In the opening stages of the American Revolution, many Virginians in Militia companies, or the new Continental regiments were armed with older "Cartouch" or Cartridge boxes (frequently called "belly" boxes in modern parlance) that belted around the waist, and/or shot bags and horns. Many arms shipments from England in the past had included these cartouch boxes with bayonets as part of a complete "stand of arms." Around 1,200 cartouch boxes were inventoried in the Williamsburg Powder Magazine in 1775 and helped supply the fledgling Virginia Continental Regiments (Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia 1773-1776, Volume 13, Pages 223-4.) These boxes were light and economical. A thin leather flap was nailed over a painted wooden box. Belt loops were nailed to the front of the wooden block. As defined in The Gentleman's Compleat Military Dictionary (1759):
CARTRIDGE-BOX is a Case of Wood, or turn'd Iron covered with Leather , holding a dozen Musquet Cartridges; it is wore upon a Belt, and hangs a little higher than the right Pocket-Hole.
[Cartridge] POUCH; a Grenadier's Pouch, is a square Case or Bag of Leather, with a Flap over it, hanging in a Strap of about two Inches broad, over the left Shoulder...
Although the British generally differentiate the two by using the terms box [belly] or pouch [shoulder] , American soldiers were not always as unambiguous, such as James Johnston, who testified that " my Cartridge box was never of [off] my neck"
British issue "Belly" Cartouch box from historical image bank
Wartime shortages caused Adjutant General and soon to be Quartermaster General, Timothy Pickering to suggest to Governor Jefferson that Virginia substitute waist boxes of this type instead of shoulder pouches in 1780.
To Thomas Jefferson from Timothy Pickering, 3 July 1780
War-Office July 3d. 1780
We did ourselves the honour of writing to your Excellency on the 20th ulto. when we expected to be able to send you 2000 cartridge boxes: but we have been disappointed; and Major Peirce has received at present but between six and seven hundred: nor, are we certain how soon the rest can be furnished. But as the whole number will be incompetent to the demands of your state, we beg leave to suggest to your Excellency the expediency of getting a quantity made in Virginia; and as the time is pressing, a slighter kind may be provided. The British have for several years past furnished their new levies with cartridge boxes made of close wood (as maple or beech) with no other covering than a good leathern flap nailed at the back near the upper edge, and of sufficient breadth to cover the top and whole front of the box: they are fixed to the body by a waist belt which passes thro’ two straps that are nailed to the front of the box. Cartouch boxes of this kind will answer very well, and may be made at small expence and with great dispatch."
Soft PouchesShoulder slung pouches seemed to have been preferred, and they offered quite a bit more protection than the waist belt boxes that had only a single leather flap . A variety of forms, materials and capacities are noted (some holding 19 rounds, others 24 and etc.) but many featured a bag with a leather flap and shoulder straps nailed to the back of the wooden block from the exterior.
American 19 hole cartridge pouch or box with linen strap and
"soft" bottom construction from historical image bank:
American Cartridge box and webbing sling used by a Connecticut soldier,
Benjamin Fogg,in the New York campaign of 1776.
American 24 hole cartridge pouch with linen strap from historical image bank
RWq56d- Cartridgebox with 24 drilled holes of Gideon Norton from Connecticut who served
at White Plains, Trenton, Princeton and Morristown. Henry Whitfield Museum
A proposed "Contract for 3000 Cartridge boxes, to hold 23 rounds, with a bag, a large strong flap to cover the bag and box, and a buff belt with a buckle." was offered by the State of Virginia to Edward Simpson of Fredericksburg, but it does not appear that the terms of the contract were ever agreed upon. Associated correspondence indicates that Simpson initially made at least two hundred boxes. Incidentally, George Connolly's oddly specific pension application states that prior to being wounded by gunshots at the battle of Petersburg in 1781 "after firing 23 rounds himself."
Tin CanistersTin Cartridge boxes or Canisters, were used in the Continental army as a substitute for leather cartridge boxes. At times, these canisters were misused. In 1777, Lieutenant "Rains of the 15th. Virga. charg'd with sending a Soldier (William Bluford) to bring water in a tin Cartouch box, found not guilty by the unanimous opinion of the Court." (Valley Forge orderly book of General George Weedon of the Continental Army ...).
"An original canister. Photo courtesy Paul Ackermann, Conservator, United States Military Academy." from The Complete Continental Cartridge Cannister Chronicles by Michael Barbieri
On the 16th of November, in 1779, the Virginia Board of War meeting in Williamsburg directed "... that to supply the want of leather Cartridge boxes, of which there is a great scantiness, two thousand tin boxes such as are used in the Continental Army by Light Infantry be immediately made, that recommendations be immmediatley sent out to county Lieutenants to have the arms and military stores in their possession, put into the best order..." Jefferson, Madison, and the Executive Council noted three days later that "....they approve of having tin Cartridge Boxes made as proposed by the board of War..."
A substantial number of Canisters show up in returns from Capt. Charles Russell, Assistant Deputy Quarter Master for Virginia:
112 "Tin Cannisters" February 1781; Boyd's Ferry Virginia
"Muskets-220, Bayonets-70, Ditto Slings-400, Cartg Boxes-69, Gun Flints-5640, pounds lead-2368, Pickers & Brushes-400, Tin Cannisters-112, ditto Slings -190, Fifes-20, Drums-6, Pair Drum Sticks-32, Oil Bottles-7..." (Summary Account of Articles purchased, Received and of the Issues and Deliveries therof under the direction of Capt. Charles Russell DQM for the district of Boyd Ferry from the first day Feb till the last day 1781 Inclusive, National Archives: Roll 30, Target 1,Volume 108).
Further information on these tin canisters or cartridge boxes has remained scanty, but the quote below implies that two hundred were issued in May, 1781:
Mr. W. Porter, C.M. Stores
Chesterfield Court-House, Va. May 5, 1781
Sir:- You will take under your charge five wagons, containing 400 stand of arms, complete with bayonets, &c. 200 leather cartridges, two hundred tin canisters, and two thousand flints, and you will proceed immediately to Suffolk. Immediately on your arrival, you will acquaint General Muhlenburgh of it. You will not by any means deliver any of the above articles without General Muhlenburgh's particular order."
"New Construction" Boxes
"New Construction" box from historical image bank
By 1779 some Continental soldiers were receiving 29 hole "new construction" boxes that mimicked the higher quality British issued pouches and provided a much greater amount of protection for the ammunition.These boxes were among the highest quality accoutrements being produced by Continental artificers for the infantry.
Receipt for "N. Const.d C Boxes" belonging to Woodford's Brigade of Virginia Continentals on June 18th, 1779. (Volume 130 Journal of Military Stores Delivered and Received Aug 9, 1778-Feb 18, 1780 NA 606471).
The Virginia Continentals of Woodford's Brigade appear to have been first issued a small number of "New Construction" Cartridge boxes on June 18th, 1779. Other units such as the 2nd Pennsylvania Brigade received them much earlier on January 8th of the same year; at a time when Woodford's Brigade was still being issued tin and damaged old construction leather boxes. Muhlenburg's Brigade of Virginians received 192 "New" Cartridge boxes on August 7th, 1779, likely of the "New Construction" pattern.
Some new construction boxes may have been delivered to the state of Virginia from Continental stores as implied by Col. Febiger when he complained that the cartridge boxes the Virginia recruits he was organizing received substandard boxes- "many of the old construction" in 1781.
Thomas Jefferson's 1781 Circular-Letter to the County Lieutenants of Virginia pleaded that:
"...every man who has or can procure a Gun have it instantly put into the best order a Bayonet fitted to it, a Bayonet belt, Cartouche Box, Canteen with its strap, Tomahawk, Blanket and knapsack. Some of these articles are necessary for his own safety and some for his Health & Comfort. The constant exhausture of the Public Stock of these Articles by calls from all Quarters renders it vain for the Militia to expect to be supplied from thence when they come into the Field, and nothing is so
easy as for every man to have them prepared while quiet and at Home. The cartouche box with a leathern Flap, a wooden canteen with its strap and a knapsack of thick linen (the better if plaid [possibly painted]) are what may be had in any man's family and there are few neighborhoods which do not afford artificers equal to the repair of a Fireloack and furnishing it with a Bayonet..."
In his deposition on the naval service of Northern neck resident Robert Hall, John Neal "recollects the fact of his father making cartouch boxes for the men, & his mother melting up pewter basins into musket balls."
Boxes Issued for Militia Service
Several pension applications and receipts show that Virginia Militia were regularly issued proper military cartridge boxes and muskets in 1780 and 1781; even when they entered service with civilian arms.
Pension application of Thomas McDearman S5749 f8VA+f13VA
Thomas McDearman one of the Virginia Militia
has Served his Tower [tour] of Duty in Genl. Stephens's Brigade
& delivered up his Gun & Cartridge Box – and is hereby
discharged by me
the 8th of November 80 S/ Nath'l G. Morris [Nathaniel G Morris]
Pension application of Daniel Holder W9064 Ruth Holder f29VA
Hilsborough Jany 30th 1781
Rec'd by Order of Colo. Gunby from Daniel Holder One Gun Bayonett and Cartridge Box.
S/ [illegible signature, possibly "Pat Danelly" ]. Lt. & A. [Lieutenant & Adjutant]
Pension application of Thomas Kitchen (Kitchens) R5998 f19VA
I was drafted sometime before the battle of Gilford [Guilford] Courthouse [March 15, 1781]...
I cannot recollect the precise date.
I was placed on for they called the Bullock gard [guard?] while the battle was being fought.When I went out to Guilford I took my small shotgun (for if I had not taken it with me they would have pressed it into service so I might as well take it.). I showed it to my Colonel, he said as I was a small follow I might keep it. But the rest of the officers took it from me, valued it and gave me a receipt for the valuation. And gave me a great heavy musket and cartridge box. They took my musket when they gave me my discharge, but never gave me back my little gun and I never got anything to do any good for my receipt. They asked me for my cartridge box. I told them I had none, so they said no more about it. I had thrown it away during our retreat at Guilford's battle. We were compelled to retreat at the top of our speed and it was so large and I was so young that I pulled out my cartridges slipped them into my knapsack and threw the cartridge box away.
Some North Carolina Militia soldiers were also issued muskets and bayonets despite mustering with civilian arms. Francis Myrick stated that "when he was attached to Greene's Army his gun, shot bag and powder horn was taken from [him] and a musket and cartridge boxes was given to him in their stead".
What were these cartridge boxes being issued in Virginia like? Complaints about the quality of the boxes were circulated:
the 300 cartouch boxes, that I informed you I understood were on the road coming from Virginia, are just come in. I have received them and can assure you that they are not worthy of the name. Numbers of them are without any straps, others without flaps, and scarce any of them would preserve the cartridges in a moderate show of Rain-what straps there are to the boxes of are linen."
Jefferson to E Stevens, 4 August 1780
"Richmond, August 4, 1780.
Your several favors of July the 16th, 21st, and 22nd, are now before me. Our smiths are engaged in making five hundred axes and some tomahawks for General Gates. ... We are endeavoring to get bayonet belts made. The State quarter-master affirms the cartouch boxes sent from this place, (nine hundred and fifty-nine in number,) were all in good condition. I therefore suppose the three hundred you received in such very bad order, must have gone from the continental quarter-master at Petersburg, or, perhaps, have been pillaged, on the road, of their flaps, to mend shoes, &c. I must still press the return of as many wagons as possible. All you will send, shall be loaded with spirits or something else for the army. By their next return, we shall have a good deal of bacon collected. The enclosed is a copy of what was reported to me, as heretofore sent by the wagons.
I am. Sir, with the greatest esteem,
your most obedient, humble servant,
Sadly, to my knowledge, no original cartridge boxes with an iron clad Revolutionary war Virginia provenance survive. Correspondence from 1781 points towards a motley mixture of the soft pouch/old construction boxes, new construction boxes, waist belt boxes and tin canisters being in use in Virginia. An intriguing and unique 9 hole leather covered waist box was found in Virginia with early 19th century newspaper cartridges in it is pictured in The Cromwell Collection.
Danish born Colonel Christian Febiger of the 2d Virginia commanded the General Rendezvous of Virginia's newly recruited Continental troops in 1781. After the British surrender at Yorktown, he wrote that:
"The arms in general are good but the cartouch boxes bad, many of the old construction and wore out. Some with waist belts, others without any belts at all slung by pieces of rope or other strings- I could wish that a quantity of British arms and accoutrements not exceeding 600 stands may be sent me."
( Fiebiger to Col Davies Dec. 3, 1781 )
Note: This is an updated and expanded post that was originally published in 2017.
Note: This is an updated and expanded post that was originally published in 2017.