Stephen P. Hanson
1st Sgt., Co. C, 2nd U.S. Infantry, National Regiment
It must not be assumed that full knapsacks were always necessary every time soldiers set out on a march. Naturally, if an army was moving from one place to another, it was necessary. But, if some elements of the army were marching out and back again on a patrol or a scouting mission, or if the army was making a limited march into enemy territory where resistance (a battle) was expected, but leaving its main camp intact, only a limited amount of supplies were needed This is an ideal scenario for most battle reenactments, because, in fact, the camp remains intact.
In such cases, men were issued extra food, which they carried in their haversacks, and extra ammunition, which they carried in their pockets or knapsacks in wet weather. The men would only carry enough equipment for field camping (an extra shirt, extra underwear and socks, toiletries, cleaning equipment, shelter halves, and maybe gum blankets, depending on the expected duration of the march and expected weather based on time of the year. As soldiers became veterans, they often went without shelter halves and gum blankets, and even the extra clothing, preferring to sleep rolled up only in their blankets Many times they were too tired to care about even those amenities and slept anywhere, under any conditions, along the sides of the road in bivouac.
“At the first sound of battle an order comes to fall in line, light marching order, which means with a blanket rolled lengthwise and hung around the shoulders, canteen of water, three days rations and arms.”
— Sgt. Charles T. Bowen 12th U.S. Infantry
A means of carrying these few necessities for short duration is as old as armies themselves – roll everything up in a blanket and sling it over the shoulder.
Most attempts of reenactors to depict this practice result in either of two extremes. On the one hand, the blanket is obviously empty and worn merely for decoration. On the other hand, it results in a bundle of so many items that the blanket roll is absurd in its bulk and impossible to wear A reenactor’s primary concern is usually the problem of how to fire his musket with this monster coiled around him. The main concern of a real veteran is the comfort and convenience of being able to carry his load over a long march.
The most convenient solution reenactors use to this problem is to wear the blanket over the left shoulder. Yes, it allows the weapon to be fired without obstruction, but it causes many more problems to the veteran: the ends of the blanket tied at the right hip obstruct access to the cartridge box and get in the way of the “prime” position; “shoulder arms” is difficult because the same bulk at the right hip make it difficult to hold the weapon in close to the body; and “support arms” is impossible because of the bulk on the left shoulder. Another consideration not taken into account by the reenactor whose cartridge box is full of blanks, is that a full cartridge box is very heavy and pulls on the left shoulder
To balance the overall weight of the soldier’s load, as little else as possible should be carried on the left shoulder.Consider for a moment carrying the blanket roll on the right shoulder. If the bulk does not exist, the musket can still be fired, and, not only are all arms carries unobstructed, but the extra padding on the right shoulder making “right shoulder shift” a much more comfortable, even preferred, position for long periods of time Also, when at “support arms” the left hand can be placed on or under the blanket roll for support; access to the cartridge box is not obstructed; the weight of a full cartridge box is all the left shoulder need carry; and the canteen full of water and the haversack full of food is in the shadow of the ends of the blanket on the left hip where the sun cannot get at them, keeping both cooler. Doesn’t this sound like a veteran who has been doing it for a long time and who has found the most sensible, comfortable and utilitarian way of carrying a blanket roll?
Now, how do you accomplish such a miracle of military science? You simply create what amounts to two “bags” out of your blanket. One bag hangs in the front, the other hangs in the back, and the center, which rests on your shoulder is only as thick as 5 or 6 layers of wool and becomes a very wide strap that can carry a heavy load without cutting into the shoulder. There is no great bulk at the shoulder to obstruct firing
1. Lay your blanket open on the ground.
2. Fold any clothing to be carried flat and lay them on the blanket, side by side, on one half of the blanket, between the end stripe and 5 or 6 inches from the center of the length of the blanket.
3. Place small items on the other half of the blanket near the end stripe, making a long, thin, evenly distributed pile with the largest, heaviest and bulkiest items nearer to the end stripe, and the smaller, lighter items toward the center. Remember that the ends of the blanket will be “down” and the center of the blanket will be “up”, so any containers should have their tops facing the center of the blanket. Making little packages or draw-string bags to put things in will make this packing, as well as knapsack packing, a lot easier You will not have a large number of loose, small items falling about.
4. If the shelter half is to be carried, fold it so that it fits on the blanket between the end stripe and 5 or 6 inches from the center, and is as wide as the blanket. Place it down first with the clothing on top (some clothing may be put on the small-items side of the blanket to reduce the bulk of the shelter half/clothing side when the blanket is rolled up).
5. If the gum blanket is also to be carried, it can be placed on the small-items side folded in the same manner as the shelter half. If rain is a possibility, it can be rolled over the blanket AFTER the blanket is rolled up but not tied to or with the blanket. This makes it easy to take off and place over the shoulders as a rain coat if necessary At any rate, your blanket and its contents will stay dry. Don’t spread the shelter half or gum blanket flat on the blanket and roll them with the blanket, because the bulk at the shoulder will be too much to handle.
6. The shelter half and gum blanket should not extend beyond the far edge of the blanket so when it is rolled up they will stick out.
7. Try to make the loads on both sides as even as possible, but it is not necessary. If the loads are of different sizes, the larger “bag” will be carried in back to keep it out of the way. It may even be more convenient for you to make one side larger than the other so the bag in front is not so bulky that it gets in your way Some experimentation may be necessary hat is more comfortable for you. It needs to be tried several times, learning new lessons from each experiment.
8. Roll up your blanket from the edge where the items are stored.
9. Fold the blanket in half bringing the two ends with the stripes together with the raw edge on the inside to keep it from fraying and snagging any movements.
10. Tie the ends together at the stripe. Tie one end tightly, then run the cord to the other end and tie it tightly also. The tie should be high enough and tight enough that it will not slip out when carried The two ends need not be held tightly together. The larger the loads within the blanket, or the greater the bulk the blanket has to get around, the more space you will have to leave between the ends. Your extra shoe laces are excellent for this job, and will not require obtaining anything more than you already have on hand.
11. Do not tie the center where the blanket will rest on your shoulder. It will cause a bulging at exactly the spot where it should be flat. Other ties may be made at the tops of each “bag” if desired, but remember that the more ties, the more difficult it will be to get inside
12. During rest stops, the blanket roll can be thrown against a tree or placed under the head as a pillow.
Remember that the more “veteran” a soldier became, the less he felt he needed to sustain himself in the field. Blanket rolls are meant to be convenient and should never to so bulky as to obstruct movement or be a burden.