Powder Monkey and Ship’s Boy

sharp photo

Boys, like this one aboard the U.S.S. New Hampshire, were called powder monkeys because they ran bags of gunpowder from the stores below deck to the gun crews, moving with speed and agility.  These boy assistants, as young as 10 years old, slept in hammocks below the gun decks.  They were selected for their job because of their speed and height – short so they would be hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, keeping them from being shot by enemy ships’ sharp shooters.


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Twelve-year-old Henry Messhage was a 1st class boy or ship’s boy or powder monkey, seen here with a bag of powder for one of the ship’s guns.  When not in combat, these boys served as personal assistants to the officers, cook’s helpers, and general helpers for whoever needed them, assigned to whatever odd jobs needed to be done.

George Hollat, a 16-year-old powder monkey on board the U.S.S. Varuna during an attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April 1862, received the Medal of Honor for his bravery during battle. His citation reads, “He rendered gallant service through the perilous action and remained steadfast and courageous at his battle station despite extremely heavy fire and the ramming of the Varuna by the rebel ship Morgan, continuing his efforts until his ship, repeatedly holed and fatally damaged, was beached and sunk.”


Credit: Massachusetts Commanders Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the U.S. Army Military History Institute, and other on line sources under “Civil War powder monkeys”


next: Julian Scott, fifer and artist


4 Responses to “Powder Monkey and Ship’s Boy”

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  3. Gene Hullinghorst says:

    Would these boys be listed on the crew list of the ship? My great, great grandfather told the story of being a powder monkey on the Lawrence during the Battle of Lake Erie.

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