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Canteens of the Army of Northern Virginia

By Bret Sumner, 4th Virginia

Federal Canteens [1]

As we all know, the Federal army was perhaps the most efficient quartermaster for the Army of Northern Virginia. There are numerous first person accounts of Confederate soldiers utilizing federal equipment, taken after a battle from yanks who no longer needed it. I recently read a first person account about a Confederate private who, while a battle was still raging, rushed in front of his own line to obtain the haversack of a dead federal soldier. (Several of us may remember the SWB’s very own Sgt. “Dusty” Chapman of the 27th VA – doing something similar this year during the Wilderness Campaign at Sanders Field – to obtain some yankee brogans!).

There were two basic patterns of canteens issued to the Federal army during the War Between the States: (1) the “smoothside” pattern (aka 1858 pattern); and (2) corrugated canteens (aka “bullseye” canteens; aka 1862 pattern). “Smoothside” canteens were manufactured by a variety of Federal contractors and were issued or produced from the federal depots in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The “Pattern of 1858” was described as a “oblate spheroid tinned sheet iron” canteen, which in modern parlance, translates to “smoothside.” The corrugated canteens were first produced around July of 1862 by the Philadelphia Depot. Corrugated canteens generally had either 5, 7, or 11 rings on the sides, as opposed to being smoothside, hence the modern parlance “bullseye” canteen.

The New York Depot issued only the smoothside canteen (1858 Pattern), it did not have manufacturing capability and therefore only received and shipped lots of “complete” canteens received from its contractors. New York Depot canteens had the following characteristics:

  1. The “body” of the canteen was made of “oblate spheroid tinned sheet iron” (translation = smoothside tin).
  2. A spout of white metal (not tin), occasionally mounted on the canteen with large spout “shoulder” reinforcement that bulged out from the canteen.
  3. The Stopper (cork with wire loop) was attached with a jack chain, with a hole punched in a tin strap keeper to hold the chain.
  4. New York Depot canteens had leather slings until mid-1862, and then cotton, linen, or cloth slings thereafter.
  5. Most canteen covers were made of course gray wool jean cloth. Some of this jean cloth may have been dyed with logwood, which would have faded with exposure to the sun into a brownish color.

The Philadelphia Depot issued smoothside canteens until July, 1862 and thereafter issued the “bullseye” pattern canteen. The bullseye pattern canteen had the following characteristics:

  1. Corrugated sides with generally either 5 or 7 rings. 11-ring varieties were also produced.
  2. A spout of white metal (not tin).
  3. The Stopper was attached with a string or cord. No hole was punched into the tin strap holder. Note: Only the New York Depot produced jack chains for canteens. Also, jack chains were not produced by any Confederate state – jack chain manufacturers were only located in the North.
  4. Leather slings – until approximately, July 1862. By mid-8162, canteen straps were made of one-inch white cotton herring bone webbing.
  5. Canteen covers were made of either (1) cheap kersey; (2) cheap sky-blue or gray satinet; (3) any other material available, such as material from old blankets, discarded overcoats, and upholstery material.

General Characteristics of Federal Canteens

Canteen Slings:
Up until mid-1862, most federal canteen sling was made of leather, with a tin buckle and protector (which was a “lip” of leather underneath the tin buckle, apparently made to protect the uniform or clothing from rust or staining). After mid-1862, all federal depots manufactured canteen slings were made of cotton, linen, or cloth. The cloth straps had folded and machine-sewn edges, or “four-panel, double chevron” weave one-inch wide web. In regard to non-leather canteen slings, its interesting to note that numerous surviving originals indicate that the soldiers modified their canteen slings by shortening them and then re-stitching the ends together. This personal modification makes sense – individual soldiers modified their slings to fit their size, in an effort to keep their canteen riding high on their body to avoid the canteen banging against their legs or hip.

Stopper Attachment:
As mentioned above, only the New York Depot produced canteens with jack chain stopper (cork) attachments. Generally, all other Federal depots attached the canteen stopper with approximately 20 inches of stout cotton or linen cord. The cord was tied in a loop and passed through itself, first through the stopper loop, and then through the sling keeper loop.

Canteen Covers:
As mentioned above, the most common material used for canteen covers was cheap, course grey jean cloth or wool. This material would oxidize with time and develop into almost a “camel” color brown. Other types of tan, brown, or gray jean cloth were also used for covers. Importantly, federal canteens with sky blue covers were extremely rare, and dark blue wool covers were non-existent. Unfortunately, there is a prevalence of dark blue or sky blue canteen covers in re-enacting today. Dark blue wool was not used for canteen covers because it was fairly expensive and usually reserved for the making of frock coats and sack coats. Jean cloth was very inexpensive, yet durable, material – and therefore more practical for the construction of canteen covers.

Confederate Canteens

I did not have time to conduct much research regarding the issuance of canteens produced by the Southern States and issued to the Army of Northern Virginia. I have not yet found any real documentation or reliable secondary source material. Obviously, there was a wide variety of canteens worn by Confederate soldiers, including a variety of wooden canteens (most prominent in the Western Theatre), tin drum canteens (please consult Echos of Glory for representative examples), and Federal canteens. I do know that Confederate produced tin drum canteens were issued to many ANV regiments in 1861 and early 1862. For example, I know that some companies of the 4th Virginia had tin drum canteens at First Manassas. I also recently examined an extremely detailed inventory of quartermaster and ordnance records for the 4th Texas Vol. Infantry – Hood’s Texans (Longstreet’s Corps) and, interestingly, there are no records for the issuance of canteens after December 31, 1862. (I am in the process of writing another article to discuss and analyze these quartermaster records – they are amazing).

Based upon examination of pictures of Confederate prisoners (i.e. the famous picture of Spotsylvania prisoners at “The Punch Bowl” and the picture of prisoners at White House Landing), it seems that many of the Confederates with federal canteens did not have any cover on them whatsoever. It may be inferred from these pictures that Confederate soldiers would have “canabalized” their canteen covers in order to use the materials for patching worn clothing.

General Recommendations for Fine-Tuning your impression:
(Remember – these recommendations are just well-meaning advice from a pard, – and should not be taken as directive or mandatory requirement.)

  1. Disregard sky blue or dark blue wool canteen covers and replace with grey wool or grey or brown jean cloth.
  2. For late war impressions, the absence of canteen covers and the utilization of cloth or linen slings, as opposed to leather slings would make sense.
  3. Only smoothside (New York Depot) canteens should have jack chain stopper attachments. All other canteens should have cord/string attaching the cork to the canteen or no attachment at all.
  4. Non-leather canteen slings should be shortened to “ride high” on your body – resting just above your hip. Extra holes can be punched in leather slings to allow for further shortening.
  5. If you are doing an 1861-62 impression and have a leather sling, you may wish to consider purchasing a correctly construct sling that has a “protector” (leather lip) underneath the tin buckle. (Unfortunately, there are very few people who make correct reproductions – see below)

Modern Sutlers – Sources for Correct Canteens:
[Admin’s Note: This is an older article we are reprinting and so cannot confirm the following sutlers remain in business or that prices remain as noted below]

  1. Confederate Wooden Canteens: The best source is Fort Branch Supply Co. – the owner, Ken Bucher, makes an exact reproduction of a Gardner pattern Confederate wooden canteen, made of juniper. This reproduction canteen is copied from an original issued out of the Raleigh Depot in North Carolina. Every detail of this original canteen is reproduced, including the depot stamp on the sling, coopering the staves, applying the banding, and sealing the inside with bees’ wax. These canteens are so authentic that the National Park system and several antique dealers requested that the reproduction canteens be signed and numbered to prevent one from being passed off as an original. The cost is $64.95 (which includes shipping). Contact Information: Fort Branch Supply Co., P.O. Box 190 Windsor, NC 27983; Phone: (919) 794-5400; e-mail: fbs@entgroup.com
  2. Federal Smoothside or Bullseye Canteens: The most correct source is C&D Jarnigan – yes, I said Jarnigan. However, when ordering be sure to request a tin (not stainless steel) canteen, with a canvas sling and no cover. Jarnigan only offers sky blue or dark blue canteen covers. Contact: C&D Jarnigan – phone: 601-287-4977; e-mail cjarnag@jarnaginco.com; web-site: www.jarnaginco.com
  3. Correct Canteen Covers: Charlie Childs offers a simple canteen cover kit for $6.00. Contact: County Cloth, 13797-C Georgetown St. NE, Paris, Ohio 44669; phone: (330) 862-3307. You can choose the material from his current selection of jean and then he will send you a kit, with the necessary markings and directions to assist you in sewing the cover. Making your own canteen cover is relatively simple.
  4. Correct Canteen Slings:
    Cotton Web Straps: Leighton Young, 1601 Wingate Way Dunwoody, GA 30350; phone (770) 901-9048.
    Correct Leather Slings (with tin buckle “protector”): James Owens – Silver Spring, Maryland; phone (301) 681-7462. Or ​Historic Clothiers, P.O. Box 28, Butler N.J. 07405; e-mail HistCloth@aol.com; Website: www.HistCloth.com

[1] Sources: “The Federal Canteen” by Robert A. Braun (33rd Wisconsin); “The Civil War Issue Canteen: Patterns of 1858 and 1862” by Earl J. Coats; “Oblate Spheroid Canteen 1858-1916: A Standard Recognition Guide” by William Phillips and Carter Rila.

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