Haversacks and canteens

Haversacks and canteens were the fundamental items of equipment which kept the Union soldier alive. In his haversack he stored his food and eating utensils. Rations included salt pork, sugar, coffee, salt and the staple diet of all Civil War soldiers, hard tack, a biscuit made out of flour mixed with water which was then baked. It was so hard it never rotted and it was not unknown for hardtack to be issued to soldiers long after the Civil War had ended. Eating utensils would usually comprise a knife, fork, spoon and tin plate, but some soldiers even carried non-regulation fancy mess tins. All soldiers had a tin cup which they sometimes carried on the outside of their haversacks looped through the strap.

The regulation haversack was made out of waterproofed cotton cloth. It had a single strap with a buckle, and inside there was a removable cotton bag held in place by three buttons. On a hot day one can imagine what the effect on the contents of this bag would be. Heat exhaustion and not battle was often the cause of many soldiers dying. The sides of roads where the troops passed, would often be lined with soldiers who simply had become victims of the blazing weather conditions and the excessive humidity, which characterised the Civil War campaigning season throughout the United States.

At Gettysburg, soldiers from both sides are said to have shared water from the same source of supply at Spangler's Spring. The regulation canteen 1858 pattern held almost three pints of water and was made out of two convex pieces of tin soldered together. It had a cork stopper and was covered in blue or brownish woollen cloth.

It is usually accepted that blue was the standard colour for canteen covers, but it actually seems likely that brown was the most common colour. In theory the covers kept the contents cool and helped to stop the canteens making a noise on the march, but many soldiers had canteens without covers.

After 1861 rings were pressed into both sides of metal canteens and this 'bullseye' type of canteen became the classic canteen of the Civil War, but there were many varieties of canteen including cylindrical wooden canteens and even canteens made out of leather. Soldiers often personalised their canteens by painting their name and company number on the cloth cover or by carving their initials and company number on wooden canteens.

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