Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Ubiquitous Tin Cup

In the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga, B. F. Taylor, an army corresnpondent from the Chicago Journal, rode with a trainload of Union wounded soldiers seeking care at Nashvile hospitals. "They were loaded upon the train; two platform [flatbed] cars were paved with them, forty on a car. Seven box[cars] were so packed you could not set your foot down amont them as they lay. The roofs of the trains were tiled with them," Taylor wrote.

Taylor continued that during the train ride north, “the attendants are going through the train with coffee graced with milk and sugar—think of that!” “What worn-out faded faces look up at you! They rouse like wounded creatures hunted down to their lairs as you come.” Among the wounded, most of whom had cast away almost all of their other worldly possessions while in retreat, there was no absence of one piece of equipment, the tin cup. Taylor claimed that “The tin cups extended in all sorts of hands but plump, strong ones, tinkle all around you. You are fairly girdled with a tin-cup horizon. How the dull, faint faces brighten as those cups are filled.”

Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate, began their military service carrying a number of pieces of equipment they initially deemed vital. However, as they became veteran campaigners, soldiers quickly learned that their marches became less oppressive when they pared down their belongings to the bare minimum. One piece of equipment that usually survived a soldier’s purging was the tin cup.

Often issued by their various state governments upon a soldier mustering into service, tin cups varied greatly in size and style. Another reason cups differed so greatly is that it was an item sutlers carried among their stores to sell to soldiers when cups were lost or damaged. A sutler’s wares came from a variety of manufacturers, which of course, resulted in many different styles.

Some tin cups were tall affairs that sported wire bales to hang over the campfire, while others were squat, shallow vessels. Some had straight sides, while others tapered at the base. Some even had a ribbed ring around the body to provide reinforced support. Period photographic evidence indicates a plethora of shapes and sizes. Perhaps the most common surviving examples are those that are about four inches tall and about four inches in diameter. Almost all tin cups had a wire reinforced handle.

Soldiers used their tin cups for a variety of tasks. Tin cups helped them make coffee, their favorite drink. Soldiers often mixed corn meal or flour with water in their tin cups to prepare their bread rations. Sometimes, unable to stop and fill their canteens, cups made scooping water for a quick drink much easier when crossing a stream. There are even accounts of soldiers using their tin cups as improvised entrenching tools when desperate times called for desperate measures.

In a soldier’s world, where non-essentials became burdensome and thus often discarded, the tin cup remained a vital belonging.   


  1. Hello! What source(s) did you use for this post? I am looking for sources on the origin/history of the tin cup.

  2. The source about riding with the wounded is from: The Civil War in Story and Song by Frank Moore, published in 1889 and in an article title "The Ride of the Wounded Brigade" page 364-365. Hope this helps!