Union Army Canteens

The two most common Union-issue canteens: a smooth-sided example with its cloth covering, and a com/gated model that clearly shows the attached pewter spout and tin sling loops (All images courtesy of Frederick C. Gaede).

The common soldiers of the Civil War valued few personal items more than their canteens. Participants on both sides of the conflict became attached to them, and veterans waxed nostalgic about the tin containers after the war, wore pins with miniature canteens attached and reminisced about how "We drank from the same canteen." Private Miles O'Reilly even wrote a poem based on that phrase. Many ended up as tole painted, or lacquered, souvenirs of the dangers soldiers shared with lifelong "pards."

The Federal tin canteen was especially popular. With Confederates, too, it was generally available when wooden or tin canteens of Southern manufacture were not, provided Yankees were in the vicinity. One Confederate soldier, a Private Preston, remarked that "we had also exchanged our cedar canteens on the battlefield or by purchase from men who had more than one cloth covered, block tin, oval shaped Yankee canteens."

With Federals the canteen was popular both for its durability and the multitude of uses to which it could be put. Chief among those uses was to carry water. Soldiers being soldiers, however, foragers often returned to camp with milk, cider, molasses and even liquor in place of the intended liquid.

The canteen's usefulness did not end when it could no longer hold water, as it was often thrown into a fire and melted in half. New Jersey Private Alfred Bellard noted "the pork we fried on a pan of our own construction consisting of half a canteen and a stick." A half could also serve as a small washbasin or a makeshift entrenching tool. Punched through by a bayonet, the side of a canteen made a substitute grater when corn was available.

The Union-issue canteen for the majority of the Civil War was a relatively simple affair - two pieces of tin-plated iron soldered together, covered with cloth and carried by a cotton drill strap. Those basics followed a long tradition in the U.S. Army. Tin canteens in kidney and crescent shapes had been common during the Revolutionary War, but had largely been abandoned in favor of wooden forms by the time of the War of 1812. Due to surpluses from that conflict, the Quartermaster Department had no need to buy canteens of any type until the Second Seminole War (1836-42) broke out in Florida. At that time Callender Irvine, the commissary general of supplies, paid the same 40 cents each for wooden ones that he had paid during the War of 1812. Irvine also introduced a round tin "drum" version, available in two sizes; the larger, two-quart size became a mainstay during the Mexican War.

Complaints from the field about how the tin heated up the canteens' contents in the Mexican climate, and concern about the noise made by the uncovered canteens, caused the Quartermaster Department to begin a long period of experimentation. Materials such as India rubber, guttapercha, wood, leather, glass and even unplated iron were tried in an attempt to create a durable, lightweight and economical container that would also serve to keep water as cool as possible for the soldier. Although formed leather was an early favorite, by 1858 the department decided to retain tin as the construction material (for its strength) but changed the shape to an oblate spheroid, the form a sphere takes when flattened at the poles. Two stamped half-pieces were crimped and soldered around the edge to create the novel shape, apparently a uniquely American invention. The name of the person responsible for the design has been lost from the archival record.

In 1859 the Quartermaster Department stated that the canteen was to be "covered with Grey or Sky-blue Kersey." In an attempt at temperature control, the covering was intended to be soaked and thus cool the canteen's contents as the water evaporated. A pewter spout and tin-capped cork stopper to close the canteen were provided. Initially a five-eighths-inch-wide leather carrying strap with roller buckle completed the "Pattern of 1858" canteen. Such a canteen was included in an 1858 exchange of uniforms and equipage with the Danish government, and the earliest documented U.S. Army canteen of this pattern now resides in the Tøjhusmuseet in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Colonel George Crosman was in charge of the Office of Clothing & Equipage at the Schuylkill Arsenal (a Quartermaster facility that included the Philadelphia Depot). That arsenal procured and finished all canteens used by the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War and many during the conflict. All the tin bodies were made by contract and subjected to a water tightness test before acceptance. A small army of local seamstresses working at the arsenal covered the tin bodies. The canteens were then completed with stoppers (attached with a hemp cord) and straps. The earliest Philadelphia Depot canteens had leather straps and possibly unit markings stenciled on the side of the canteen to identify the regiment, company, and a soldier's number in the company.

This procurement procedure worked well during peacetime, when the U.S. Army had fewer than 20,000 officers and men. However, more than two million soldiers served in Federal armies during the Civil War, and changes were made both to enable faster delivery of canteens and to improve this vital accouterment.

First, other depots were permitted to contract for canteens. The New York agency, under the command of Major Daniel Vinton, was established in June 1861 specifically to contract for Quartermaster Department requirements. A depot was established on Governors Island in New York City Harbor to inspect and distribute the items received. Apparently without any official authorization from Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, Major Vinton introduced the use of an iron chain to retain the stopper. Vinton had no facilities to finish canteens, so all those delivered to his depot were complete with covers, stoppers and straps.

The Cincinnati Depot, established in the summer of 1861 as well, also bought its canteens complete, many from contractors located on the East Coast. For a short time in 1863, local Ohio contractors were unable to get pewter mouthpieces, and they substituted mouthpieces of tin, making such canteens easily identifiable as to the depot of origin. The St. Louis Depot also contracted for canteens, but despite the expenditure of nearly $200 million, the accounting records have been lost, and it cannot be determined whether there may be anything to differentiate St. Louis canteens from those of the other depots.

A Federal poses with his full kit, including a smooth-side canteen covered with dark cloth.

At Schuylkill, Colonel Crosman was unable to buy locally all the components required to complete his canteens, and he initially substituted anything he could find on the open market to finish them. Besides the kersey previously mentioned, many canteens before the war also were covered with a cheap woolen cloth called, not surprisingly, "canteen cloth," which included a lot of reprocessed "shoddy" wool. Crosman bought other materials on the open market, and many canteens distributed from Philadelphia in 1861 and 1862 were covered with satinette and kersey of assorted colors.

Most mid- to late Civil War canteens of all depots have coverings of jean cloth. This cheap material also was often made with a high shoddy content, of cotton warp and woolen weft. Occasionally coverings appear to have been made from recycled uniform and blanket materials. Web straps quickly superseded the leather straps at Schuylkill, and then machine-sewn cotton drill straps at all the other depots. A typical example of what Schuylkill Arsenal was producing after the panic of 1861 is shown in the first image on this page. This smooth-sided example has a web strap and no unit markings, likely dating it to early 1862.

A Federal ready for winter illustrates how high the canteen was worn so it would not move around too much on the march.

Apparently there were criticisms of the strength of the tin bodies, for in 1862 Colonel Crosman had Schuylkill Arsenal's pattern modified to what was officially known as the corrugated canteen (see the second image). A series of rings were stamped into the sides that were intended to add strength. The corrugated canteen, today popularly called the "bull's eye" or "concentric ring" canteen, was adopted in 1862. Curiously, it was only procured and distributed by the Philadelphia Depot. The number of rings was never standardized, and surviving examples have from five to eleven rings.

The pattern was specified in the compiled but never published 1865 Quarter Master's Manual: "Canteens - to be made with two semi-spherical plates of XX tin, corrugated, and strongly soldered together at the edges; 7 5/8 inches in diameter; 3 tin loops, 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch deep, well and securely soldered on the edge of the canteen, for the carrying strap to pass through; one of these loops fixed at the bottom, and the other two at a distance of 4 inches each, measured from the outside of mouth-piece, or nozzle; mouth-piece cylindrical, of bird white metal, 7/8 of an inch diameter, edged over at top, strongly soldered on and secured to the canteen by a tin apron, which is also soldered on to the canteen; velvet cork, 1 1/4 inches long, to fit mouth-piece, and capped on top with tin, through the centre of which extends a galvanized iron wire, 1/8 of an inch diameter, with a loop at top, 7/8 of an inch diameter (inside), secured at bottom of the cork by a galvanized iron or white metal washer and screw-nut. Attached to the loop of the cork wire and to one of the loops on the canteen, should be a strong piece of cotton or linen twine, made with 4 threads, hard twisted, 20 inches long, and doubled together, to prevent the loss of the cork; the canteen to be covered with a coarse cheap woolen, or woolen and cotton fabric, and to contain 3 pints. Strap to carry the canteen, to be of leather, with a buckle; or made of linen or cotton, doubled and seamed on the edges; or else of cotton or linen webbing, 3/4 of an inch wide, and 6 feet long. Weight of canteen, complete, 11 ounces."

This Federal liked his canteen enough to make it the sole prop in his photo. One wonders if a liquid stronger than water sometimes made its way into his "oblate spheroid."

The canteens were also marked in a variety of manners. Soldiers were supposed to stencil regimental designations on the cover, but many instead stenciled their names and unit designations on the straps. Relatively few soldiers, however, had the luxury of so marking their equipment after the initial months of the conflict, and many cloth straps have handwritten ink markings. Sometimes soldiers carved their names and units into the soft metal, often pewter, mouthpieces. Makers' marks can also be seen stamped into me pewter mouthpiece, generally just below me rim - sometimes stamped onto me cloth strap. In at least one case, the maker's name was stamped into the top of the tin disc covering the cork. Although inspectors were supposed to mark all the pieces they examined, apparently few did so on canteens, as their marks are relatively rare. One conscientious inspector was Theodore E Bayles, who worked at the New York Depot from November 1862 until May 1865. When visible, inspectors' marks are invariably found on the straps.

The Civil War ended with 544,764 canteens still in warehouse storage. Because of the size of the Regular Army during the postwar years, and the frugality of Congress, the surplus would continue to supply the Army until the Spanish-American War at the end of the century; a few altered Civil War-era canteens even saw service during the initial days of U.S. involvement in World War I. The numerous alterations to the canteen during the post-1865 period generally can be recognized by the replacement of the Civil War cloth coverings with tan cotton duck canvas covers, and the addition of a brass ring around the spout, to hold the chain for the stopper.

The phrase "We drank from the same canteen" became popular among veterans as a way to evoke the dangers shared in youth. The title of O'Reilly's poem was even incorporated into me masthead of a veteran-oriented newspaper, which took as its title The Canteen. Often painted by veterans with patriotic emblems and displayed with pride, the simple tin canteen became an icon of the conflict.

This article was taken from: Gaede, Frederick C.  “Symbols of army life, Union canteens were every bit as essential to soldiers as their muskets.” (American’s Civil War, May 2004), 10, 12, 60, and 62. It is used with permission.


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