1863: James A. Gifford to Elihu H. Gifford

Black and White Sailors often served together working and living in tight quarters aboard US Navy vessels. This letter reveals it was not always in complete harmony.

The following letter was written by James A. Gifford (1843-1903), the son of Elihu H. Gifford (1809-1871) and Ann Tripp (1812-1877) of New Bedford, Bristol county, Massachusetts.

James wrote the letter to his parents while serving aboard the USS Release—a bark-rigged sailing vessel. During the period of time James was aboard the Release, she served as an ordnance storeship based at Beaufort, North Carolina, for ships blockading the southern coast from Wilmington, NC, to Norfolk, Va. According to the Veteran’s Records, James entered the US Navy in August 1863 and was discharged in November 1865. There are 38 of Gifford’s letters that have been archived in the Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina. They have been digitized and are available on the web at James Gifford Papers, 1863-1865. The collection has been summarized as follows:

This collection consists of 38 letters that James Gifford, who apparently joined the United States Navy in September 1863, wrote to his parents in New Bedford, Mass., while he was aboard the United States Bark Release anchored off Beaufort, N.C. All of the letters are addressed to his father Elihu H. Gifford 39 Smith Street and begin “Dear Parents.”

Letters from 1863 provide little information about Gifford’s naval responsibilities and say little about what he did in civilian life. At the time these letters were written, Gifford was apparently working as an assistant to the ship’s doctor, who was, according to Gifford, a very unpopular character among the ship’s crew. In early 1864, Gifford became paymaster steward, a position that gave him access to information about the prices and availability of goods both on board ship and on land. Many of the letters describe how far Gifford’s salary could be stretched relative to prices that fluctuated considerably. In the same vein, there is much talk about Gifford’s sending lengths of fabric to his parents and their returning finished articles of clothing to him. There is also considerable traffic in local newspapers and other reading matter requested by Gifford, who, until late 1864, seems to have had a great deal of time on his hands.

While the letters contain a good deal of personal griping, in almost every letter, Gifford also reported on events of larger significance that were taking shape all around him. In many of his letters, he wrote of troop and ship movements and the pursuit and capture of blockade runners. He also reported rumors of Union victories in Kinston, N.C., and Goldsboro, N.C. (12 March 1864); the burning of the Cape Lookout Light (3 April 1864) and of Washington, N.C. (2 May 1864); the outbreak of yellow fever in Beaufort and New Bern (September-October 1864); and the assembling in Beaufort of a large fleet in preparation for an attack on Wilmington, N.C.

During the period in which these letters were written, Gifford appears to have had few occasions to leave the Release. Aside from infrequent shore leaves, he made one journey home in September 1864 (21 September 1864) and two training missions with the paymaster of the steamship Lillian.

Coverage of Gifford’s activities and the news he reports may appear to be spotty. One of the reasons for this is that mail delivery was not reliable, a fact bemoaned frequently by Gifford in these letters, especially when a long awaited item never arrives because the request was never received in New Bedford.


Addressed to Mr. Elihu H. Gifford, New Bedford, Mass.

U. S. Bark Release
December 13th 1863

Dear Parents,

Not having a chance to write all I wanted to yesterday when the doctor started, I will finish today. Day before yesterday I received six or seven papers from you and yesterday one letter from you and one from Sue. Also three more papers (two daily papers and one weekly). I am now chief cook and bottle washer since the doctor has gone. I say it is good riddance to bad rubbish and the longer he stays away, the better I will like it.

Since my last letter there has been one prize taken. When chased she was loaded with cotton but it got a fire some way and when she came in here, all the wood work was burnt off of her. She was a new steamer and built about two months (Iron). They have run her aground and will take out her engine.

Night before last we had quite an exciting time on board of the vessel. Some of the crew got drunk and made some disturbance. We had a regular nigger riot. My darkey got rapped over the head once or twice with a belaying pin and he came on deck yelling. Another nigger got kicked about some and had his clothes hove overboard. They (our officers) proceeded to put some of the men in irons which some resisted in having on and they had quite a scrape with them for a few minutes. The officers armed themselves with revolvers and drove the men into the forecastle by pointing the pistols at the mens heads which they put the irons on. We have had three men in double irons ever since and feed them on bread and water. The most laughable part of it was that the doctor was pretty scared and bucked on his sword to defend himself with.

A belaying pin from 19th Century Sailing Vessel used to secure lines of running rigging

It has been quite warm for the last two days. We had quite a blow last night with considerable rain. This morning the breakers on the beach are making a loud noise.

I have had one letter from Charlie Price since I went up to Newbern. What do you think of my drawing some flannel. It is best or not at 72 cents a yard? Is there any prospect of its rising? Please see what it is in New Bedford.

I see Wilcox has some trouble in launching his new vessel by what I see in the papers. I can’t think of any more to write about at present and I will close. If you see Josiah, tell him to write when he gets settled anywhere.

All for the present, from Jim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s