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Knapsack vs. Bedroll
( The Advantages and Disadvantages of Each … What to Pack, And How to Pack ‘Em )
by Galen Wagner

The common soldier of the War Between the States, whether volunteer, conscript, or regular, was faced with one problem understood by all. The soldier had to carry everything he owned on his back. The myth that wagons carried baggage can easily be disproved by readily available documentation. Over and over again, evidence can be found showing a limitation of baggage space.

The U.S. Regulations and orders contained within the Official Records establish clear rules for tentage and wagons while armies are on campaign. Reenactors expend  allot of effort trying to conform to Hardee's drill manual, however, little effort is spent conforming to the regulations, orders, and practices of the armies regarding usage of tents, baggage and wares.

The wagons allowed to a regiment, battery or squadron, carried nothing but the forage for the teams, cooking utensils, and rations for the troops, hospital stores, and officers baggage. One wagon to each regiment transported exclusively hospital supplies, under the direction of the regimental surgeon; the one for Regimental headquarters carried the grain for the officers horses; and the three allowed for each battery or squadron were at least half loaded with grain for their own teams. Stores in bulk and ammunition were carried in the regular or special supply trains. With two wagons devoted to hospital supplies and horse feed, a regiment of one thousand possessed only four wagons devoted exclusively to the men. A regiment of a thousand men existed only a matter of weeks before disease, desertion, and death took their toll. In a matter of months, a thousand man regiment could be whittled down to five hundred men. A veteran regiment of  two hundred and fifty was not unusual. [i]

Here is what the above implies. A reduction in men also meant a reduction in wagons devoted to the men. The wagons devoted exclusively  to the men in a regiment of five hundred  would be reduced from four wagons to two. A veteran regiment of two hundred fifty would be reduced to one wagon. That one wagon would be used for carrying food, and cooking utensils, medical supplies, and baggage for the regimental staff. This means that the Companies were left to fend for themselves, and carrying their gear. Imagine trying to place the tents and gear of a typical, mainstream reenacting company of twenty men into one period wagon.

In an order issued by the AoP, Board of Officers, for the Chancellorsville campaign, it states: “Two mules per Regiment, to carry camp kettles, rice, beans, & c. are all that are allowed “  [ii]

This evidence supports one simple fact, as stated above… the common private had to carry, on his person, any and all gear he wanted or needed. He soon learned the difference between a “need” and  a “want”. The soldier had to establish classifications, or categories, of gear.

Some items are absolutely necessary to perform the essential functions involved in performing the job of Infantryman. These items, quite obviously, are a means to carry cartridges, and caps; a soldier could hardly load and fire his weapon without powder and cap. Most soldiers maintained a cartridge box, and cap pouch, when available ( most recent evidence shows these items were generally available ), but some preferred to lose as much excess weight as possible, opting to carry these items in jacket, shirt or trowser pockets. There was an inherent danger in this practice, and it also did not do justice to the life of the fireable cartridge.

Evidence  suggest that many soldiers “lost” their bayonets, on the campaign, which tends to support the general adage that bayonet combat was not as frequent as the living history community would believe, or present. A visiting British officer commented upon a review of Arkansas troops in 1863: “ Most of them were armed with Enfield rifles captured from the enemy. Many, however had thrown away their bayonets…they asserted they have never met Yankees who would wait for that weapon.” [iii]

Other items were necessary for the continuance of life itself. A means of carrying water was absolutely essential, or was it. Private Carlton McCarthy, of the Richmond Howitzers wrote, “ A canteen is frivolous, all a man needs is a tin cup to put water in when necessary. “[iv] In spite of this, photographic evidence shows most soldiers did carry a wooden or metal canteen, of some form. Another ANV soldier said, in a letter sent home, that he simply collected up canteens, handed them out to his pards, and then reserved the right for a drink when he needed it…therefore he did not have to carry a canteen.

Food was also an essential item, and generally on the campaign, a soldier would carry days worth of rations, as evidenced in the before mentioned order issued by the Army of the Potomac ”2. Five days rations of bread and small stores be placed in the knapsack. 3. Three days cooked rations in the haversack, and five days fresh beef on the hoof. “ [v] The order estimates that a haversack loaded as specified weighed approximately 5 ¾ lbs.

Once a soldier had acquired means of transporting all the above mentioned items, he then had to determine what he needed to sustain himself in the field, such as blanket, extra clothes, etc., and save room for a few important physical, emotional, and spiritual comforts such as a testament, pictures of loved ones, items such as razors and combs, and letter writing utensils. Most, if not all, of the items were carried by soldiers utilizing the issued Knapsack, or a bedroll.

The Knapsack

The Knapsack was meant to be the most important piece of equipage a soldier carried, because it held all of his personal items, and spare clothing. Primary source suggest that many men kept their knapsacks and carried them throughout the war. It was common for the men to drop their packs in a pile before going into battle, only to lose them, and desperately regret it later. Often the packs were carried off by stragglers, or the insuing fight carried them away from their baggage, and it never “caught up to them”. Some soldiers were so fond of their knapsacks, they felt compelled to dis-continue this practice, and carry their knapsacks with them, even in battle.  In 1864, a Confederate soldier wrote to his wife about a near escape from being captured. In it he said his pards dropped all their gear, in the rout, but that he was able to get away with rifle, haversack, canteen, and knapsack to boot.  He was very proud of this accomplishment, and expressed that he was very glad he retained his knapsack.

Why was the knapsack so valuable to these men? When lost, what items did the soldiers have to do without? Let’s take a look at the knapsack, its contents, and for modern benefit, the best way to pack these items.

The soldier learned that, in packing their knapsack, it was important to evenly distribute the weight to make it more comfortable for long marches. The soldier very quickly decided what he was going to carry, and what he was not. Knapsacks are a great tool for carrying a soldiers wares, and if packed and worn correctly, can allow you to carry everything you will need for a weekend of campaigning, right on your back. The Knapsack offers flexibility in the carrying of your items, but can become quite heavy, and burdensome very quickly.  The main disadvantage of the Knapsack is that the weight is totally on your shoulders. But the overwhelming advantage is that it does not inhibit access to your traps, and allows the coat to be opened to receive air, which we all know aid in cooling the body.

A list of items you may consider carrying in your knapsack is as follows:

1.      Blanket: This is the most important item you will carry on your weekend outing. One good, heavy wool blanket will provide all the insulation you need for a weekend outing. This can be easily packed in a single or double bag knapsack.

2.      Gum Blanket: A good rubber, or oiled gum blanket is almost a necessity. It is important to pack your gum blanket so that it is accessible if it begins to rain. I personally roll my gum blanket into a horse collar, and put in on just before the canteen, on top of all my other gear. The soldier of 1861-65 did not have the luxury of the Weather Channel.

3.      Shelter Half: A good shelter half, of an authentic nature weighing app. 1.5 lbs., is a great item to carry. You can join a comrade and set up a shelter tent, make a lean-to: ("...an excellent shelter for six soldiers is made as follows:-Three tent-sticks are fixed into the ground, whose tops are notched; a light cord is then passed round their tops, and fastened into the ground with a peg at each end; Two sheets, A and B, are buttoned together and thrown over the cord, and then two other sheets, C and D; and C is buttoned to A, and D to B. Lastly, another sheet is thrown over- each of the slanting cords, the one buttoned to A and B, and the other to C and D; The sides of the tent are of course pegged to the ground." Scott, Military Dictionary, page 136 (Camps) ) , or simply use it as a ground cloth, allowing you to utilize your gum blanket to keep the dew off.

4.      Socks and Shirt: An extra pair of socks can become an essential item in the event it rains, or if you must cross water. Dry feet can go a long way towards the comfort of a soldier in the field. A clean shirt may increase your chances of talking your pard into spooning on those cold nights.

5.      Greatcoat:  A greatcoat is an item that is a must have, or an absolutely do without, item, depending on the projected temperature. Greatcoats tend to be heavy, and should be seriously contemplated depending on the scenario, and the temperature. A few cold hours huddling around a small fire, is well worth the easement of shoulder pain later in the day, once you take up the march.

6.      Rag or Hand Towel: A small rag or hand towel, or maybe two ( with one in the haversack for cooking ) is a good item to have along for cleaning you face. A small bar of pumice soap adds comfort on the long campaign.

7.      Twine: A small roll of hemp twine offers flexibility in setting up a shebang, or tying up gear to keep it secure, or out of reach of ants.

8.      Extra Food: As shown in the before mentioned documentation, was often carried in the knapsack.

9.      Journal and pencil: for writing down thoughts, important information, and letters to loved ones. A small packet of received letters is a great impression improver, and can be lightly carried without taking up excess room.

10.  Amenities: Such as candles, cards, dice, matches, fat wood, etc. may be packed depending on their necessity.

11.  Extra Cartridges:  A couple of bundles of extra cartridges in the knapsack may be necessary if the organizers have not made re-supply plans, and you have a number of combat scenarios.

The manner in which you pack your knapsack will depend on the type of knapsack you have. With a single bag pack, you will pack all of your items inside a single bag, so your load may have to be minimized. I suggest placing your blanket inside the bag, if at all possible, as the blanket offers padding against your back. You can then place all of your other items on the outside of your blanket, organized to best suit your needs. If your single bag has blanket straps, you can attach your greatcoat, or a rubber blanket to the top for accessibility.

With a double bag knapsack, pack your blanket in the bag that will ride on your back, again, for comfort. Then place all of your other items neatly in the outer bag. This will allow you to access these items without disturbing your blanket. A greatcoat or poncho can then be strapped to the top. It may be necessary to punch extra holes in your blanket straps, to be able to tighten them down, to hold the poncho secure.

A hardpack knapsack presents a resolution to the problem of accessibility. Pack all of your loose items in the pack, place your folded poncho on the top of the tied boxflaps inside the outer flap, then strap the flap in place. Your blanket can be carried on top, with the blanket straps.

In all instances, ensure you spreadload your weight evenly, so as not to place more weight on one shoulder, or the other. A sagging knapsack can easily become the most significant pain creator on a short march, much less a long one. For example, don’t put your extra food, cartridges, and candles, matchsafe, and wares on one side of you bag, and a shelter half and rag on the other. Place the weight in the center of your pack if at all possible. Placing the heavier items higher on your back will help lessen the strain on your shoulders, as well.

The Bedroll

In contrast to the men who wore the knapsack, were those eager to discard them. Some evidence suggest that most soldiers belonged to this latter group. The Blanket Roll began to immerge as a substitute for the knapsack to those who found the knapsack a galling piece of equipment. The advantage of the blanket roll is it is lighter, and tends to not put as much strain on the back. The big disadvantages are that the contents that can be carried is greatly reduced, those contents become scattered upon unrolling the bedroll, and it can greatly increase an already intolerable temperature.

The words of the soldiers best describe the blanket roll. A member of the AoP’s 9th Massachusetts Infantry explains: “ The inventive genius of some produced what was termed the horse collar. An Army blanket was spread on the ground, and a few necessary articles of clothing from the discarded knapsack were spread thereon; then the blanket and it’s contents were carefully and tightly rolled up, the ends brought together and firmly tied. This singular roll was put over the head and rested on one shoulder and against the opposite side under the arm; in this manner it was easily carried. When tired of carrying it on one shoulder, it would be shifted to the other. At a halt for a few minutes it was used as a cushion to sit on…It was found to be a great relief from the much despised knapsack with it’s cutting straps and awkward, back heavy burden.[vi]

I would like to note that, had the soldier reduced his knapsack load to the items he reduced his bedroll to, he easily could have continued to carry his knapsack..

A soldier in the ANV recounted, “ I had a very good oilcloth haversack to carry my rations in, a tin cup, a rubber cloth, a blanket, a pair of jeans drawers, and a pair of woolen socks; the socks and drawers were placed on the blanket, the blanket was rolled up with the rubber cloth on the outside, the ends drawn together and fastened with a short strap.”  [vii]

The bedroll became common among the soldiers in the beleaguered Confederate Armies, especially later in the war, when a blanket was quite possibly the only piece of gear the soldier had to carry.  An Austrian Officer visiting Confederate troops in 1863 remarked “Very few of them carry a knapsack, but most a haversack and blanket…many of the blankets are made of old carpet, with very gay colours and almost all have a hole in the middle, through which a man inserts his head when the weather is cool, or when it rains….and the effect is marvelously picturesque, especially when you see them lying or squatting down in groups round a fire cooking their meals.” [viii]

Whether you decide to carry a knapsack, or bedroll, is really just personal preference. As always, less is more…and every effort should be made to travel as light as possible. Below is a comparison of advantages and disadvantages of each:

Knapsack

Advantages                                                                             

1.      Ability to carry a generous amount of gear                

2.      Cool in the summer                                         

3.      Does not hinder the accessibility of your  traps

4.      Easily dropped, if need be

Disadvantages

1. Heavier when loaded

2.Straps tend to be uncomfortable

3. Weight cannot be shifted from shoulder to shoulder.

Bedroll

Advantages

1.      Lightweight

2.      Weight can be shifted from one shoulder to the other

3.      Can be used as a pillow for a quick nap, or as a cushion for sitting

Disadvantages

1.      Inhibits access to traps

2.      Makes aiming a rifle hard if slung on firing shoulder

3.      Increases heat on the march

4.      Limited amount of gear can be carried in the roll

There is no right or wrong way to carry your personal gear; as was common, personal preference will dictate your decision. I hope this makes it a little easier for you to make that decision, and guides that decision based on some documented evidence. 


[i]    Shred the Tents and Burn the Wagons, by Mark ( Silas ) Tackitt

[ii]   CRRC, III.2 Knapsack and Haversack Packing, 101 by Kevin O’Beirne

[iii]  Traveling Light, by Phillip Katcher, Civil War Times, Dec 1999

[iv]  Worsham, John, One of Jacksons Foot Cavalry

[v]   CRRC, III.2 Knapsack and Haversack Packing, 101 by Kevin O’Beirne

[vi]  CRRC, III.2 Knapsack and Haversack Packing, 101 by Kevin O’Briene

[vii] Worsham, John, One of Jacksons Foot Cavalry

[viii] Katcher, Phillip, The Army of Robert E. Lee 

**** No portion of this article is to be copied without offering due credit to the author in the form of bibliography.  No permission is necessary as I want to proliferate the passage of useful information.******