Knapsack Compression: Wilbur Hinman recalls the first step of becoming a veteran

Looking back on his experiences during the war, Captain Wilbur Hinman of the 65th Ohio (perhaps best known as the author of Si Klegg and His Pard) recalled that the first road along which his regiment marched was strewn “with debris. A pair of six-mule wagonloads might have been gathered of notions that had been flung aside by a thousand suffering “tenderfeet.”

“The average young patriot started for the war with a wheelbarrow load of clothing, a bed quilt or two, books, photograph albums, toilet articles, and gimcracks of every sort,” he wrote. “Neither he nor the good homefolks had the slightest conception of the capacity of a knapsack, nor did they for a moment imagine that before the close of his first day upon the road every pound he carried would seem a hundred.”

To the true mark of a veteran soldier was one who “learned to dispense with every unnecessary ounce of weight, and just in the ratio that he did this he increased his efficiency as a soldier. It was of the highest importance to learn, not how great a load a man could carry on his back, but how little he could get along with and be measurably comfortable. The shrinkage of the knapsack was the beginning of the process that gradually transformed the recruit into the soldier.

So how did our Civil War veterans learn this truism of the life of a soldier? Through the hard hand of experience as Hinman explains in the following article from his 1892 book Camp and Field: Sketches of Army Life Written by Those Who Followed the Flag.

 

The critical first step to becoming a veteran soldier involved learning what was truly critical to carry on the march and what needed to be dispensed with along the way. Hinman noted that a cardinal mistake most Civil War soldiers made initially was overestimating their ability to haul hefty loaded knapsacks over long distances. The first march quickly disabused the soldier of that notion and the first lesson of the veteran was learned, that of economy. It wasn't long before the soldiers carried only the barest essentials: musket, cap pouch, cartridge box, canteen,  and a rolled rubber gum blanket with very few sundries wrapped inside. The army, too, took time to shed down the excess baggage which enhanced their mobility and ability to survive away from the supply lines, an especially critical thing in the western theater where so often the men had to operate for weeks at a time "in the rough." 


          In wartime, the raw soldier was known to the veteran as a “tenderfoot,” bearing to him the same relation that a fresh arrival from “the states” did to the seasoned miner in the early days of the Pacific slope. The term “tenderfoot” was not out of place when applied to a recruit as we clearly shown before the end of his first day’s march. There were few, indeed, who did not experience the wild, maddening pain from blisters upon the feet before the latter became toughened to macadamized turnpikes and the scraping of the fearfully and wonderfully made army shoe, known in soldier’s parlance of the time as the “gunboat.” A man was of but little account as a factor in war until he could march without becoming crippled.

This, of course, refers particularly to infantry, which always forms the great body of an army, and must of necessity do most of the heavy fighting. In long campaigns, we moved like the cattle which accompanied them to supply them with fresh beef “on the hoof.” Not till soldiers are able to march 20, 30, and even 40 miles in a day, when necessity required, and be able to fight when they get there, can they reach the full measure of usefulness.

The distances mentioned for a day’s march do not seem on paper a tenth as long as they do to a man tramping beneath a scorching sun, burdened with all the “traps” that make up a soldier’s outfit. Many a man, wholly unencumbered, may walk 40 miles within 24 hours without serious discomfort, but load him down with a musket, cartridge box and accoutrements, 60-80 rounds of ball cartridges, a bulging haversack containing all that he is to eat for three days, a canteen of water, blanket, overcoat, and knapsack, and before the march is half over he will be as much of a “used up man” as “Little Van” was declared to be in the old political campaign song of 1840. Words seem to have lost their meaning when one who has experienced them attempts to describe the utter exhaustion of every muscle and fiber and tendon of limb and body; the keen smarting where belts and straps have ground the dust into the sweating flesh and shoes have worn the skin from tender feet; the aching of shoulders and back and legs that have borne the heavy burdens along the weary miles.

During the late war, the most serious mistake made at the outset by the “tenderfoot” was that he greatly overestimated his carrying ability, his “tonnage” as a sailor would say. Perhaps this was due in a great measure to the faulty ideas of himself and his friends as to what it was necessary for him to take to the field. When a boy left his home to “go for a soldier,” the hearts of mother and sister palpitated with a loving desire to fit him out with everything possible in the way of home comforts. The average young patriot started for the war with a wheelbarrow load of clothing, a bed quilt or two, books, photograph albums, toilet articles, and gimcracks of every sort. Neither he nor the good homefolks had the slightest conception of the capacity of a knapsack, nor did they for a moment imagine that before the close of his first day upon the road every pound he carried would seem a hundred.

          The shrinkage of the knapsack was the beginning of the process that gradually transformed the recruit into the soldier. A novice ready for the march never failed to provoke a volley of good-natured gibes and jeers from the veteran soldiers who had graduated from the school of experience. They, too, had tried to carry ponderous knapsacks crammed with the gifts of loving but misguided friends. Their shoulders had ached and their blistered feet had smarted. The observing recruit could not fail to note the fact that their knapsacks, if they had any, were lean and shrunken while half of them had none at all. The veteran learned to dispense with every unnecessary ounce of weight, and just in the ratio that he did this he increased his efficiency as a soldier. It was of the highest importance to learn, not how great a load a man could carry on his back, but how little he could get along with and be measurably comfortable.

          But the recruit, raging with enthusiasm and patriotic emotions, never would learn from anyone else. He thought he could gauge his powers of endurance and had to find out for himself how mistaken he was. So, he responded with alacrity to note of bugle or tap of drum and trudged bravely off at the command “march!” Before the end of the first mile was reached, he began to learn something. When the bugle sounded for the first five minutes’ rest, after an hour’s tramping, he was seriously arguing with himself whether it would not be the part of wisdom to jettison part of his cargo.

This surviving example of a typical soldier's knapsack calls out the company and regiment, a rather common marking applied during the war. As the war progressed, the items carried in these knapsacks became less and less, many soldiers eventually dispensing with the knapsack altogether and using a blanket roll instead. 

          Squatting in a fence corner, he would open his knapsack and take an inventory of its contents to see if there was anything he could spare. He was loth to give up those keepsakes and mementoes of affection for which he had not yet passed out of the sentimental stage to the practical. Quite likely he would come to the conclusion at this inspection that there was nothing that he could throw away without doing too great outrage to his tender sensibilities. Then, too, the few minutes of rest had partly restored him to his normal condition. He was fain to believe that he would very soon get used to it and then all would be well. Perhaps he was urged to this conclusion by the irritating taunts of the old soldiers, whose personal baggage consisted only of their blankets rolled up like big sausages with the ends tied together and thrown over their shoulders. He would show them he could carry his load and travel as fast and as far as they could. So, he would buckle up his knapsack and “sling” it cheerfully at the signal to “fall in.”

          The second heat was like the first, only a good deal more so. The weight of knapsack and blanket and haversack and musket and cartridge box, and the aches and smarts seemed to increase by the rule of geometrical progression. How he longed to drop into a fence corner again before the column was halfway to the next halting place! But his grit, or “sand” as the boys used to call it, wouldn’t permit him to straggle, at least not yet. So he plodded on, sweating and straining and limping until the bugle sounded, and how unspeakably glad he was to hear it. Now the time had come when sentiment must go to the rear. Tearing open his knapsack, he flung away articles that loving hands had provided, not without a pang, but all the same, they had to go. Some more dear to his heart than the rest, he still clung to, but these would follow at the end of the next hour.

          If I should live to the span of Methuselah, I would retain a vivid memory of the first march of the regiment which bore my name upon one of its company rolls. We all had prodigious knapsacks. I didn’t think anybody in the regiment had a bigger one than I did, though I was but a boy, rather puny than robust, who had laid aside his books at college to go to war. The first few miles we tramped, looking like so many humped camels. Then began the inevitable “physicking” of the knapsacks and during the rest of that day and all the next the road was strewn with debris. A pair of six-mule wagonloads might have been gathered of notions that had been flung aside by a thousand suffering “tenderfeet.”

          It was not a hard march, either- that is, it would not have been so considered two years later when we had become “seasoned.” It was only 40 miles and we took three days for it, but it produced a more abundant crop of pains, aches, and blisters than any succeeding tramp that fell to our lot and we had our full share. It was in Kentucky in the month of January, 1862. Toward the close of the first day, two or three inches of snow fell. Patriotism was at a low ebb as we scraped away the snow, pitched tents, made fires, and cooked supper. I think among those unfortunate men whose “turn” it was to go on picket duty that night (no fires were allowed on the outposts), there was a feeling that they didn’t care a continental whether the Union was saved or not.

 

Source:

“The Tenderfoot: The painful process which transformed the recruit into the soldier,” Hinman, Wilbur F., Camp and Field: Sketches of Army Life Written by Those Who Followed the Flag. Cleveland: The N.G. Hamilton Publishing Co., 1892, pgs. 27-30

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