By Wayne Thompson

The purpose of this paper is to discuss, in broad terms, the forage bag, or haversack. It will not be the purpose of the author to define specific types, but simply to point out the general types, and the best use(s) for this piece of equipment.

The proper name for the haversack is “forage bag”, or “ration bag”. In concept, it goes back to prehistoric times, and is such an obvious piece of gear, that it would be surprising if the first organized military bodies didn’t have something like it. Regardless of circumstance, food is a primary consideration for all humans, and soldiers are no exception.

For our purposes, the ration bag was “issue” equipment {1}, and was listed in the inventory of every soldier in both armies. If lost, it was to be paid for and replaced by the soldier. Which is not to say that every soldier always had a ration bag on him at all times. For many a soldier, a full stomach was a much better storage container than any satchel could ever be. Given the desperate state of most southern armies toward the end of the war, a haversack would only be a painful reminder of what was missing from the daily routine of a soldier in the Confederate service. The use of a grain bag or pillowcase, in lieu of the regulation forage bag, is also acceptable for Confederates and late-war Yankee “bummers”, as part of a living history or battle scenario.

There were many styles of forage bags, and to list each one would require more space than I want to fill. So, we will isolate the “generic” types and describe them here. It is to be hoped that the reader will choose to do further research on his own if his interest is piqued.

For the Yankee, the most common forage bag is the pre-war pattern “tarred”{2}  model. This was a canvas sack, roughly measuring 10”W x 12”L x 2”D, with a canvas strap to hang the bag from one shoulder to the opposite hip (actually slightly above the hip, as most soldiers wore their gear higher than most reenactors do today). There may have been an inner liner or plain canvas “poke” inside, designed to keep the food away from the tarred material (or vice-versa), but many wartime bags quickly lost this inner pouch, it being more practical as mending material, cleaning patches, potholders, etc. Additionally, the poke got plain nasty after awhile and so it would have been removed.

There were other patterns, which were purchased by the states for their troops in the field, and the occasional kind gesture from a loved one back home, but the tarred bag seems to be the standard for US troops.

For the Confederate soldier, the most common pattern mimicked the US bag, without the tarring. It also appears to have been slightly smaller in size, presenting a square shape. Again, other styles were present, and one can never discount the captured “Yankee bread bag”. Again, the use of cloth or burlap sacks tied to the uniform belt, are acceptable alternatives to the manufactured haversack.

Having gone through the cursory descriptions, let us now discuss what to do with the forage bag. Obviously, the purpose of the bag is to hold the soldier’s meals until they are eaten. Additionally, the bag holds the soldier’s “mess kit”: plate, skillet, knife, fork, and spoon. If they were to be had, a soldier might also carry a few coarse towels or scraps of fabric to use as potholders or washcloths, some lye soap {3}, maybe a few precious condiments like vinegar, salt, pepper, relish and the like.

Many modern campaigners like to carry small bottles of olive oil for cooking and lubrication of their muskets. Something like this may have been done by the soldiers in both armies, too, and seems to be a satisfactory practice within the hobby. Try to find a period-looking tin bottle with a secure cap on it; glass will break and the cork will invariably work loose anyway. Gutta-percha inkwells work, too, but will impart a decidedly unpleasant taste to the oil, rendering it useless for cooking. It will still be acceptable for gun maintenance, though.

Food should be placed inside cloth bags known as “pokes”. These were usually made of muslin or cotton sheeting, sewn together, with a piece of twine to tie the opening shut. Vary the sizes for different food items. {4} Clean, empty pokes can also be used as coffee bags, if you have a boiler handy.

Canteen halves can replace the plate and skillet. This seems to be the vogue in the hobby right now, and is based on solid research. Period tinware plates and skillets certainly did see use throughout the war, and a tin boiler of one or two quarts in capacity will find a friendly welcome in almost any camp. A mucket can serve both as a cup and boiler, if weight is a factor. The larger tin ware, however, can also serve to carry extra rations, such as potatoes or corn, and allow the soldier to distribute the weight of his rations about more equally.

There is some debate about whether the average Southron carried both a canteen and a tin cup. Contemporary sources state that many Johnnies would dispense with one or the other when on campaign, hoping to make up the loss from “liberated” inventory from the battlefield later on. This may have been the case. Gen. Jackson had a detail follow his army on the early marches, collecting all the discarded equipment left behind by footsore troops, only to reissue these same items to the troops later on, after exacting the cost of replacing said items from the soldier’s meager pay. I do not know how meticulous other commanders were, but since the practice of discarding gear was widespread, other officers may have done something similar from time to time. Also, some memoirs included references to soldiers who always did without a canteen, hoping to get a drink from an obliging comrade along the march. On the other hand, a cup fills up more quickly than a canteen from a well or spring, an important consideration if the column has not halted at the water source, and the soldier does not wish to be left behind while slaking his thirst. It may be wise, if not historically accurate, for the reenactor to carry both items.

If one chooses to carry the tin cup, vice the mucket, it may best be suspended from the strap of the canteen or haversack by a length of twine or lace. The boiler is best slung under the knapsack, particularly if it is large. Some wartime manuals recommend making a pouch for the knife/fork/spoon, to hang from the belt, but it does not seem to have been a widespread practice {5}. In all probability, it was only as common as carrying a large sheath knife, a practice stringently discouraged within the reenactment community.

In conclusion, it would appear that the ration bag is both a correct and essential piece of equipment for the modern hobbyist, and should reflect the needs and the impression of the reenactor. Careful research can show a variety of choices, although it would be a good idea to stay in the mainstream with issue gear, unless circumstances require a unique application.

The author waives all copyrights and fees for the use of this article, except for citing the article and author when using it in whole or in part.

(1) I know that many soldiers did without their haversacks at one time or another, but it is still true that the forage bag was issued to practically each and every soldier in both armies. It is listed as part of the equipment for each soldier in the regs, and should be considered an essential part of your kit.

(2) Got to the “Mountain Rifles Mess” website[ http://home.earthlink.net/~wsmittle/oilcloth.htm ] for a formula to make the correct “tar” paint for oilcloths, knapsacks and haversacks.

(3) Colgate “Octagon” Laundry Soap is a good choice for a commercially available lye-based soap. Look for it alongside the boxed laundry soaps in your local grocery or department store. Homemade lye soap would be even more correct, if your standards are higher than mine are.

(4) See “Weekend Rations”, by the author, for more detailed information on what to put in your haversack.

(5) Cloth or leather pouches were used to hold “table furniture” together inside the haversack, but the practice of hanging gear from the belt was not popular with the troops on either side. One can discern the reason easily enough by attempting to carry one’s gear in this manner on the march.