Pre-World War One Navy Recruiting Posters

A theme which runs through the history of the United States is the need for manpower for the armed services. For much of our history, the United States has maintained very small armed forces during times of peace. Most continental European powers maintained large standing armies and/or navies relative to the US.

When men were needed to fill out the ranks of the army and navy, the states and the Federal government called for volunteers. While various efforts were made to get men to enlist, the ubiquitous recruiting poster, still a part of American life, was critical. No matter what era they are from, recruiting posters have used some, or all, of the following messaging: our enemies are fiends, your country needs you, other able bodied men are serving so why aren’t you, we can’t win unless YOU volunteer, men are needed now to “man” the guns. (This last one being a favorite since it implies that the cannons and machine guns are sitting on the front line facing the enemy but there is no one to fire them.)

The following posters are from the Civil War but there is something very unusual about them. Each one was printed after March of 1863, that is after the passage of the Conscription Act, the first time conscription had been legislated in the United States. (The Confederacy also passed a conscription act.) This was very unpopular and led to civil disturbances, the most serious being the New York City draft riots in July of 1863. These were finally put down when Union troops, still elated (and still dirty) from their great victory over the South at Gettysburg, were entrained almost from the battlefield and sent to New York City. There they deployed and opened fire on the mobs. That ended the rioting.

Poster #1 Civil War US Navy Recruiting Poster. Poster published on behalf of the Naval Rendezvous, Salem, Massachusetts, offering US Navy service as an attractive alternative to the wartime military draft.

If you look at poster #1 the message is very to the point: “The Conscript Bill! How To Avoid It!!” Rather than be dragged into the army with a high possibility of being killed or wounded, join the navy instead. “$50,000,000 Prizes!” This is a reference to “prize money.” If your ship captured a Confederate blockade runner, for instance, a Federal Prize Agent would purchase or auction the cargo and the ship. The Federal government took a cut and the rest was divided among the officers and men of the ship which had done the capturing. The officers received most of the money but the men received some of it. If you read the fine print, however, you will note that the $50,000,000 refers to prizes already taken.

Poster #2 Civil War US Navy Recruiting Poster. Poster published on behalf of the Naval Rendezvous, New Berne, North Carolina, 2 November 1863.

Poster #2 has a similar though more muted message: “Men Wanted For the Navy!” Note the next sentence in much smaller letters: “All able-bodied men not in the employment of the Army, will be enlisted into the Navy…” Men of the time would have know exactly what that meant: “if you don’t want to get your ass shot off in the Army, come over here and we will enlist you in the Navy right away!” Of even more interest on poster #2 is the place and the date: “New Berne, N.C. Nov 2nd 1863.”

“New Berne, N.C.” now known as “New Bern” was a small river port and rail junction which formed part of the Confederate supply chain used to move rations and supplies to General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It was seized by Union troops after a brief engagement in March of 1862. I have rarely seen a Union recruiting poster issued in a captured area of the Confederacy since most of the men would already be in the Confederate Army or would have fled. Being a port, however, New Bern may have had sailors from other places trapped there by the Civil War who would serve in the Union Navy. Additionally, “draft dodging” in the Confederacy was a major problem. Confederate Army units would sweep large areas, especially in Western North Carolina, to try and catch young men who were on the run from the conscript officers. (It is worth noting that North Carolina, not Virginia, suffered more military deaths than the other southern states.)

Poster #3 Civil War US Navy Recruiting Poster. Poster published on behalf of the Naval Rendezvous, Roanoke Island, North Carolina, 8 December 1863.

Poster #3 is similar to Poster #2 in that it was issued by Union headquarters on Roanoke Island, NC, in December 1863, the area having been seized by Union troops in early February of 1862. Presumably the same reasons to join the Navy existed as explained above. It’s worth noting that every Southern state, except South Carolina, had regiments on both sides and while many Southern officers left the Federal Army and took up arms with the South, many did not. The romantic image of the entire South united against the North is post-bellum drivel and I say this as an 8th generation Southerner.

Of additional interest in this poster is the line which says “Come Forward and Serve Your Country Without Conscription.” The wording is interesting: “come forward” implies that men had heretofore been unwilling to declare their support for the Union. The second part of the sentence, that one should join to prevent being conscripted, suggests the Conscription Act was being enforced on Southern territory seized by the North. I’m not entirely sure about this. Certain border areas were subject to conscription but I think the poster was written by someone who wasn’t entirely clear. Certainly being occupied Confederate territory, the Conscription Act would not be in force. And since the Conscription Act applied only to “citizens of the United States”, this meant blacks, who were not legally citizens, were not subject to conscription, one of the major causes of the draft riots in New York City.

Former Confederate soldiers did serve in the Union cavalry but these men were recruited from Union POW camps and were all deliberately sent to the West to fight the Indians.

I know I have many readers who are Civil War buffs so if you can enlighten us about the applicability of the Conscription Act on former Confederate territory, I would be grateful.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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