloyd, Francis19IrelandDesertion"F.L." on right arm
Marks, Oscar25Pennsylvania12th PA Cav.Marks & figures on both arms, woman on right foot
Marshall, William H.27Huntington, PA3rd US Cav (prewar Regt of Mounted Riflemen)SoldierDesertionName on right arm, letter "D" branded on right cheek
Mayne, James21Oswegatchie, NY2nd Btn VRC (prior 106th NY)FarmerLarceny"J.M." & eagle on left arm
McAdams, James18IrelandDesertionFigures "3" & "7" on left arm
McGuigen, James23IrelandUS NavySeamanDesertionBranded "D" on right cheek, anchor & star on left arm, "J.A.L.Mc." (or "Jas McG?") on right arm
McMahon, Thomas18IrelandWoman on both arms, crucifix on right arm
McNeil, John47New YorkAssuming to be a Government OfficerInk marks on both arms
Montgomery, James S.31Pennsylvania12th PA Cav.MurderIndistinct marks in India ink near wrist of left arm, scar by a knife 4 or 5 inches long on back of neck, first joint of right hand little finger & left hand thumb gone
Mullen, Henry27Tyrone, Ireland15th NY Eng.LaborerDesertion"H.M." on right arm
Murdock, William R.24New York170th NYSeamanSailor's tombstone & ship on right arm, woman's head on left armAlias "William R. Brown"
Murphy, Phillip23Vermont2nd Btn VRC (prior 111th NY)LarcenyInk marks on right arm, shot wound through left hand
Murphy, William M.25Ireland79th NYLaborerDesertionShield on right arm
Nevins, Frederick H.39Pownal, ME32nd ME (prior 17th ME & US Navy)MarinerAnchor on left arm, anchor on right hand, "T.H.N." on left arm
Nichols, William H.32New Hampshire4th NHDesertionHeart on left arm
Parker, E.J.29PennsylvaniaFraud"E.J.P." on left arm, anchor on right arm
Pearsons, Henry47England28th NY Indep. Btty Light Art.DesertionAnchor on right arm
Ploss, William H.27New York, NY127th NY (& US Navy?)SailorFemale head & bust on right arm above elbow, American coat of arm and female holding a wreath overhead on right arm below elbow, sailor holding a flag on left arm above elbow, Goddess of Liberty, French officer, & female head & bust on left arm below elbow, representation of a woman on front of left leg
Reed, William26Quebec, CanadaStriking his Superior OfficerInk marks on right arm
Reynolds, Charles21IrelandHighway RobberyCrucifix & woman on right arm, Goddess of Liberty on right arm
Richardson, Thomas23Brooklyn, NY5th NY Vet. (prior 84th NY, "14th Brooklyn")ClerkAbsence without LeaveInk marks on right arm, end of first finger of right hand off
Roberts, Daniel25Lowell, MA9th NHFarmerDesertionShield on right arm, woman on right arm
Rose, Franklin W.27Buffalo, NY180th NY?Desertion"A.E.J." on right arm, shield on right arm, fox, 2 chickens, "M.E.M." on left arm
Rose, John18Tipperary, Ireland165th NYSailorSleeping on PostFigures "5" "V" "11" (?) on left arm
Rounds, George25Maine1st ME Heavy Art.Scar of ball on right wrist. Heart on left arm.
Russ, Charles E.22Albany, NY193rd NY (prior 3rd NY & 31st NY)Desertion"C.E.R." on right arm, "C.E.R." + "E.J.S." on left arm, stars on left arm
Russel, Frank21New YorkInk marks on both arms
Russells, Levi21CanadaHabitual StragglingTwo "+" crosses on left arm
Seaback, William22GermanyCitizenAiding soldiers to desertInk marks on back of left hand
Sharp, Leonard22PennsylvaniaBurglaryInk marks on both arms
Sherwood, William22MarylandInk marks on both arms
Shields, James23IrelandDesertionDancing girl on right arm below elbow, crucifiction on left arm below elbow
Smith, Harry29Holland170th NYSailorDesertion3 women on right arm, ship on back of right hand, star near thumb on left arm, 2 women, flag, star near thumb
Smith, William48PennsylvaniaAbsence without Leave, Assault with Intent to Kill"J.B." on right arm
Snow, Jesse H.22New Brunswick, Canada7th ME, 1st ME Vet."J.H.S." on left arm
Spade, William22PennsylvaniaLetter "I" on left arm
Sprowl, George W.19Pennsylvania202nd PA?Shield on left arm, ink marks on right arm
Stekle, Paul40Germany1st NY Vet. Cav.ButcherTheftBullock's head in paint on right armAlso borne as "Stickler"
Stewart, Joshua26Liverpool, England1st US Cav.Farmer2 women on each arm
Summers, Oliver19Pennsylvania51st PALaborerCowardiceMarks in ink on left arm
Taylor, Dorsey26MarylandHolding Unauthorized Interviews with the Enemies of the U.S."D.T." on right arm
Taylor, George22England8th IL Cav.CarpenterInk on breast & both arms
Taylor, William23England8th IL Cav.MutinyMonument on breast, woman on right arm
Thiel, Nicholas22New York4th OH Cav.?Likeness of lady & band around wrist on right arm
Thomas, John H.22MarylandAiding & Abetting in Desertion"W.R.A." on right arm, shield on left arm
Vittaly, Joseph23New Jersey146th NY (prior 5th NY)Goddess of Liberty on left arm
Wallace, Edward16New YorkDesertionInk marks on left arm
Wells, Frederick B.27Maine90th NYBoatmanAbsence without LeaveInk marks on left arm
Welsh, John24AustraliaDesertionCrucifix & cross on right arm
Whitman, Daniel O.20Connecticut1st CT Heavy Art.DesertionWoman & wreath on right arm, coat of arms on left arm, cannon shell on back of hand
Wilson, John38New YorkCrucifix on right arm
Wilson, Lance L.29VirginiaCitizen (formerly 2nd VA, CSA)WorkmanAiding & Assisting Deserters"J.P.M.," "L.L.W.," & woman on right arm
Worman, Henry20Pennsylvania58th PAMan & woman on left arm

Table 2. Compiled list of Clinton Prison military inmates with tattoos, drawn from multiple sources (Brendan Hamilton)