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Haversack & Contents

1846 - 1853

Ration Bags

Tin Cans
1-pound & 2-pound






Mechanical Pencil


Collapsible Ink Pen

Ceramic Inkwell
(courtesy of Sullivan Press)


Double Edge Ink Eraser

New Testament
American Bible Society

Union Temperance Songster
Temperance Hymnal - 1850

Bone Dice


Clay Pipe With Reed Stem

Pipe - Cypress Bowl With Reed Stem

Tin Tobacco Box

Tobacco Twist & Cigar

Cigar Tin With Cigars


Collapsible Drinking Cup
(circa 1840)

Jews Harp
circa 1835

Men's Toilet Kit

Imperial Bay Rum
Men's Fragrance


Razor Strop

Tin Shaving Cup

Swivel Top Mirror

An article well describes the use of the haversack.  Our thanks to the folks at

and to the author for allowing us to offer the following information:

By Wayne Thompson

The proper name for the haversack is "forage bag", or "ration bag".  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.  That is not to say that every soldier always had a ration bag on him at all times, though.  For many a soldier, a full stomach was a much better storage container than any satchel could ever be.

There were many styles of forage bags, and a list of each style would not be productive for our use here.  Rather, we will identify the two broadest types and describe them here.

The most common Federal-issue forage bag is the antebellum pattern "tarred" model.  This was a canvas sack, roughly measuring 10" wide x 12" long x 2" deep, 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, and so forth.  Additionally, the poke got plain nasty after awhile and so it would have been removed at least to be laundered.

Other patterns were purchased by the states for their antebellum militia troops and later 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 many state militia units, the most common pattern mimicked the US bag, without the tarring.  It also appears to have been slightly smaller in size, more often presenting a square shape.  

What, then, will a soldier do with his forage bag?  

The primary purpose of the bag is to hold the soldier's meals until they are eaten.  The bag is also intended to hold a soldier's mess kit; namely, a plate, skillet, knife, fork, and spoon.  If available, a soldier might also carry a few coarse towels or scraps of fabric to use as potholders or washcloths, some lye soap (commonly available at most sutleries today), a nutmeg grater, and possibly a few precious condiments such as nutmeg, vinegar, salt, pepper, relish and the like.

Food should be placed inside pokes, which are bags - cloth bags, in our case (definition provided for those of you who are unfamiliar with the language of the South).  Pokes were usually made of muslin or cotton sheeting, sewn together, with a piece of twine to tie the opening shut; sometimes done in a drawstring style.  Poke sizes may vary, depending on the foods you need to carry.  Vary the sizes for different food items.  Clean, empty pokes can also be used as coffee bags, if you have a boiler handy.

Period tinware plates and skillets certainly saw 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.

A cup 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 2.  In all probability, it was only as common as carrying a large sheath knife, a practice stringently discouraged within the reenactment community.

The haversack - the forage bag - 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.  Though there are many choices available in terms of materials, construction, and style, it is a good idea to stay within 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.  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.  It is listed as part of the equipment for each soldier in the military regulations, and is an essential part of the soldiers' kit.
2.  Cloth or leather pouches were used to hold "table furniture" - forks, knives, spoons - together inside the haversack, but the practice of hanging gear from the belt was not popular with the troops on either side.  Carry your equipment on the march a time or two and the reason for its lack of popularity will be self-evident.