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The Soldier's Load: Carrying All - Part I

Updated: Feb 12

"Washing Day--Column on the March," May 5, 1864, sketched by Edwin Forbes

(Library of Congress)


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Smoothbore Muskets and Rifle Muskets

The most important piece of equipment that Civil War infantry soldiers carried was their musket or rifle. Some soldiers began their service using old flintlock smoothbore muskets. However, as armories ramped up manufacturing, imported foreign-made guns flowed in, and other weapons received conversion to percussion ignition and re-boring to rifles, fewer and fewer of the old-style firearms remained in the ranks. It took some time to get Civil War soldiers armed with the most effective shoulder arms of the day, but by the summer of 1863, the majority of fighting men were armed with rifled weapons. Soldiers favored rifles due largely to their accuracy, dependability, and potential rate of fire.

Federal rifles came largely in the various Springfield models, which the Springfield Armory produced in Massachusetts. A number of different contract manufacturers also made rifles on the Springfield patterns. Additionally, the United States army also imported large numbers of British Enfield rifles, a smaller number of Austrian-made Lorenz rifles, as well as some from other countries.

This unidentified Federal VI Corps soldier is holding a

Model 1855 Springfield rifle musket. (Library of Congress)

The Confederate States of America manufactured their own weapons, too, some using machinery captured from the Harpers Ferry armory in 1861, that they then transported to Richmond. These firearms were similar in pattern to the Springfield. The Fayetteville Arsenal in North Carolina also produced rifles, as did several other small arms manufacturers across the South. The Confederate army relied heavily on imported weapons, too, particularly Enfields, and on captured Federal weapons that they took from prisoners, gathered from the battlefields, and then inspected, cleaned, repaired, and reissued.

Unidentified Confederate Soldier with a

British Enfield rifle musket (Library of Congress)

The typical Springfield or Enfield rifle was a single-shot muzzleloading weapon with a percussion cap ignition system and weighed about nine or ten pounds. A well-trained soldier could load and fire about three shots per minute. However, the rate of fire could drop significantly depending on many factors, including fouling buildup inside the barrel. Manufactured primarily in the .58 (Springfield) or .577 (Enfield) calibers, rifles had the power to penetrate six inches of pine boards at 500 yards. However, most combat situations occurred at 200 yards and less. Although considerably slower when compared to present-day military weapons, the common muzzle velocity on Civil War rifles was approximately 900 feet per second.

Due to company and regiment upgrades, combat damage, and sometimes carelessness, soldiers did not always end their service with the weapons they started with. Yet, many soldiers formed a close attachment to their rifle. Some Federal soldiers took advantage of the option to purchase their rifle at a reduced cost at the end of the war to use for hunting, protection, and as a keepsake.


Bayonet and Scabbard

Unidentified Federal soldier holding an Enfield rifle musket

with affixed bayonet (Library of Congress)

Socket bayonets that fit over the muzzle of shoulder weapons allowed a soldier to continue loading and firing while affixed, and had been around for over a century before the Civil War. The vast majority of Civil War bayonets were the socket type with triangular-shaped blades. The triangular blade design made the bayonet structurally stronger than an edged blade and potentially inflicted a nasty puncture wound.

Unidentified Confederate soldier holding an Enfield rifle musket with

bayonet and scabbard on his waist belt. (Library of Congress)

A leather scabbard hung from the soldier’s waist belt to hold the bayonet and help protect the wearer or comrades from accidents. Unfortunately, unintentional bayonet injuries occurred in camp, during drill, and in parade exercises. Although injuries from bayonets made up a very small proportion of overall battle wounds, there were occasions when belligerents used their bayonets in combat, proving particularly intimidating in offensive situations.

However, soldiers usually found more practical uses for bayonets in camp or on campaign than in battle. They made good candle holders, improvised earth picks, and rope stakes for shelter and tent flies. And while some soldiers preferred to discard the extra weight due to its lack of use, Federal and Confederate regulations included instructions for deducting the pay of soldiers who lost bayonets and scabbards.


Cartridge Box

Pvt. John Alldredge, Co. A, 48th Alabama Infantry, with a Model 1842 Springfield

musket and shoulder sling cartridge box (Library of Congress)

Soldiers who utilized single-shot muzzleloading weapons were typically issued between 40 and 60 rounds of ammunition when a battle appeared imminent. The cartridge box usually held 40 cartridges, which came wrapped in paper packages of ten. If issued more than 40 cartridges, soldiers put the surplus rounds in their pockets, knapsack, blanket roll, or a combination of places. Individual cartridges contained the lead projectile and a proper measure of black powder, all wrapped in a paper tube to help make the loading process as efficient as possible.

The basic loading process involved nine steps: 1. Receive the order to load; 2. Handle cartridge (remove from cartridge box); 3. Tear cartridge (with teeth while holding in right hand); 4. Charge cartridge (pour powder down barrel and seat the bullet in the barrel; 5. Draw rammer (remove the ramrod from under the barrel); 6. Ram cartridge (using the ramrod, push the bullet to the breech); 7. Return rammer (place rammer back); 8. Prime (place percussion cap on the ignition cone); 9. Shoulder arms (to prepare to receive firing commands of ready, aim, fire).

Soldiers wore their leather cartridge boxes on a sling over the left shoulder, which caused the box to rest on the right hip and allowed quick access for the right hand. Some cartridge boxes had belt loops on the back for wearing on a waist belt. Federal cartridge box slings usually had a round brass plate attached to it embossed with an eagle.

Inside the cartridge box there were usually metal “tins” that held the loose and packaged cartridges. Open compartments in the top of the tins held twenty cartridges for easy access, while the remaining 20 cartridges were in a reserve lower compartment of the tins. The cartridge box's outer leather flap kept the contents secured, while an additional inner flap provided extra protection from the elements and helped keep cartridges in place if the user forgot to fasten down the main outer flap. The outer flap on Federal cartridge boxes usually had a stamped brass "US" plate on it.

Also, on the front of the cartridge box, but protected by the outer flap, a small compartment was usually available to hold cleaning materials and the primary rifle musket tools that armies issued soldiers. For Federal soldiers these often included a wiper (to help remove debris in the barrel) that threaded on the ramrod, a combination cone wrench and screwdriver tool, and a tompion that fit inside the muzzle to keep debris out of the barrel when not in use.

Unidentified Federal soldier holding a Springfield rifle musket and wearing a cartridge box with US plate. Note that although this is a reverse image photograph, his waist belt buckle is upside down(Library of Congress)


Cap Pouch and Waist Belt

Unidentified Federal soldier wearing cap pouch and leather

waist belt with oval US buckle. (Library of Congress)

By mid-1862 most Civil War soldiers no longer used weapons with flintlock ignition systems. While some continued to carry smoothbore muskets, most of the old flintlocks were discarded or received conversions to the percussion cap system. Percussion caps were much more reliable at igniting the cartridge charges than flint and steel, particularly in adverse weather conditions.

Made of brass or copper and resembling a tiny top hat, percussion caps contained a contact explosive chemical called mercuric fulminate inside the cap. When the weapon’s lock hammer struck the cap, it sent a spark through the firing cone into the breech end of the barrel igniting the black powder charge, which propelled the projectile forward out the barrel.

To supply caps, each package of ten cartridges that soldiers received also contained a paper roll of 12 percussion caps. The additional two caps per package of cartridges ensured extras in case the soldier dropped a cap or two while loading.

Unidentified Confederate soldier with cap pouch and waist

belt with rectangular C.S.A. buckle. (Library of Congress)

The armies issued leather cap pouches to soldiers to hold their percussion caps. Typically worn at the front right of the body on a waist belt, the cap pouch (like the cartridge box) had an outer and inner flap to keep the caps in place. As an added measure, often a small layer of lambswool placed at the mouth of the pouch kept caps from jangling out in case the soldier forgot to secure the outer flap. Cap pouches also usually included a cone pick, a stiff wire used to clean carbon buildup inside the rifle’s ignition cone. Too much carbon buildup could cause a misfire.

The soldier’s leather waist belt usually featured a stamped or cast brass buckle. Belt buckles came in a multitude of styles. Oval-shaped stamped brass lead-filled versions featuring the letters US or CS were common. So, too, were square frame buckles for Confederates, and rectangle ones with an eagle on it for Federal officers. Some buckles had intricate interlocking halves. In addition to the cap pouch, as mentioned above, the waist belt also supported the bayonet and its scabbard and sometimes the cartridge box.


Sources and Suggested Reading

Gregory Coco. The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, On the March, and In Battle. Thomas Publishing, 1996.

Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy. Time-Life Books, 1996.

Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union. Time-Life Books, 1996.


Parting Shot

Civil War soldiers typically carried 60 cartridges into expected combat. The cartridge box held 40 rounds, while the other 20 were stored in their pockets, knapsack, or blanket roll. When their cartridges ran out, if possible, more were brought forward in wooden ammunition boxes like the ones shown above from the Petersburg trenches. Note the two leather cartridge boxes in the center and the spilled package of cartridges on the bottom right. (Library of Congress)

"To keep up the supply of ammunition pack mules were brought into use, each animal carrying three thousand rounds. The boxes were dropped close behind the troops engaged, which were quickly opened by the officers or file-closers, who served the ammunition to the men."

Pvt. George Norton Galloway, 95th Pennsylvania Inf., describing May 12, 1864, at Spotsylvania Court House.



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