Monday, December 23, 2019

A Soldier's Load

At Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier’s permanent exhibit, “Duty Called Me Here: The Common Soldier’s Experience in the American Civil War,” two interactive kiosks allow guests to choose what they wish to carry if they were a soldier and then weighs their load. This exercise suggests that veteran soldiers carried the bare minimum when possible to reduce their level of physical exertion.

In addition to a soldier’s rifle-musket, which weighed about 10 pounds, their leather cartridge box full of 40 rounds of ammunition and waist belt with bayonet and scabbard, all of which made for about another 10 pounds, soldiers also had to tote a canteen and haversack. Depending on their level of contents, these items could add an additional ten or more pounds. On top of the items hanging by various straps, the soldier’s woolen uniform jacket, trousers, hat, and shoes added about another 10 pounds or so of burden.

Soldiers often commented on their loads in their letters home. For example, the Charles Hunter Collection at Pamplin Historical Park contains a letter from this soldier to his sister back in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania explaining his necessary food and equipment for an upcoming campaign.

Written on April 20, 1863, from Fletcher’s Chapel (near Fredericksburg), Virginia, Hunter opens with a traditional soldier’s greeting, “I received your kind letter last night and was glad to hear that you were all well as this [letter] leaves me in good health at present.” Hunter explained, “We are expecting to march every day as we are under orders.” Hunter served in the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry, part of the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac at this point in the war. Now commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Army of the Potomac was under pressure from Washington D.C. to reverse previous setbacks. Preparing for extended campaigning often meant extra loads for infantrymen.

“We have 8 days of rations to carry with us when we do go and every man has to carry that much,” Hunter wrote. To give his sister Jane an idea of what that meant, he explained further. “So you can form some idea what a load, we will have 80 crackers [hardtack] that is 10 a day.” For additional rations they received “a spoonfull & a half of sugar and 2 spoonfulls of coffee a day that will be 12 [spoonfuls] of sugar & 16 of coffee for the eight days.” Army rations also included meat. Hunter stated they received “3 lbs. of fat pork for 3 days.” To help supplement possible meat deficiencies, “the cattle will follow us up for the other 5 days for our fresh beef.”

On top of carrying his soldier gear and rations, Hunter explained other items he had to lug. “So what with 8 day rations and one [extra] shirt & drawers & woolen blanket & rubber blanket & half of a tent [shelter half] you can think it won’t be an easy load, and it won’t be much wonder if a great many men will have to drop out on the way.”

As Civil War soldiers gained experience they usually either acclimated to their burdens or found practical ways to minimize their possessions. Regardless of how soldiers eventually managed their loads, their levels of physical endurance are inspiring.

Disclaimer: I originally wrote this article for the "Behind the Scenes at Pamplin" section published regularly in the Petersburg Progress Index newspaper. 

Image of Pvt. Albert H. Davis, Co. E, 9th New Hampshire Infantry, courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

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