Union Naval Landing Party for Sharp Practice

When the Civil War broke out, the Union navy had a mere 7.000 men and forty functioning ships. An intense recruitment program was started, often trying to lure men into service with exaggerated promises of prize money. At the end of the war, the navy had 51.500 men serving on 670 ships.

In contrast to soldiers, who generally had a rural background, sailors predominantly came from the urban working class. 45% of recruits were foreign-born immigrants, most of them Irish, but many from England, Canada, Germany and many more states. The navy also had a long-standing tradition of recruiting African-Americans and by the end of the Civil War, 15-20% of the men serving were black.

Sailor had the reputation of being rowdy and ill-disciplined, but they were also hard-working and proved to be quite able in combat. As the blockade of the Confederate coast was central to Union strategy, landing operations were conducted from the beginning on. Sailors were drilled with small weapons and regularly landed for shooting exercises. As boarding actions were very rare, they were not accustomed to fighting in close quarters. There was a least one occasion when they did attack enemy lines with close combat weapons (the ill-fated assault on Fort Fisher), but most of the time it seems that they preferred to shoot at the enemy from a distance. Admiral Dahlgren’s instructions from August 8, 1864 state that “skirmish drill” was most appropriate for sailors.

Sailors often operated together with a ship’s contingent of Marines. Marines were few in number – at the beginning of the war, there were only 1.800, and they never numbered more than 3.900 – but they belonged to the few regular troops available to the Federal government. Although they did fight in a couple of battles (most importantly at First Bull Run), most often they were employed in amphibious operations. They were also deployed as light infantry and would fight in open order. Shooting practice was encouraged and they were regarded as good marksmen.

Sailors were mostly armed with the Plymouth musket (Whitney Model 1861). The use of buckshot at short range was recommended by Dahlgren. Some .52 cal. Sharps and Hankins rifles were also in circulation, while pistols and cutlasses were used for assaults. Marines were armed with the Springfield rifle musket (M1855).

Sailors working a battery during the siege of Port Hudson.

One special piece of equipment was the Dahlgren Light Boat Howitzer. Its carriage had a third wheel in the trail so it could be manhandled up a beach. A very mobile weapon, it was an integrated part of landing force tactics.

Dahlgren Boat Howitzer.

Naval Landing Parties conducted a large variety of operations. An important task was scouting, especially in the maze of waterways and inlets of the South Atlantic Coast. Armed launches would be dispatched to probe a river, looking for smugglers, blockade runners and hidden batteries. They were also sent to capture and destroy Confederate ships, confiscate or destroy contraband, hunt guerillas or storm gun emplacements.

Such operations make, of course, perfect scenarios for Sharp Practice. My Force List for the Union Naval Landing Party can be found here or in the Resources section of this blog.

There are a number of figures available. In 28mm, 1st Corps offers a large variety of Marines and Sailors. Redoubt also makes landing parties.

In 15mm, Minifigs produces Sailors and Marines, although the Marines are in dress uniform which was most probably never worn in battle. QRF/Freikorp15 also offers sailors, while Peter Pig makes a very nice naval artillery crew.

Sailor standing sentry.


It is difficult to get detailed information on the operations of naval landing parties. I’m very grateful to Mr Chuck Veit, President of the reenactment group ‘U.S. Naval Landing Party’, who patiently answered my questions and generously shared his research. His website is a treasure trove of information, while his book A Dog Before a Soldier contains many ideas for scenarios. Very useful information on the Dahlgren Boat Howitzers can be found on Craig Swain’s blog To the Sound of the Guns.

Bennett, Michael J.: Union Jacks. Yankee Sailors in the Civil War, Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press 2004.

Browning, Robert M. Jr.: Success is all that was expected. The South Atlantic blockading squadron during the Civil War, Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc. 2002.

Field, Ron: American Civil War Marines 1861-65, Oxford: Osprey Publishing 2004.

Field, Ron: Bluejacket. Uniforms of the United States Navy in the Civil War Period 1852-1865, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History 2010.

Veit, Chuck: A Dog Before a Soldier. Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy’s Civil War, self-published (Lulu.com) 2010.

EDIT: As Andy Hall (of the highly recommended Dead Confederates blog) was kind enough to point out that the sailors in the first image are not actually US sailors, I've changed the image to one showing crewmen of the USS Monitor relaxing on deck.

11 thoughts on “Union Naval Landing Party for Sharp Practice

  1. Mikko March 24, 2017 / 10:10 am

    Oooh I love it when a gamer goes to full-on background mode, and with an orderly, well-formatted reference list as well! The researcher in me just did a small happy dance for that alone.

    • cptshandy March 24, 2017 / 10:37 am

      Thanks a lot! I’ve also been working as a researcher for ten years, can’t shake it off… 🙂

  2. Nicholas Caldwell March 24, 2017 / 9:24 pm

    Wow! GREAT post and great work. I wasn’t at all familiar with this aspect of American history. Once I started reading I couldn’t stop – this is great stuff!

  3. Andy Hall March 27, 2017 / 8:46 pm

    Good stuff here.

    One minor point, though — that first image is of sailors from the Russian screw corvette Varyag, taken at New York in 1864. The four men at center are boatswain’s mates, as indicated by the call (whistle) worn on chains as part of their uniform.

    • cptshandy March 27, 2017 / 8:54 pm

      Oh, thanks for pointing that out! That is an embarrassing mistake – I should perhaps change image.

      And I liked Bennett’s book but sometimes felt he drew rather grand conclusions out of some pretty meager sources, some of which could perhaps be interpreted in different ways (as far as I can tell with my very limited knowledge of the subject).

  4. Andy Hall March 27, 2017 / 8:47 pm

    That’s a good reading list, too — I especially recommend Bennett’s Union Jacks.

  5. Thenainblanc April 3, 2017 / 5:54 pm

    Great article ! Do you know some 15mm minis for marines?

    • cptshandy April 3, 2017 / 6:47 pm

      Thanks! Minifigs and Freikorp15 produce marines, but in parade dress which was never used in battle. I used Peter Pig Union infantry and just painted white crossbelts and white trousers.

  6. Michael Peterson April 6, 2017 / 7:38 pm

    This is a terrific, informative post. I also recommend James McPherson’s recent book on the ACW at sea.
    Sarissa makes some lovely laser-cut ironclads in 28mm and I am thinking I need them …. since I do 28mm, I would need sailors and gun crew in that scale … Redoubt Miniatures might do, I think.
    Lots of opportunities for SP landing actions, looking forward to seeing what you get up to.

    • cptshandy April 7, 2017 / 9:13 am

      Thanks Mike, glad I could infect you with the naval virus! 🙂 McPherson’s book sounds good, I’ll check it out.

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