Site Overlay
atavistmas-1590626069-59.jpg

Material Culture

U.S. Navy Watch Marks, 1861-65

To ensure the safe operation of a United States Navy vessel during the antebellum and Civil War years, time onboard ship was divided into watches reckoned by the ring of a ship’s bell. According to Boy First Class Charles Nordhoff, who served aboard the ship-of-the-line Columbus from 1845 through 1848, five standard watches of four hours each, and a pair of shorter two-hour periods called a “dog watch,” occurred each day. At the end of the first half hour of a watch, the ship’s bell struck one; at the end of the second half hour, it struck two, and so on, until it was eight bells, which marked the expiration of four hours, or a watch. The series recommenced with a new watch on duty. To facilitate this system, a ship’s crew divided into port (left) and starboard (right) watches. Some ship commanders ordered that distinctive watch marks be worn on the sleeves of enlisted sailors’ clothing, as to distinguish the particular watch.

Origins

As regulations did not mention watch marks, there is no means of determining their origins or earliest use. One can logically assume that individual ship commanders employed them during antebellum times.

How they were worn

Watch marks attached to the upper sleeves of garments were worn by enlisted sailors. In a letter written from the U.S. steam frigate Minnesota in June 1863, Landsman Charles H. Badger described how they were worn aboard his vessel. “A diamond one inch in length, worked with white or black thread on a piece of cloth and sewed on the left arm of the shirt, frock, jacket or coat, denotes the wearer belongs to the port watch. A star on the left arm shows that the man belongs to the starboard watch.” Although Badger states that watch marks aboard Minnesota were worn on various types of clothing, extant images and garments show them only on the upper sleeves of dark blue jumpers, over-shirts, and white frocks. Different marking systems appeared on other vessels. Images of crewmembers aboard the U.S. steamers Mendota and Santiago de Cuba show narrow horizontal strips of white cloth on left or right sleeves dependent on the watch.

Examples

Members of the crew manning a 10-inch Parrott gun aboard the Sassacus class gunboat Mendota have horizontal watch marks on the sleeves of their jumpers. Albumen by an anonymous photographer. United States Army Heritage & Education Center, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Photograph Album Vol. 15, p. 702.
Members of the crew manning a 10-inch Parrott gun aboard the Sassacus class gunboat Mendota have horizontal watch marks on the sleeves of their jumpers. Albumen by an anonymous photographer. United States Army Heritage & Education Center, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Photograph Album Vol. 15, p. 702.
Identified on the reverse of this image only as “‘Jim.’ Steward. Star[boar]d Steerage Mess,” this sailor wears a diamond-shaped watch mark on the left sleeve of his jumper, which indicated the starboard watch on his particular vessel. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Identified on the reverse of this image only as “‘Jim.’ Steward. Star[boar]d Steerage Mess,” this sailor wears a diamond-shaped watch mark on the left sleeve of his jumper, which indicated the starboard watch on his particular vessel. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. National Museum of African American History & Culture.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: This sailor wears a crudely sewn five-pointed star on his right sleeve denoting that he belonged to the starboard watch aboard his vessel. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Courtesy Lynda Setty of the Rinker Collection; The right sleeve of this sailor of the starboard bears a star mark, above which is small vertical white strip with unknown significance. Carte de visite by R.A. Lord of New York City. Author’s collection; Wearing a white frock, this boy sailor has a watch mark consisting of a dark blue star on a round white cloth patch edged with dark blue. Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: This sailor wears a crudely sewn five-pointed star on his right sleeve denoting that he belonged to the starboard watch aboard his vessel. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Courtesy Lynda Setty of the Rinker Collection; The right sleeve of this sailor of the starboard bears a star mark, above which is small vertical white strip with unknown significance. Carte de visite by R.A. Lord of New York City. Author’s collection; Wearing a white frock, this boy sailor has a watch mark consisting of a dark blue star on a round white cloth patch edged with dark blue. Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.

References: Nordhoff, Man-of-War Life. A Boy’s Experience in the United States Navy. During a Voyage Around the World in a Ship-of the-line; “Letter from the Navy…U.S. Frigate Minnesota, Fortress Monroe, Va.,” Cedar Falls Gazette (Cedar Falls, Iowa), July 3, 1863.

Ron Field is a Senior Editor of MI.

VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.

Scroll Up