The Civil War soldier carried his world with him. On the march, he had to carry everything he owned—his musket, ammunition, shelter, bedding, clothing, food, cooking utensils, cherished photographs, letters from home, playing cards and other personal effects.  All of it had to be carried on his back, around his waist or in his hands during long, dusty marches on country dirt roads.

The soldier’s load typically weighed 30 or 40 pounds, which was a heavy burden to bear under a broiling sun or a drenching rain. To lighten their loads before a march, soldiers would be extremely judicious about what to keep and what to discard after accumulating things while encamped for extended periods.

Much variety existed in the types of weaponry and accoutrements, but these were the essential objects carried by a Civil War soldier.  

1. Musket

Most Civil War soldiers carried single-shot, muzzle-loading, rifled muskets. The most common—the standard-issue infantry weapon of the U.S. Army during the war—was the Model 1861 rifle musket, commonly known as the Springfield model 1861 rifle musket because it was originally made by the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. Wartime demand prompted the government to also contract with many other private arms manufacturers to make these muskets.

To load and fire the weapon, the soldier placed a cylindrical paper cartridge topped with a cone-shaped .58 caliber lead “minie ball” into the muzzle, tapped it down with a ramrod that attached to the firearm, placed a percussion cap on the nipple, cocked the hammer, aimed and pulled the trigger. It took about 20 seconds to reload, although combat-hardened veterans could reload faster and might get off as many as five shots a minute.

2. Bayonet

The bayonet is a metal spear that was attached to the end of the muzzle for use in hand-to-hand combat. Rarely used as a weapon, it was responsible for less than one percent of the war’s combat casualties. It was much more useful to the soldier as a camp tool. It could be used for digging as well as holding a pot over a fire and various other purposes. The soldier carried his bayonet in a scabbard affixed to a belt that also held his cartridge box and cap box.

Civil War soldier
Robin Stanford Collection
A Union soldier poses with his weapon, packs and canteen.

3. Cartridge Box and Cap Box

The soldier’s cartridge box and cap box were leather containers carried on a belt around his waist. The cartridge box held 40 cartridges and had a metal inner liner to keep them in place. The soldier usually carried another 20 to 40 cartridges in his haversack. The cartridge box usually had a metal box plate with the letters US for Union boxes and CS for Confederate boxes. The weight of the lead minie balls made a full cartridge box weigh four to five pounds. The box also had a slot in front for musket tools.

The cap box was a smaller leather container where the soldier kept the small, brass percussion caps that provided the spark to ignite the gunpowder in the cartridge when struck by the musket’s hammer.

Union soldiers.
Library of Congress
two Union soldiers seated with arms around each other's shoulders.

4. Uniform

The typical Civil War soldier’s uniform was made of wool. Although wool would seem to be hot to wear in the summer, it wicks away moisture and helps keep the body cooler. It also held warmth better in cold weather, resisted water and was more durable than other fabrics. Trousers were typically held by suspenders and soldiers usually wore a four-button “sack” coat over a cotton or flannel shirt. Union soldiers wore dark blue uniforms, Confederates usually wore grey or butternut, but with more variations than northerners because the individual southern states often provided uniforms.

5. Hat

Union soldiers generally wore what was known as a kepi, a French term, which was a fabric hat with a round, flat top and a leather visor. Some Confederate soldiers also had kepis, but wore a much wider variety of hats, often including civilian headwear.

6. Shoes

There were many different types of footwear in both armies, but many soldiers and officers wore “brogans,” which were straight cut, all-leather shoes made so either shoe could fit the right or left foot. After much use, the leather usually conformed to one foot or the other. Some soldiers, especially southerners, went barefoot because shoes fell apart, were uncomfortable or unavailable. Cotton or wool socks generally wore out before shoes, prompting the requests for new socks frequently seen in the letters soldiers wrote home.

7. Canteen

The soldier’s canteen was often his only source of water on the march or in combat. It generally held 2.5 to 3 pints of water. The metal container was usually covered in fabric to help keep the water cooler. It had a spout with a cork stopper and a leather or fabric strap.

8. Knapsack

Soldiers strapped a fabric knapsack to their backs, or less frequently a hard leather backpack, that contained his housing, including a wool blanket, any extra clothing, a rubberized ground cloth and a canvas “shelter half,” which was attached to another soldier’s shelter half to create a two-person pup tent.

Many soldiers, especially southerners, found it easier to forego the knapsack and instead roll their bedding and shelter in a long “blanket roll” that they draped across their bodies and over their shoulders. Some soldiers also wrapped their personal possessions into their blanket roll.

Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry in his uniform, equipped with a knapsack, bedroll, canteen, and haversack.
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress
Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry in his uniform, equipped with a knapsack, bedroll, canteen, and haversack.

9. Haversack

The haversack was a single-strap canvas or fabric “catch-all” bag that carried a soldier’s personal items, extra ammunition, cooking and eating utensils and his food, typically a three-day supply of hardtack bread crackers, salt pork and coffee.  Many Union haversacks were lined with rubber on the inside for waterproofing. Confederate haversacks were usually all cotton.

10. Photographs

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with his wife and two daughters, circa 1863-1865.

Most soldiers carried photographs of their loved ones on metal (tintypes) or glass (ambrotypes) that were housed in small, wooden cases with a hinged door that opened to the image. They also had camp photographers take their photographs, which they sent home. During the war, every division of the Army of the Potomac had an approved photographer. By 1865, almost a hundred photographers and assistants were approved to be in camp with the army.

Photographs were among a soldier’s most cherished possessions. When deciding what to take and what to discard on the eve of a march, a soldier always kept his photos. “He tucks his little collection of photographs, which perhaps he has encased in rubber or leather, into an inside pocket….” wrote veteran john D. Billings in the memoir Hardtack and Coffee.

11. Personal Effects

A soldier had to carry all of his personal effects, so the number of items was usually quite limited but could include a wide range of things, including letter paper and pencil, a Bible, a diary, letters from home, playing cards, a harmonica or jaw harp, a shaving kit, a compact mirror, a toothbrush, a sewing kit, matches, soap, a comb, a newspaper, a clay pipe, tobacco and other items.

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