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Union and Confederate knapsacks and blanket rolls

Posted on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at 12:57 pm

There has been much debate on the use of knapsacks and blanket rolls in battle. Did soldiers wear them? When did they take them off? Maybe a look at what the soldiers themselves had to say about these items will help clarify what we as reenactors should do with them.

The Knapsack

Both Union and Confederate regulations stated that knapsacks were to be issued to the troops and marked with the unit designation. “Those for the artillery will be marked… with yellow paint. Those for the infantry… in white paint.”1 References left by soldiers make it clear the knapsacks were commonly issued.

John S. Jackman, of the Orphan Brigade’s 9th Kentucky wrote in. February 1862, “…my regiment passed through on the march, and I slung my knapsack, shouldered my gun, and fell into ranks.”2 Charles B. Hayden, of the 2nd Michigan, wrote in his diary near Springfield, Kentucky on April 2, 1863, “Marches at 7 a.m., made ten miles… The weather was fine and the roads good but the knapsacks were heavy.”3 Tennesseean Sam Watkins had this to say early in the war on route from Tennessee to Virginia: “Every soldier had enough blankets, shirts, pants and old boots to last a year… In addition, every one of us had his gun, cartridge-box, knapsack…”4

Not only were the troops issued knapsacks, many retained them through much of their military ca-reers. In the 9th Kentucky U.S., soldiers joked about the knapsack, “little dreaming that they would have to wear these equipages… for three whole years.”5

We often assume that the Confederates were less well supplied than the Union troops, but this does not appear to be the case. Col. Hypolie Oladowiski, chief of ordnance of the Army of Tennessee, wrote that in 1864 there were “16,941 effective on Hardee’s Corps,” with “12,610 knapsacks.”6

The Blanket Roll

“Even though knapsacks were carried by some soldiers throughout the war, they were usually stored before setting out on an active campaign, and their place taken by a blanket,” wrote Francis A. Lord in his Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia. “This blanket, with a change of underclothing in it, was rolled in a cylinder and slung across the left shoulder and crossing to the right hip, was tied together by a string.”7

Corp. A.P. Ford, from South Carolina, wrote during the Bentonville campaign that “our men had started on this march with as much baggage as they… could carry, but soon began to throw aside the impedimenta and settle down to… one blanket per man… For some miles both sides of the rode were strewn with knapsacks, articles of clothing, etc…”8

Some blanket rolls also contained a shelter half, some an oil-cloth, some all three. The blanket roll was not just a personal preference. Soldiers sometimes were ordered to lighten their loads by eliminating the knapsack. Markus Woodcock of the 9th Kentucky U.S. wrote in November 1863, “each man must carry… one blanket, leaving the knapsack behind.”9 Hayden of the 2nd Michigan wrote in May of 1861, “we are now called to wear our blankets, overcoats &c at drill.”10

In Battle

Berry Benson wrote of capturing knapsacks by the thousands during the Seven Days Campaign, and commented at the Wilderness, “finally a shot grazed the back of my shoulder, striking the wounded bar across my knapsack, indenting it deeply.”11 So at least some of the Confederates had on knapsacks and blanket rolls during battle.

“The [cannon] ball struck him on his knapsack, knocking him twenty feet…” wrote Sam Watkins after the battle of Jonesboro, Georgia.12 The North Carolinians at Bentonville had knapsacks on during the battle. The Union soldiers rifled them for ammunition after the Carolinians were wounded.13

On the Union side, the 9th Kentucky U.S. dropped its packs at the beginning of the Battle of Murfreesboro, but wore them during the fight at Resaca.14 The 2nd Michigan removed their packs “within three miles of the battlefield” of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1862.15 A soldier of the 137th New York was captured at Culp’s Hill on the second day of Gettysburg by being seized by the knapsack.16 Another New York soldier at Gettysburg found a more useful function for his knapsack: “I placed my knapsack, frying-pan, canteen and the butt of my gun between me and the flying bullets and tried to lie as flat on the ground as I possibly could.”17

Henry Houghtom of the 3rd Vermont wrote after the battle of the Wilderness, “one man on my left fell dead, and a bullet went so near the face of the man in my rear that it took an eye out, two bullets went through my haversack and one through my canteen, another passed so near my neck that it burned the skin then entered my blanket and when I unrolled it I found nineteen holes in it.”18

Aftermath of a Battle
Soldiers also described the litter left in the wake of a battle. Barry Benson wrote of the Seven Days, “in this battle… the whole Confederate army refitted itself with blankets, rubber clothes, tent flies, haversacks and canteens.”19 And at Petersburg, “it was with fast beating hearts that we walked right up to the breastworks and mounting them looked over. What a sight met our eyes! Not a man anywhere, but knapsacks, guns and provisions of all kinds.”20

Markus Woodcock of the 9th Kentucky US. wrote from near Dalton in May of 1864, “after a temporary halt in the streets, during which our boys helped themselves to the contents of the knapsacks of the 54th Ga. Regt., which were unfortunately left behind time in the general rush.”21

Confederates wrote at the Battle of Bentonville “Johnston and Hardee had only to scan the Cole Field for evidence of the Federals’ route: rifles, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, haversacks, canteens and blankets lay scattered everywhere…”22

From these examples, it appears that knapsacks and blanket rolls were common on the battlefield. If they were not worn, they were dropped nearby. And although blanket rolls were common, knapsacks were also used throughout the war. And as late as 1864, Confederate knapsacks seemed to be well-stocked. Whether knapsacks and blanket rolls were worn into battle seems to depend on the battle and the individual units involved.


1. Regulations For the Army of the Confederate States, 1863, Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1863, p. 11.
2. Davis, William C., Diary of a Con-federate Soldier: John S. Jackman of the Orphan Brigade, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, p. 111.
3. Sears, Stephen W., For Country, Cause & Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon, New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1993, p. 318.
4. Watkins, Sam R., Co. Aytch, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982, p. 132.
5. Noe, Kenneth W., ed., A Soldier Boy in Blue, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1996, p. 30.
6. Daniel, Larry J., Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991, p. 49.
7. Lord, Francis A., Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, New York, Castle Books, 1965, p. 145.
8. Bradley, Mark L., Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville, Campbell, Calif., Savas Publishing Company, 1995, p. 30.
9. Noe, p. 230.
10. Sears, p. 14.
11. Benson, Susan Williams, ed., Berry Benson’s Civil War Book, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1962, p. 61.
12. Watkins, p. 211.
13. Bradley, p. 240.
14. Moe, p. 128, 287.
15. Sears, p. 231.
16. Pfanz, Harry W, Gettysburg – Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1993, p. 221.
17. Hess, Earl J., The Union Soldier in Battle, Lawrence, Kans., The University Press of Kansas, 1997, p. 73.
18. Ibid., p. 25
19. Benson, p. 12.
20. Ibid., p. 185.
21. Noe, p. 280.
22. Bradley, p. 222.

-By Michael C. Hardy