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Three Unexpected Survival Tools Used By Civil War Soldiers

Avatar for Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: April 13, 2021
Three Unexpected Survival Tools Used By Civil War Soldiers

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The American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict ever fought by the United States, with a death toll exceeding all other US fought wars combined. Today, the embers of that war still glow in areas, with the causes, and resulting effects of the conflict still capable of eliciting a strong argument.

I’m not here to talk about what caused the Civil War or to try and seek some sort of explanation that would appease one faction or another. Instead, I’m here to look at things carried by soldiers on both sides of the conflict that would be useful to the prepper today.

When we consider that Civil War soldiers often operated at the end of very long or insufficient supply chains, and lacked some things modern soldiers (or any modern reader) would take for granted, and also almost always marched everywhere they went, we can begin to understand that each time these men carried were specifically chosen to keep them alive, or support their mental well being.

One might even consider a Civil War soldier’s load as the ultimate bugout bag, but we aren’t looking to recreate or even modernize that experience. If for no other reason, I can think of no better things to bugout with than a Springfield rifle, hard tack, and a couple of blankets!

Here are three things soldiers both North and South carried with them that you should be carrying too.

A Comb

What’s this? A comb? Ok, you are probably thinking that of all the interesting, and practical things soldiers carried in the Civil War, and this isn’t what you were eagerly looking to add to your survival gear. Well, break out a cup of coffee (or burnt acorns and chicory if you want an authentic Confederate experience) and bear with me.

There are a great many survival reasons to carry a comb. Some have to do with personal comfort, and others to do with health and sanitation. Civil War soldiers often had to fight lice as much as they had to fight each other. A fine-toothed comb was an important part of keeping their hair free of lice.

Now you might wonder why that is so important today. After all, this is the 21st century, and sanitation is far better. Even so, people still get lice, and in a survival situation, the conditions that encourage lice are far more common.

On top of that, it’s just nice to be able to comb your hair. Sometimes it just feels good, and sometimes it keeps hair from becoming tangled and matted. Either way, lice, grooming or comfort, a comb takes up little room in your kit or pocket and should be carried. After all, it can’t hurt anything but can help a lot of things.

A Sewing Kit

“What’s this?” you cry while shaking an angry fist in the vague direction of the Puget Sound. “A sewing kit? This list sucks. I wanted big knives, and hidden truths lost to time that will make me a functional badass like one of Sherman’s men.”

Well, you can’t be hardcore if your clothes are falling off your body. Unless you want to be on one of those scared and naked reality shows, in which case, feel free to leave the sewing kit behind, and let your behind show.

Sometimes called a “housewife” by soldiers, sewing kits included thread, buttons and several sizes of needles. There might also be cloth patches, a small set of scissors, and even a thimble.

In a survival situation, you are often stuck with what you have on you. Civil War soldiers faced similar problems, especially in the more industrially primitive southern states that relied on increasingly shrinking imports from England to supply many of their needs.

Clothing wears out through hard use and gets damaged through all manner of activities. Having a good sewing kit can extend the useful life of clothing and gear that might be damaged. This not only conserves your supplies but may preserve irreplaceable items.

It isn’t enough to have a sewing kit though, you need to understand how to use it. Right now in fact. Gear is beyond worthless if you can’t effectively make use of it. Learn how to sew, replace buttons, and patch clothing now, while you still have the chance to do so in a nonemergency setting. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting by the campfire, trying to patch your only pair of pants, and hating yourself for not learning how to earlier.


By now you’ve figured out I’m not touching on the low hanging and really cool fruit of guns, other weapons, or various pieces of field gear. Not only should that stuff be patently obvious, but there is little reason to state the obvious  and say “a soldier carried a rifle” or “and they also had a mess kit and a supply of food.”

Bandanas are a multi-purpose item that serves the modern prepper, as well as they, did a Civil War soldier. Useful for everything from wiping the sweat off your face, to an impromptu dust mask, water filter, or tied around your neck as protection from the sun, a bandana’s use is limited only by your imagination. Heck, they even make good improvised tourniquets and bandages! (Use clean ones for that though…)

There is no use a soldier had for a bandana that you won’t also potentially have. Because they are lightweight, cheap, and take up almost no room, I like to keep several in my emergency kit, and one on my person. The frugal prepper can make their own by cutting and hemming cloth salvaged from old shirts, or just from scrap. You could even be tactical and make them out of camouflage cloth!

The Things A Soldier Carried

Civil War soldiers carried a great many things. Along with their issued and personal weapons, they had to carry ammo, tools for their rifle, a bedroll, shelter half, mess kit, canteen, rations, maybe some spare socks and underwear, personal effects, and whatever other items they might have found useful or were issued.

What was carried varied by unit, era, and location. Many soldiers marched off to war at the beginning overburdened with all manner of things. As time went on, soldiers learned to lighten their loads and carry what was only needed. There was no amazing assortment of survival in a Civil War soldier’s pack, just the tools they needed to survive, a scant few personal comforts, and if they were fortunate, a few pictures and letters from loved ones or family.

There is no hard and fast list of what soldiers carried, and even a generalization is insufficient to cover all the possibilities or even obvious items. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine does an excellent job of discussing things carried by Civil War soldiers, and you can probably draw a lot of inspiration from that list for your own purposes.


Civil War soldiers lead a tough, brutal life full of disease, hunger, combat, and other unpleasant things. They operated in that space between civilization and chaos and required constant resupply to maintain their effectiveness. Even Union troops, who had all the power of a massive industrial powerhouse sometimes lacked proper equipment, while their Confederate brethren increasingly had to make do with whatever they could scrounge or improvise.

At an individual level stripped of politics and rhetoric, the Civil War was also a war for individual survival and the men who fought it could only count on their governments for so much help in that area. Survival begins with the person, and all the gear in the world is meaningless without training.

Civil War soldiers had to learn how to sometimes live off the land, make do with inadequate food and equipment, live in all manner of environmental conditions with crude or makeshift shelter, and at the same time somehow keep themselves healthy, mentally sounds, and ready to engage in combat.

The gear and supplies they carried did not make the man. The man made the man, and it was their grit and determination, and sometimes luck that were the greatest survival tools at their disposal.

No matter what list of Civil War equipment and supplies you might read, they are all valueless without the will and knowledge to use them under adverse conditions. I’ll say it again, gear does not make the survivor or prepper. It is a mindset that requires you to make use of your own knowledge and skills first, and then to make your equipment or supplies work for you second.

The important thing to take away is that it isn’t always the big, expensive pieces of kit that matter, but the small things. Remember, when you don’t take care of little things, they can quickly snowball into something big. So don’t forget the tools to solve little problems, and you’ll find you have fewer big ones.

Author’s Bio

Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.

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6 Responses to “Three Unexpected Survival Tools Used By Civil War Soldiers”

  1. As a long time reenactor I can tell you there is one thing the soldiers of old cherished most of all, their tin cup. I have cooked many a meal in mine. There is also an enhanced version called a Mucket, with a lid and a bail. Great for rice and grits.
    Another tip, yes the blanket is essential but before that is the Gum-Blanket, a water proof canvas often cut to serve as a poncho.

  2. Very interesting! My husband and I live in his family home in Alabama which was used by General J.H. Wilson (Wilson’s Raiders) to plan the Battle of Selma. It is a two story antebellum, which was spared only by being used as headquarters. General Nathan Bedford Forrest rode through after being attacked and wounded by a young union soldier just north of the house, and stopped at the railroad depot which no longer exists unfortunately, right across the road from the house. He had a telegraph sent to Confederate forces warning of Wilson’s approach, and ordered that munitions be thrown into the Alabama River to keep them from being used by the Union army against them.

    Pondering the “housewife” sewing kit, modern users may want to include a bit larger needle and a spool of dental floss. It’s virtually break-proof and sturdy enough to sew leather, tents, backpacks, etc. Just leave it in its case, or break it open and take out the spool. Thanks for the above reminders!

  3. Part of my EDC is a handkerchief/bandana of dark cloth that is hemmed at the perimeter and pre-hemmed in the interior in several patterns so I can cut it into thirds or quarters or halves if I need a smaller piece for a specific use. The pre-hemming creates a channel that is about 1/4″ that I can cut between the stitch runs so nothing unravels on either side of my cut. The whole cloth is 36 x 42″ or 36 x 36 or 36 x 32 – I have several that I choose from. And yes, they are folded into a substantial lump in my back pocket. But it’s no worse than a fat wallet…you adapt. All the uses listed above are possible if I wish, without tainting or ruining the remainder, as well as larger uses like a shemagh. BUT…no nose blowing…it isn’t worth the folding/unfolding and washing hassles.

  4. 2 of my relatives died in the civil war. One at the “battl of Hanover”, his hometown.
    This battle prevented supplies & troops from reaching Gettysburg the day before Gettysburg battle.

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