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ALL THE TRAPPINGS OF A PACK MULE
by (Bvt. Sgt.) Pvt. Mike Palada
Like our comrades of old, today's "Civil War" soldiers are confounded by the dilemma of whether to carry the knapsack or to sling the blanket roll. While one's impression, unit, and date being portrayed help to answer this issue, invariably comfort, utility, and practicality dictate the outcome-as it did with the veterans of '61-'65. As both conveyances have (and had) their supporters as well as detractors, a case for both may be made. Let us first delve into the realm of the knapsack.
The evolution of the army knapsack throughout the war is evident. New volunteer regiments in 1861 commonly were issued the militia-style box knapsacks, more commonly referred to as hard-packs. The reinforced sides of wood, pasteboard, or leather gave a smashing, soldierly, and bully appearance on the parade field. However, its rigidity and cumbersome weight yielded to its successor-the model 1855 knapsack, or the soft-pack. While more "field friendly" than the hard-pack, the m1855 lacked an essential accoutrement for many soldiers. The cross straps of the pack were designed originally to connect to brass keepers on the m1855 rifleman's belt, thusly keeping the pack centered comfortably high on one's shoulders. Economics and infinite government wisdom decided against substantial issuing of the rifleman's belt, causing the straps to be crossed over the chest and the pack to ride lower on the back.
Chiefly, the advantages of the knapsack are the same today as they were then: the common soldier can carry all his worldly possessions on his person; a properly "tarred" knapsack will keep its contents dry during the most severe deluges; more items can be carried with better organization. The singular drawback to all of this is (and was) more items can (and usually were) carried! As a result, some veterans did not take long to adopt the blanket roll. Some, however, retained their packs until the end. This adaptation or "shedding" resulted from both experience and necessity. Many of today's re-enactors have experienced this lesson like their predecessors. Pvt. A.J. Robinson, 33rd Wis., wrote in 1863 in his Memorandum and Anecdotes of the Civil War, "We have cast off our knapsacks and all surplus clothing. A change of shirt, socks and underwear we carry in our blankets…."(p.25) Robinson and his chums wore their blanket rolls out of experience; Capt. Henry Richards, 93rd Ohio, did so out of necessity. "Yesterday all knapsacks and baggage not actually needed, were ordered to be sent back. The men not allowed to carry more than 'one blanket….'"(letters of Capt. Henry Richards, 93rd O.V.I.) Although the blanket roll is seen as more comfortable to wear, its accessibility to its contents, albeit limited ones, and its resistance to the weather is lacking. Unlike the knapsack, the entire roll must be undone to retrieve the contents. And what about the gum blanket or poncho if the heavens should rain down upon the poor soldier? If the rubber blanket is on the outside then the contents will stay dry, but the wearer will be in a pickle. If the unfortunate chap should have his poncho inside the roll at the outbreak of rain, then both become soaked. How then did the veteran enjoy the simplicity and comfort of his Spartanesque trappings and still be prepared for wet weather at a moments notice? James P. Sullivan, 6th Wis., remembered that at Second Bull Run, "Hod Trembell had his rubber blanket folded up very narrow and it was around his waist under his waist belt."(The Iron Brigade at Bull Run, Milwaukee Daily Telegraph, May 16, 1884.) Another account of such trappings can be witnessed in a sketch by Charles W. Reed, The Flankers, on page 347 of John D. Billing's Hardtack and Coffee. The illustration clearly shows the soldier with his poncho or rubber blanket looped under his waist belt at the small of his back. Clearly, the decision whether to sling the blanket roll or to wear the regulation knapsack lies with the individual, as is did with our comrades. Experiment with both and fine-tune your decision to compliment your impression. Remember that impressions can change, so too can your choice of trappings. Moreover, try wearing one during the battles of the weekend and not just to and from your car. You'll look the part and get a greater feel for the soldiering we are supposed to be representing. Bully!
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This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.