Some (More) Thoughts


The Blanket Roll

By Wayne Thompson

I have been doing some research, and I’ve decided to revisit the subject of the blanket roll. In my first paper {1}, I stated that the Confederate soldier quickly dispensed with his knapsack and went to the blanket roll. Actually, research indicates that some soldiers held onto their knapsacks until they were worn out, or they no longer had the need for them {2},{3} . So, while it appears that the blanket roll was more common (at least in the Confederate armies) by late 1862, the knapsack is still a viable option. But whether you carry the blanket roll or knapsack, the following items may give you some project ideas for the “off-season” (whenever that is).

While there were regulation (issue) blankets, many soldiers carried the blankets they brought from home or had sent to them once they were in the field. Issue blankets were generally of fair quality wool, but some were made of “shoddy” (particularly from US contractors,) and did not last very long. In addition, soldiers would have acquired extra blankets while in winter quarters. Confederates typically carried a blanket or quilt from home, particularly at the start of the war. Blankets were made of wool, and quilts were commonly made of cotton or linen. While I will be referring to quilts from time to time, the main emphasis of this paper will be on the wool blanket, as it was more common for soldiers in the field.

Key points to look for in your blanket selections are color, material, and stitching.

** Color

Natural and muted colors are the best choices. Characteristic colors for wool blankets are gray (common in both armies), brown (also widespread), red ochre, or off-white (ecru, or “raw”). Woven designs were common, particularly blankets with contrasting stripes or checks. Since the first synthetic dye didn’t come about until 1862 {4}, all blanket yarns were dyed using traditional vegetable and mineral dyes. These colors would produce muted colors for the most part, so avoid bright colors.

One last point: one should avoid “Indian” or “trade” blankets, as these reflect either post-war or Colonial American styles, and would not have been seen in the ranks or in camp. Also, steer clear of any Clint Eastwood style serapes (thank you).

** Materials

At the risk of irritating the “blanket gods”, some synthetic content (15% or less,) in the material will probably go undetected, and provides a lower-cost alternative to the more expensive pure wool blankets. Having said that, I will now tell that if you are truly serious about this, go with blankets made of 100% wool. Especially when wet, it has superior insulating qualities to any other natural material. Wool is your best choice for a blanket, even if you choose to carry a quilt as your second blanket.

Cotton is an alternative, but a poor one. Once wet, it loses any insulating qualities, which means you are cold and wet. Of course, if you are in a fixed camp, and under good canvas, getting your bedding rained on isn’t as likely to happen. Also, a cotton blanket or quilt is great if you are uncomfortable with a wool blanket against your skin. Quilts are typically made of cotton or linen, and a single quilt can weigh less, and keep you warmer (when dry), than two wool blankets.

I have found a knit cotton liner at K-Mart that works like a thermal blanket under a regular blanket, and as a light covering on hot nights. It sells for about $20. Look in the bedding section of the home furnishings department for it. It has the appearance of an unusually large afghan. A more correct option is to follow a tip included in a wartime Confederate pamphlet by one Dr. Wilson {5}:

“Line your blanket with one thickness of brown drilling. {6}  This adds but four ounces in weight, and doubles the warmth. Buy a small India rubber blanket (only $1.50 {7}) to lay on the ground or throw around your shoulders, when on guard duty, during a rainstorm. Most of the Eastern troops are provided with these (italics mine). Straw to lie on is not always to be had.”

If you are going to line your blanket, be sure to stitch across the middle of the blanket, as well as along the edges, to hold the lining in place. And speaking of stitches…

** Stitches

The common military-type blanket was hemmed with the “blanket stitch” {8}. Most, if not all, hems of the Civil War period were hand-sewn. Machine stitches did not hold up well to the stress and strain of campaign life {9}. The weave of the blanket varied from a loose weave to high-quality broadcloth. The heavier the weight of the blanket, the warmer it will be. Of course, the reason they are called “heavy weight” blankets is because, well, they are heavier. Two medium-weight blankets will keep you warmer than one heavy blanket, and will take up only a little more space. I feel every campaigner should own two medium-weight blankets, to cover the full range of temperatures over the year. If you insist on only carrying one blanket, you may do better with a heavier blanket with the drill backing.

And so...

In conclusion, a good blanket of the Civil War period would most likely be of medium to heavy weight wool, with a hand-sewn edge. The weave should be tight enough to keep the blanket from being “drafty”. It is always correct to have a regulation blanket (Federal troops would have been issued one, to the benefit of more than a few Johnny Rebs), but a non-regulation blanket or quilt will set off your impression nicely. The woven blanket may or may not have a contrasting band of color or fabric at each end, and most likely did not have a sewn-on top or bottom hem. If you use a knapsack, you may want to carry two blankets, even in summer (or, one blanket and your greatcoat, if you have one). If you use a blanket roll, I recommend one drill-backed heavy wool blanket and a ground cloth. Quilts are also an acceptable option. A great start for your research is “The Authentic Reenactor” website. There is a link to it on the 47th Virginia’s website. It is well worth the visit.

(1) “A Civil War Bedroll”, by Wayne Thompson, 2000.

(2) “Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865”, Carlton McCarthy. 1882, Carlton McCarthy and Company, Richmond, Virginia. I refer you to the first full paragraph on page 22 for a veteran’s view on the disappearance of the knapsack from the ranks of the artillery, at least, if not the infantry.

(3) “One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry”, by John H. Worsham, 1912. The Neale Publishing Company, New York. I refer you to the plates of the 1861, 1862 and 1863 infantrymen.

(4) The color was mauve, and it came about through research into the components of coal tar. Bayer Chemicals AG is usually given credit for the first commercial aniline dye, although it was a British chemist who actually discovered it, showing it at the London Exposition of 1862. As far as I know, there were no mauve uniforms or blankets issued during the American Civil War.

(5) The Southern Soldier’s Health Guide, p. 12. John Stainback Wilson, M.D.  West & Johnston, Richmond, VA. 1863.

(6) This would be similar to modern cotton drill, probably the four or five-ounce weight fabric.

(7) That was the price in 1863. Your cost will be higher (but if you find full-size rubber blankets for $1.50 each, buy one for me. I’m good for the money, trust me).

(8) For a great explanation of  the blanket stitch, go to

(9) My understanding on the subject is that the only stitch a sewing machine could make was the chain stitch, which would unravel as soon as one of the threads was broken.