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Care and Feeding of Your Uniform and Equipage

by Robert A. Braun

One of the least glamorous and perhaps least understood aspects of historical recreation is the care and upkeep of one's uniform, rifle-musket, and equipage. Authenticity-minded historical enthusiasts will find that such care and maintenance often becomes a balance between protecting an investment using modern techniques and materials and duplicating the cleaning habits (or lack of them) of our martial ancestors.

Rifle-Musket

If a cavalryman's "first care was always his horse," then the infantryman's first care was his rifle-musket. Today, the lack of care given to weapons in the course of a weekend "campaign" by a majority of re-enactors is a little short of appalling. Keeping weapons in good working order was essential. We don't have the "luxury" of picking up a clean(er) rifle-musket from "hundreds of cast-off muskets" as occurred in the Federal lines during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

Cleaning the standard Civil War rifle-musket was a simple if messy operation. Private Edward Wightman of the Ninth New York Volunteers remembered:

"Our spare time is generally spent scrubbing up equipments. Rifles are atomized, screw drivers, emery paper, buckskin, oil, etc. brought into requisition as a mass [detail] got up on short notice comparable with house cleaning. Daubs of rust and dust get in your nose, and your hands become coal-colored when there is no water to wash [with]. In some circumstances, one feels as if he had been dipped in cobwebs" (Longacre, ed., From Antietam to Fort Fisher, p. 58)

Manuals of the period preserved the recommended fashion for cleaning the piece in the field:

"It is not essential for the musket to be dismounted every time that it is cleaned . . . it can be perfectly cleaned as follows: Put a piece of rag or soft leather on the top of the cone, let the hammer down upon it: pour a gill [four ounces] of water into the muzzle carefully, so that it does not run down the outside: put a plug of wood [not tompion!] into the muzzle, and shake the gun up and down, changing the water repeatedly until it runs clear. Then withdraw the leather and stand the musket on the muzzle a few moments, then wipe out the barrel [by screwing the wiper, sometimes erroneously referred to as the "worm," onto the end of the ramrod and putting a piece of dry cloth or tow around it, sufficient to prevent it from chafing the grooves of the barrel: wipe the barrel quite dry, changing . . . the cloth two or three times], and also wiper the exterior of the lock and the outside of the barrel around the cone [sometimes erroneously referred to as the "nipple"] and cone-seat, first with a damp rag, then with a dry one, and lastly with a rag that has been lightly oiled. In this way, all the dirt from firing may be removed without taking out a screw. If, however, the hammer works stiffly or grates upon the tumbler, the lock must be immediately taken off and the parts cleaned and touched with oil" (Rules for the Management and Cleaning of the Rifle Musket, Model 1855, 1862, p. 24).

Consider the experience of Leander Stillwell, 61st Illinois, who commenced to clean his musket in a soggy bivouac while en route to Bolivar, Tennessee, mid-July, 1862. He wrote:

"We were required to keep all the metal parts (except the butt-plate) as bright and shining as silver dollars. I have put in many an hour working on my gun [an Austrian rifle-musket] with an old rag and powdered dirt, and a corn cob, or pine stick, polishing the barrel, the bands, lockplate and trigger-guard until they were fit to pass inspection. The inside of the barrel we would keep clean by the use of a greased wiper and plenty of hot water. In doing this, we would ordinarily, with our screwdrivers, take the gun to pieces, and remove from the stock all metal pieces. . . . We soon learned to take care of our pieces in a rain by thoroughly greasing them with a piece of bacon, which would largely prevent rust from striking in" (Stillwell, The Story of a Common Soldier pp. 90-91).

Practical experience has shown that the use of very hot water will allow the barrel interior to dry quickly, and without rust. It is recommended that the barrel be "oiled" as stated above after each cleaning. Metal parts should be cleaned with "fine flour of emery-cloth" (Rules for the Management and Cleaning of the Rifle Musket, Model 1855, 1862, p. 23) and also given a light coat of oil. Avoid the use of modern gun lubricants (nothing smells so much like a petroleum-based product than these lubricants), using instead sweet oil, beef tallow or bacon fat sparingly, in the manner of the original soldiers. Don't forget to clean the ramrod, taking care to clean the head end (sometimes erroneously referred to as the "tulip"). as well as the threaded end. Similarly, the bayonet should be cleaned with emery-cloth and lightly coated with oil or cooking grease. And if for whatever reason, you cannot achieve machine-shop perfection in the cleaning of your rifle musket, consider the exchange between a soldier of the 21st Massachusetts and a regular of Syke's V Corps on the march near Fox's Gap, Maryland, September 15, 1862. As the dusty V Corps men marched by, the Massachusetts soldier remarked (quite out loud) that he didn't see any difference between a regular and a volunteer. A sergeant of the Regulars stepped out of the column and shoved his "polished and spotless musket" into the man's face and growled. "Here's where the difference comes in!" The New Englander glanced at the piece but a moment, then remarked. "Yes, we use ours to fight with" (Priest, Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain p. 331). (A special note: never replace your bayonet into its scabbard after you have fired with the bayonet fixed. Clean it first. By replacing it in the scabbard without cleaning, you will be coating the inside of your scabbard with powder fouling, which you can never get out, and the acidic fouling will promote an instantly rusty bayonet.)

Uniforms

Unlike our modern age, with its germ theory and penchant for cleanliness, dirt was simply taken for granted in antebellum America. People did try to keep clean, but the elements, time, a lack of time-saving machines and sophisticated laundry soaps precluded the capability of washing clothes after each wearing. The rigors of the campaign made even an occasional washing nearly impossible. Sergeant Rice C. Bull, 123rd New York Volunteers, recalled on May 17, 1864, in Georgia: "One of the hardest conditions we had to face, when in the service, was the ability to keep clean. When near a small stream we could
not bathe or wash in it as the troops along its banks were using the water for drinking and cooking. . . . Usually in the field
there was little chance to wash or clean clothes" (Bull, Soldiering p. 108). But when the opportunity to wash presented itself, Sergeant Bull took full advantage: "It took time to wash and dry so we had to know we would halt for at least a day before we could undertake the job. As we were near a stream we could use without contaminating our water supply. Nat Rowell and I did our washing. We borrowed a kettle from the Regimental Commissary for the 'boiling' and by ten in the morning we were at work. It was a fine warm day so we had no trouble in drying our clothes. We felt like new men" (Bull, Soldiering pp. 112-113).
This use of mess kettles for washing confirmed John D. Billings' recollection of using these cooking vessels as wash boilers (Hardtack and Coffee p. 83-85). It was interesting that Bull and Billings made no mention of the use of soap in this process.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which was the fact that four pounds of soap per one hundred men (or a whopping 0.64 of an ounce per man) was the regulation issue per day. This was issued along with other "small rations" of salt, rice, beans, and candles . . . usually when the men were in more permanent camp. It is important to note that soap, along with beans, rice, and candles were frequently not issued while on active campaign (Billings, p. 112). This doesn't mean that soldiers didn't have soap. Rather, their meager supplies were probably not replaced during periods of activity. Evidence of this can be seen in the October 6, 1862, letter of Private Edward K. Wightman, 9th New York Volunteers, who wrote his mother and sisters from Maryland:

"Our washing at present is of little consequence, as we have with us only the clothing on our backs. A ration of soap, however, is given out once a week, and every Saturday we wade into Antietam Creek and play washerwoman. Our under clothing then and there receives a thorough scrubbing. The quantity of lather and the energy of wringing would raise the eyebrows to the roots of your hair with astonishment. When the washing is done, we 'go ashore' and hanging the 'pieces' on bushes or spreading them out on the grass, sit patiently in the shade till they are dry. In better times, when we have our baggage, a Sunday inspection compels the men to show a clean suit on their person and another in their knapsack" (Longacre. From Antietam to Fort Fisher p. 53).

How often did Civil War soldiers wash their clothes? Circumstances and situations of weather, water, soap, and time render any pronouncement on this point nearly impossible. One indication is available from the journal of Sergeant Samuel Clear, Company K, 116th Pennsylvania. He recorded receiving a new (and presumably clean) issue of at least a "new blouse and Pants" [sic] on Thursday, October 6, 1864. The next entry in which he recorded any washing of clothes was Tuesday, October 18, 1864: "Sent all the boys on fatigue this morning. I washed my clothes" (Menge and Shimrak, eds., The Civil War ebook of Daniel Chisholm pp. 42, 44). This twelve day stint translates into one going five or six modern event weekends without washing one's clothing. Your uniform is an investment. And while you may not wear it as often as our Civil War ancestors, neither do you have the luxury of drawing new items against a clothing allowance. Sergeant Clear's issue previous to the one mentioned October 6, 1864, was August 13, 1864, a wear-out period during active campaigning of approximately eight weeks. Shirts, stockings, handkerchiefs, and haversack liners are items that easily lend themselves rather easily to a "washday in camp" scenario. In fact, whenever you launder shirts and any other hand-sewn items, you should always wash it by hand. While this takes a little longer, washing by hand will preserve your clothing longer than will the harsher treatment of machine laundering. And don't worry about drying your clothing in the sun with its resulting fading. You want your clothing to fade naturally, as this was an unavoidable reality for our ancestor's uniforms. Further, such fading greatly improves the period "look" of your overall impression.

Washing of woolen items, including your wool-flannel issue shirt, is a trickier proposition. Shrinkage is the enemy, although we
probably have each attended enough soggy encampments to render most shrinkage concerns moot. Regardless, a careful dry-cleaning of your woolen items at least once per season (although not "authentic") is probably a wise step towards conserving your investment. Be sure to request no creases in your trousers from the dry cleaner. Military trouser creases weren't in vogue until well after the Civil War. [Editors' Note Another approach is to avoid dry cleaning altogether by brushing the dirt from soiled woolens. When uniforms become intolerably dirty, consider hand washing these as well with mild soap in cold water and then hanging to air dry. Avoid drying in the hot sun or by a camp fire to avoid undue shrinkage.]

Accoutrements and Belt Plates

Whatever cuss words you hurl at the head of your sergeant at the order to clean brasses and belts for a Sunday inspection, such duties were recurrent for most Civil War soldiers. A prime example was found in General Orders No. 12, Headquarters, 4th Brigade (of First Division, I Army Corps) issued April 8, 1863, which stated in part, that "inspections must be thorough, the men appearing upon them with boots or shoes and belts properly blackened, brass cleaned and clothing in good order" Regimental Order Book, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, Record Group 94, National Archives, p. 255).

Confirming this reality are accounts by Corporal Frederick Pettit and Samuel Clear. Pettit, a corporal in Company C, 100th Pennsylvania, wrote on September 6, 1863, from Crab Orchard, Kentucky: "It is Sunday and . . . this morning we had inspection at nine o'clock. At these inspections, we are required to have our brass, iron, steels, and leather all brightly polished" (William Gavin, ed., Infantryman Pettit p. 105). Samuel Clear kept a running account of such details in his journal. It was a rare Sunday when Sergeant Clear failed to record the phrase "had the usual inspection."

Cleaning and polishing leather goods was required by Army Regulations. Such requirements presumed the use of a wax-based compound colored with lamp-black called "blacking" (what else?). A similar compound known as "black ball" was known and used in the mid-18th Century. Certainly blacking was available in many commercial preparations. However, our Civil War ancestors are not so free with information on where they obtained cleaning and/or polishing materials like blacking. Even the uniform and equipage listing for the best-equipped regiment of the war, the 83rd Pennsylvania, does not specifically mention blacking. The list does mention "1,000 . . . Sacs du petit, or Small Sacks containing [among other brushes for clothes, hair and buttons] shoe brushes" (Judson, History of the Eighty-Third Regiment P.V. p. 26). It is possible that shoe blacking rounded out the issue. It would appear from the accounts that some form of blacking was available to soldiers, if only resorting to working ground-up campfire cinders into axle or cooking grease and applying that. Army Regulations also required that accoutrements be "whitened" as well as polished. Long a misunderstood term today, "whitening" refers to the use of apple cider vinegar as a cleaning agent. A part of the standard Army ration for decades, vinegar was made available to Sherman's troops in Georgia as part of the sustenance issue. Vinegar, as a mild acid, works rather well as a cleaner of brass. Even better was the use of Leander Stillwell's "powdered dirt" or some fine, powdery campfire ash. The mild base properties of the ash, along with a mild abrasive action, provides an excellent duplication of field-cleaned brasses. Either technique will enhance your overall "period" look. For our "19th-century" purposes, nothing so overcleans brasses like modern Brasso, Never Dull, and similar products. And don't forget to "whiten" the finial of your bayonet scabbard!

Mess Furniture

The pronouncements of John D. Billings on the tender subject of cleaning one's mess furniture (tin dipper, tin plate, knife, fork and spoon) are familiar to most of us. Frequently there would be no cleaning. When cleansing of these items became necessary, few did much more than to "take a wisp of straw or a handful of dry leaves" (Billings, p. 76) to them. Plates were also doused with some hot coffee or wiped with a piece of soft bread. Billings (pp. 76-77) also recalled restoring one's knife and fork (the spoon wasn't mentioned) from its "very sable hue" by "running them vigorously into the earth a few times." Experience using this latter method shows that it works quite well even today.

Our modern concerns regarding disease and vocal objections of "significant others" causes us to take more care of our table
furnishings than our ancestors apparently did. Use of one's dishes in the tented field, along with periodic cleaning with very hot,
soapy water, will render these necessary items quite fit for use, while maintaining their unique character.

Shoes

Much has been written and certainly spoken about the care of one's Civil War-style shoes today. There is very little mention of shoe care in the period accounts beyond the occasional replacement of footwear, or "blacking" for an inspection. Three cardinal rules for shoe care, scrupulously adhered to, will extend the life of your investment:

    1. Never expose your shoes to a high heat source (such as a fire). Shoes are made from animal skin, and are as susceptible to the elements as your skin. Trying to toast your feet next to a fire with shoes on is fruitless; your shoes will be ruined long before the beat can be felt in your feet. The rule of thumb if you must dry your shoes next to a fire should be "If it's too hot for your hands, it's too hot for your shoes!"
  1. 2. Always air dry your shoes slowly, preferably with loosely crumpled newspaper stuffed inside. When dry, apply a commercial black paste polish (if needed) or treat with a commercial leather preservative. It is also likely that the old vets may have applied cooking grease to their shoes, as a water-resistant protection.
    Treated this way your shoes can withstand many, many wet weekends.
  2. Never allow your mud-caked shoes to dry before cleaning them! The idea that waiting for the mud (and shoes) to dry will make cleaning easier may end up shortening the life of your footwear. Soil, as it dries, will sap moisture and oils from the leather. Better to clean off the mud while your shoes (and the mud) are still wet, then dry your shoes thoroughly.

Canteens and Haversacks

Few items of the soldier's equipage provided more service and more physical abuse than these "mess twins." Accounts are frequent regarding the need to replace these items regularly during active campaigning. They received little attention beyond the rare washing of the haversack liner or the occasional shortening of the strap. After an event, one should empty and dry one's canteen by inserting a twist of paper toweling into the spout and hanging the canteen upside down. Water will usually be wicked off into the toweling, thereby slowing rust development inside your canteen. One friend of this author tried to scour out the rust inside his canteen by shaking it with a partial fill of dry sand. His theory worked well until he tried to get the sand out. He was a "gritty" reenacting soul for some time afterwards. Store your canteen uncorked.

Haversacks are normally hardy creatures that only require some occasional touch-up of the black "tarring" with commercial paste blacking. An experience with different haversacks from different vendors is worth repeating here. A product purchased from a well-known Southern maker required repainting of the haversack at the beginning of each season. This product was replaced by one offered by a familiar Wisconsin maker. The latter haversack has required no maintenance for over six seasons: proof that high-quality goods pay off in the long run.

Conclusion

With a little effort and patience at (or after) each event, proper care and maintenance of your uniform and equipage will serve you by preserving both your investment and the desired "period" look of your overall impression.

NOTES: Most of the above advice and observations are very good. We do find a few notable exceptions. DO NOT, I REPEAT - DO NOT - DRY CLEAN YOUR UNIFORMS! All clothing should be hand washed in cold water and air dried. DO NOT IRON! It is true that the boys in the field often boiled their clothes. This was as much to remove the "graybacks" and other vermin as to clean. Try this with your expensive sack coat or trousers and only your 12 year old will be able to wear them! Don't do it! Also, do not use Brasso or one of the other modern brass polishes. As was originally done - use vinegar to whiten and wood ash to polish. Do not use modern boot/shoe polish. Use grease or fat (mink oil works well) and blackening. Ground up charcoal from the campfire works well. BOTTOM LINE - USE WHAT THEY USED!

Once again, we stress that in order to preserve authenticity and help ensure you will receive a quality product, ALL items must be purchased through, or with the approval of, the Quartermaster.

ITEMS NOT APPROVED PRIOR TO PURCHASE MAY NOT BE ALLOWED ON THE FIELD!!!

If you have any questions PLEASE contact:

Doug Grout, Henry Wakefield or Eric Hector
(see member list for phone numbers, etc.)


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