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The Soldier's Load: Carrying All - Part II

Updated: Feb 12

Pvt. Albert H. Davis, Co. E, 9th New Hampshire Infantry, is shown here in heavy marching order. (Library of Congress)


In this CVBT history email, we continue sharing some information on the various pieces of equipment that Civil War infantry soldiers commonly wore and carried while on the march and in battle. Knowing what gear soldiers were working with is an important step to better understanding their challenges and capabilities on the battlefields that CVBT works to preserve.

While Part I covered primarily the military items that soldiers carried (musket/rifle, bayonet and scabbard, cartridge box, cap pouch, and waist belt), Part II examines additional pieces of equipment soldiers utilized to help provide some creature comforts, endure the elements, and maintain their health as much as was possible.

If you missed "The Soldier's Load: Carrying All - Part I," and wish to read it, you can do so by clicking here.


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Although Civil War canteens came in a variety of styles, they were most commonly made of tin. The Federals primarily manufactured a disc-shaped canteen that came issued in either a “smoothside” model or one with corrugated concentric rings stamped in the tin and known as a “bullseye” canteen. Confederates generally produced tin or wooden “drum” style canteens. Southerners also often picked up discarded or previously used Union canteens from the battlefield. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Pvt. John Walters of the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues mentioned in his diary about picking up a canteen. Photographs of captured and killed soldiers provide solid evidence that Confederates used Federal canteens widely. Some canteens came with wool covers, while others did not. The stoppers were either cork or wood and affixed to the canteen body with a string or light chain. Leather, cotton/canvas, or cord slings ran through sling loops on the vessel’s body to help the soldier carry it.

This unidentified Federal Corps soldier holds his Model 1858 smoothside canteen

with cloth cover and canvas strap as if ready to take a drink. (Library of Congress)

Canteens typically held about three pints of water. Thus, when full, they weighed a little over three pounds. While on the march or in battle, three pints of water went fast. Not knowing when the next opportunity would come to refill their canteens, soldiers kept a constant lookout for water sources. Canteens also came in handy for carrying other types of consumable liquids that soldiers encountered. Milk, molasses, honey, and of course, alcohol, all found their way into soldiers’ canteens at various times.

These Union and Confederate soldiers pose for studio photographs with their various styles of canteens.

(Library of Congress)

Some soldiers repurposed damaged or discarded canteens by taking the two halves apart, thus creating an eating dish or small tin frying pan. Canteen halves also came in handy when soldiers had nothing else to use to dig in constructing impromptu earthworks.



Unidentified Federal soldier wearing a full haversack. (Library of Congress)

Civil War soldiers primarily used their issued or homemade haversacks to store their food rations and eating utensils. Although haversacks came in many styles, they almost all had a closure flap that buttoned or buckled to keep the contents in place and as dry as possible. A shoulder strap sewn to the bag portion made it easy for the soldier to carry.

Federal haversacks were often painted or “tarred” to help keep the food from getting wet. Confederate haversacks mainly came in cotton and canvas varieties, but they also often picked up Federal haversacks for their use.

Pvt. Elijah Leach, Co. B, 31st Virginia Infantry, wears a painted haversack.

(Library of Congress)

As one might imagine, toting hardtack crackers, corn meal, flour, salt, coffee, sugar, rice, and greasy portions of cooked pork or beef made a terrible mess inside soldiers’ haversacks; and as one soldier referred to his, “odiferous.” Some haversacks came with a removable inside bag or sewn-in divider that helped keep items separate. The inside bag could be washed or replaced as needed. Many soldiers preferred to keep food items in individual bags or “pokes” inside the haversack.

It was typical for soldiers on campaign to receive three days of rations (sometimes more) at a time. For Federal soldiers that usually meant carrying at least 30 hardtack crackers and three pounds of meat, along with any issued supplemental ration items. In addition, utensils, a tin plate, and a cup also added weight to the haversack. Items that didn’t fit into the haversack usually went into the soldiers’ pockets, a knapsack or bedroll, or they simply did without.


Knapsacks and Blanket Rolls

Unidentified Federal infantryman sports a knapsack with rolled up blanket on top.

(Library of Congress)

In his post-war memoir, Carlton McCarthy, who served in the Richmond Howitzers, noted that, “reduced to the minimum, the private soldier consisted of one man, one hat, one jacket, one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of drawers, one pair of shoes, and one pair of socks. His baggage was one blanket, one rubber blanket, and one haversack.” Being an artillerist, McCarthy did not have to carry as many personal equipment items as his infantryman cohorts did, but his pared-down list also exemplifies the foot soldier’s learned lesson to travel as light as they could.

While infantry soldiers preferred the lightest load possible, they still needed a place to store some personal items. Some preferred issued knapsacks, while others utilized their blankets as improvised totes. Keeping an extra pair of socks, drawers, and a spare shirt significantly improved the comfort of soldiers without adding much weight. In addition, many soldiers wished to keep a photograph or two, a housewife (sewing kit), toothbrush, razor, playing cards, paper and writing utensil(s), pocket Bible, letters from home, and even extra cartridges, if expecting battle. A knapsack was ideal for such items.

Like other pieces of equipment, Federal and Confederate knapsacks came in a variety of styles. For example, Berdan’s Sharpshooters received knapsacks with a wood frame covered with calfskin, hair side out. Some knapsacks were single-bag models while others consisted of two compartments. Most knapsacks though consisted of painted canvas, and once filled with the above items, as well as a wool blanket and rubber “gum” blanket or oil cloth, it proved a durable carryall. While in camp or on campaign, some soldiers also used their knapsacks for lap desks to write letters home, or as a pillow. Before heading into battle soldiers often stacked knapsacks in piles and assigned a guard. However, many knapsacks became lost if the regiment or company advanced or retreated too far to easily reacquire them, or they came into possession of the advancing enemy.

Federal soldier with knapsack and blanket roll on top. (Library of Congress)

Civil War knapsacks were not the ergonomic outfits used by long-distance hikers today. The leather straps cut into shoulders, and those with wood frames could rub the skin raw and strain the wearer’s back muscles. When soldiers wanted to lighten their loads, they often either removed and discarded a blanket, overcoat, or other heavy items; some men even left behind whole knapsacks—minus irreplaceable personal items—hoping they would come across another one somewhere along their travels.

Soldiers who preferred less encumbered travel or did not want the discomfort of leather straps on their shoulders would typically wrap their personal belongings up in their wool blanket and then layer it with their shelter half and rubber blanket, tie the ends together, and wear it over one shoulder.

Soldiers were pragmatic individuals. Within proscribed regulations, they adapted how they carried their personal belongings to suit their personal needs and comfort.

The Confederate soldier in the center wears his blanket roll in common style, but also appears to have a knapsack of some sort. Note that these soldiers also carry Federal canteens.

(Library of Congress)


Rubber Blanket

Unidentified Confederate soldier from Company E, 11th Virginia Infantry with a hard frame knapsack and bedroll wrapped in a rubber blanket. (Library of Congress)

Staying healthy was a constant concern for Civil War soldiers. Threats came from all directions. If bodily harm did not arrive in the form of enemy bullets, shot, and shell, a soldier’s diet, and unsanitary living conditions often fostered potentially deadly digestive and communicable diseases. In addition, climate and exposure to the elements increased the chance of contracting ailments like the common cold or pneumonia. One method soldiers used to limit their exposure to the elements was through either being issued or acquiring a rubber blanket. Civil War soldiers often commented on the value they placed in their rubber blankets. Many believed that if they could stay dry, they could also stay warm, and if they could stay warm, they had a better chance of maintaining their good health.

During the mid-19th century, raw rubber came from the sap of a tropical tree. It proved difficult to work within a production setting until Charles Goodyear discovered the chemical process for vulcanizing rubber and received a patent in the 1840s. The United States military became an early customer for companies that made rubber-coated products such as shoes, gloves, hats, blankets, ponchos, and other items. The Civil War skyrocketed sales of rubberized goods.

A Federal soldier models the poncho version of the rubber blanket. (Public domain)

Rubber blankets varied in size depending on the manufacturer, and sometimes the soldier's branch of service, but commonly measured about 60 inches by 70 inches. The edges of the blanket often had brass eyelets used to tie it in place or attach other rubber blankets to form a larger surface. The fabric backing to which the rubber adhered sometimes became a surface that soldiers used by marking it for camp games like checkers, chess, faro, or chuck-a-luck. Often worn rolled around their wool blanket on top of their knapsacks, or slung over their shoulder, rubber blankets afforded the soldier a layer of protection and at least a measure of comfort in all too unpredictable environments.


Tin Cups

Drummer boy Johnny Jacobs sports a tin cup that is almost as big as his face

and suspended from a rope. (Library of Congress)

Although not adding much weight to a soldier’s load, the ever-present tin cup became a vital piece of equipment for Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs. Often seen in period photographs, tin cups varied greatly in design and capacity. Perhaps the most common surviving examples are those that are about four inches tall and about four inches in diameter with a wire-reinforced handle.

Soldiers used their tin cups for a plethora of camp and field tasks. Tin cups helped them make coffee, the favored drink among soldiers. Cups also did duty as mixing bowls for corn meal or flour rations. While on the march and unable to take time to fill canteens, cups made scooping water from buckets, barrels, and streams easier and quicker. When desperate times called for desperate measures, cups even served as makeshift digging tools.

As previously mentioned, Civil War soldiers minimized what they had to carry when possible, however, due to its usefulness, a tin cup was a highly valued piece of equipment that almost every soldier carried.


Adding It Up

Totaling the weight that Civil War soldiers typically carried lends an even greater appreciation for their perseverance and endurance. While the weight of each piece of equipment may vary from soldier to soldier, the following weights are approximate and conservative:

Haversack (with 3 days rations) = 6 lbs.

Cartridge box and sling (with 40 cartridges) = 5 lbs.

Bayonet and scabbard = 2 lbs.

Cap pouch and waist belt = 1.5 lbs.

Canteen & tin cup (with 3 pints of water) = 3.5 lbs.

Knapsack (with shelter half, wool blanket, & personal items) = 15 lbs.

Rubber blanket = 3 lbs.

Rifle musket = 9 lbs.

Total = 45 lbs.

When considering that the average Civil War soldier weighed about 145 lbs., it is pretty impressive that they could carry so much weight for significant distances and through all types of weather.

Pvt. James T. Miller, 111th Pennsylvania, wrote about his Chancellorsville Campaign soldier's load in a letter to his brother following the battle: "having marched sixty miles in five days with a load on our backs that was enough to kill a mule, for eight days rations and sixty rounds of cartridges and his blanket tent and gum blanket and equipments made a load of at least forty pounds and that is load enough to make a felows back ache."


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 quickly learned not to carry any more than the necessities. Items originally deemed vital became superfluous after a march of any serious distance.

(Image from Corporal Si Klegg and His "Pard" by Wilbur F. Hinman, published 1887)

"If you were to follow the column after, say, the first two miles, you would find various articles scattered along at intervals by the roadside, where a soldier quietly stepped out of the ranks, sat down, unslung his knapsack or blanket-roll, took out what he had decided to throw away, again equipped himself, and, thus relieved, hastened on to overtake the regiment. It did not take an army long to get into light marching order after it was once fairly on the road."

Pvt. John D. Billings, 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery, in his book Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life.


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Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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