You asked, we answered: What did Revolutionary War soldiers have in their pockets?

Linda B. asked through our Facebook page: "I have a research question … What kinds of things would Revolutionary soldiers carry in their pockets? Did they have pockets or did they use backpacks instead?"

Here's our answer, supplied by Marko Zlatich, a longtime volunteer in the museum's Military History Department.

 

Cattle horn etched with map of New York.
Powder horn from the colonial era etched with map of New York.

Revolutionary War soldiers did have pockets. There were two larger pockets in the outer coats, two in the inner vests, and two small ones below the waistband in their breeches.

They did use backpacks and those were used to carry their larger necessaries such as extra shoes, stockings, shirts, and other wearing apparel, as well as extra outer clothing, food, boots, and personal items. They might carry more food in the larger outer pockets—easier access to the marching soldier. The smaller pockets sometimes contained cartridges when appropriate for their weapons.

This .66 caliber smoothbore flintlock pistol was made by William Whetcroft of Annapolis Maryland around 1776.
This .66 caliber smoothbore flintlock pistol was made by William Whetcroft of Annapolis Maryland around 1776.


But in the end, the contents of those pockets would have been a varied thing. It depended on the soldier, where they were from, their personal tastes, and the circumstances of their immediate service, such as on the march, in camp, or in combat.

Continental Army uniform coat worn by Colonel Peter Gansevoort Jr. of the 3rd Regiment of the New York Continental Line. He wore this coat during his command of Fort Stanwix, New York, in 1777.
Continental Army uniform coat worn by Colonel Peter Gansevoort Jr. of the 3rd Regiment of the New York Continental Line. He wore this coat during his command of Fort Stanwix, New York, in 1777.

Items a Revolutionary War soldier would have put in his pockets include some or all of the following:

  • spare flints for the musket and for use with a striking steel to make sparks for starting camp fires
  • loose ammunition
  • a pen knife, pencil and small diary book
  • coins or paper money and maybe a leather wallet
  • a Jews harp or whistle (a Jews harp is a metal instrument played while being held in the mouth while its metal tang was struck by hand)
  • a couple of handkerchiefs
  • a waxed cloth for clearing the musket and for covering the lock plate to keep powder dry
  • a clay pipe
  • a "twist" of tobacco for the pipe
  • a letter from home (although newspapers were a more common item in the mails, according to the National Postal Museum’s Mail Call exhibition website)
  • a written pass from a commanding officer
This fife from the period of the American Revolution was unearthed on Red Bank battleground in 1880 near the New Jersey Monument.
This fife from the period of the American Revolution was unearthed on Red Bank battleground in 1880 near the New Jersey Monument.

Do you have a question about American history you’d like answered? Ask us on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll do our best to answer. Marko Zlatich also volunteers at the Society of the Cincinnati Library

Posted at 6:36 pm EDT in From the Collections,You Asked, We Answer