"Properly fixed upon the Men..."
Linen Bags for Camp Kettles

John U. Rees
©1997, 2002

Published in The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the
American Revolution), vol. XXVII, no. 3 (Autumn 1997), 2-5.

Soldiers during the War for Independence usually had to carry their cooking equipment with them on the march. Though various types of cooking utensils were procured by the men, camp kettles were the only food preparation item issued in large numbers to the army. One kettle was the normal allotment for each mess squad; a single mess was comprised of the men assigned to one tent, the standard being six men in the Continental army, five in the British army. While cast-iron pots were used on occasion, the preferred containers were light-weight kettles made of tin or sheet-iron, large numbers of which were used by troops on both sides throughout the war.

Private Joseph Martin wrote in his memoirs of the trials and tribulations of carrying kettles. He described a march to White Plains, New York, while serving with the Connecticut militia in 1776: "There were but three men present. We had our cooking utensils... to carry in our hands. They were made of cast iron and consequently heavy." Martin was "beat out" after carrying the kettle most of the night and having no success in persuading another to take it he told his messmates that he could carry the kettle no further. He eventually "sat it down in the road and one of the others gave it a shove with his foot and it rolled down against the fence, and that was the last I ever saw of it. When we got through the night's march, we found our mess was not the only one that was rid of their iron bondage." A year later, after enlisting in a Continental regiment, Martin had a similar experience, this time carrying a kettle containing some food, though "not... very heavy, as it was made of plated iron." Deciding that he had carried it long enough, Martin "put the kettle down in the road" refusing to take it up again; his messmates were just as adamant "so we all went on and left it." Another mess picked it up, removed most of the food, and later returned the empty kettle.1

Captain John Chilton of Virginia graphically pictured the soldier's burden on a march in July 1777: "By reason of rain the night past [we] did not move till late this morning... [we marched through] Hackitts Town [New Jersey]... No Waggons allowed to carry our Cooking Utensils, the soldiers were obliged to carry their Kettles, pans &c. in their hands. Cloathes and provisions on their backs... our March was a forced one & the Season extremely warm the victuals became putrid by sweat & heat - the Men badly off for Shoes, many being entirely barefoot and in our Regt. a too minute inspection was made into things relative to necessaries that the Men could not do without, which they were obliged to throw away."2

The mere fact of the soldiers' normal load goes far to explain why they found carrying kettles "burthensome." Even without a kettle the burden a soldier carried ranged from forty to fifty pounds, including musket, knapsack (containing a blanket and other necessaries), cartridge box (with twenty to forty rounds of ammunition), bayonet, haversack with several days' rations (at roughly three pounds of food per day), and canteen. Most of this equipment was slung by belts over the shoulders, but muskets, kettles and, on occasion, tent poles, had to be carried by hand.

British army tin and sheet-iron kettles were commonly issued with carrying bags. This drawing is of a reproduction sheet-iron camp kettle made by Patrick M. Cunningham, measuring 9 1/2 inches wide by 9 1/2 inches high, weighing 2 pounds, 12.1 ounces, with a capacity of 2 1/2 gallons (10 quarts), the standard-size mess kettle for the Continental Army during 1782. American sheet-iron kettles issued in 1781 "average[d] about 8 Inches High and about eight and a half or nine Inches wide, made without Ears and without covers."3 From the beginning of the war kettles of this type were issued in large numbers to soldiers on both sides. (Illustration by Ross Hamel)

Camp kettles were the subject of numerous orders during the war, mainly due to the importance of keeping them with the men, and to avoid loss of equipment. The following are typical: General orders, Washington's army, 2 September 1776, "When regiments march away in future, the officers are to see that the men take their tent-poles in their hands - [and] All their Tin-Camp-Kettles, and see the Tents tied up very carefully, and a sufficient guard left to take care of them."; After orders, 4 July 1777, "...To prevent the enormous abuse and loss of kettles, by slinging them to waggons, from which numbers fall, the General positively orders that each mess in turn carry their own kettles, as usual in all armies, and can be little burthensome in this."; General orders, 19 June 1778, "In future the Camp Kettles are always to be carried by the Messes; each soldier of the Mess taking it in his turn, and no man is on any Account to presume to put the Camp Kettle belonging to the Mess in a Waggon."; General orders, 19 June 1781, "Every Mess must carry its own Camp Kettle unless otherwise directed in General Orders ... "4

Early in the war British commanders began to make provisions to ease the soldiers' difficulty with carrying kettles. This was done by providing "kettle Bags," in which the utensils were placed and slung over the bearer's shoulder. In December 1776, a shipment intended to equip 8,000 men, included "Camp Equipage... for his Maj[esty']s service in America... Tin Kettles -1600 - being one to every Tent," and "kettle Bags - 1600." Orders for the Brigade of Guards, "Rariton Landing [New Jersey] May 6" 1777, directed "A Return of the number of Kettles Bags and Canteens wanted in each Company to be made to General Mathew as soon as possible." As the war continued, camp kettles continued to be shipped with their carrying cases. A "complete set of Camp Necessaries needed for the Guards detachment... ready for shipping by 20 February, 1779," included "224 Tin Kettles with Bags," along with "224 Hand Hatchets," "100 Wood Axes," "1062 Water Flasks with strings," and "1062 Haversacks," Among the "Articles Sent out for Provincials for the 1779 campaign, - 21 January 1779," were "2,500 tin kettles in bags."5

A series of orders in 1777 mentioned the carrying of kettles. Regimental orders, 40th Regiment, and general orders, British army, summer 1777:6

Evening Regl: Orders 8 oClock 21st: June 77... The Tent poles & Camp Kettles to be carried by the men on the march

G[eneral]:A[fter] :O[rders] 7 At Nigt 25th: June 77... The Whole to take their Camp Kettles with them & the Commandg Offrs: will take care that they are properly fixd: upon the men & not Carried in their hands they are to leave their Knapsacks at wt: the Baggage & Carry wt: them three days provision & One days rum -

A[fter]:R[egimental]:O[rders] 10 at nigt: [1 July 1777]

The Tents to be struck & the Waggons loaded by 4 to morrow morning if the Wether is fare - The men to carry their tent poles & Camp Kettles
   The Offrs: will see that the latter Are properly slung Agreable to A former Order

How kettles were "properly slung" is found in American sources. From the beginning of the war Continental soldiers were expected to carry their cooking gear with them, usually in their hands. Carrying kettles in bags, at their backs, (adopted from the British) came late in the war for the Americans. General orders (Washington's army), 9 January 1781: "All the Tents of the Army are to be delivered to the Quarter Master General who will have them washed cleaned and repair'd. Such as are irreparable or as many of them as will answer the purpose he is to reserve to make cases for the Camp Kettles that they may not grease and injure the soldiers cloaths as they will next Campaign be obliged to carry their own Kettles."7

A month later General Washington wrote to Timothy Pickering, quartermaster general of the army: "As we have an unwillingness in the soldiery to carry their camp kettles themselves which would make it difficult to enforce it, I desired you to make an experiment of the kind of tumbrils [two-wheeled cart] you propose for carrying them, to determine with certainty how far they will answer your expectation; that if they will answer the purpose, you might have a sufficient number prepared. I observed however that I was rather doubtful of the success, and in case of failure, directed you to have recourse to the expedient of converting the old tents unfit for use, into bags large enough to contain the kettles, that with proper belts or slings of the tent cloth itself or of leather as you should judge best, they might be carried at the mens backs.... these bags will have to bear little weight..." At least one early attempt was made to comply with the commander in chief's recommendation. On 21 January 1781 an "Estimate of Quarter Masters Stores to be supplyed from the State of Maryland for the Southern Army" listed among the needs, 600 "Linen bags with slings for Camp Kettles" for 600 kettles.8

George Washington's "experiment" with tumbrils to carry kettles seems to have borne fruit. Quartermaster General Pickering, in his "Proposed distribution of waggons for the campaign [of] 1781," recommended that "The axes and camp kettles of each regiment are to be carried in a light two horse waggon by themselves." On 14 January 1781 Pickering submitted to Washington an "Estimate of Waggons for a regiment of infantry under the new establishment of Octr. 1780," calling for one "two horse open wagon or tumbril" to carry "116 camp kettles & 18 axes for the non com[missione]d. officers & privates." In June Pickering directed a subordinate "to set some of your artificers to repair the close covered waggons at Fishkill, doing those first which need fewest repairs. Great exertion will be necessary to get them done in time. The other workmen must proceed to complete the camp kettle waggons."9

If kettles were carried in wagons there must have been some method by which each mess could identify their own. Markings were suggested for the British Guards in 1778: Morning orders, 15 July, "it is Recommended to [the officers commanding companies]... to Cause the New Tents & Camp Kettles to be Immediately Mark'd Neatly & Uniformly. distinguishing Each Company by the Number of it & Each Tent & Camp Kettle by the Number of the Mess to which it belongs."10

Kettle bags were a commonplace item in the British army from 1776 on, but were likely used in large numbers by American troops only in 1781 and 1782. On the other hand, when considering the difficult American supply situation, finding enough carts to carry kettles was, as Washington stated, "rather doubtful of... success," though some were certainly constructed for the army in 1781.

Drawing of a period cast-iron pot which measures 11 inches at its widest point (10 inches wide at the mouth) by 7 inches high, weighs in at 6 pounds, 15.5 ounces, and holds 2 gallons (8 quarts). Of the same construction as a larger pot found on the Gunboat Philadelphia, iron cooking vessels of this capacity were provided for the Connecticut militia in autumn 1776.11 (Based on iron pot in author's collection, illustration by Ross Hamel)


1. Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (New York, N.Y., 1962), pp. 51, 81.

2. 27 July 1777, John Chiton's Diary, Virginia Historical Society.

3. Samuel Ogden to Timothy Pickering, 8 May 1782, National Archives, Miscellaneous Numbered Records (The Manuscript file) in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records 1775-1790's, National Archives Microfilm Publication M859, (Washington, D.C., 1971), reel 88, item no. 25500.

4. General orders, 2 September 1776, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 6 (Washington, D.C., 1932), pp. 7-8 (henceforth cited as Fitzpatrick, WGW). After orders, 4 July 1777, ibid., vol. 8(1933), pp. 345-348. General orders, 19 June 1778, ibid., vol. 12(1934), pp. 93-94. General orders, 19 June 1781, ibid., vol. 22 (1937), p. 233.

5. John Robinson to Messrs. Mure & Company, 20 December 1776, Great Britain, Public Record Office, Treasury, Class 27, General Letter Books (Out-Letters), vol. 31 (T27/31). The Journal of Ensign Thomas Glyn, 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, on American Service with the Brigade of Guards, 1776-1777. Collections of the Princeton University Library, Mss transcribed by Linnea M. Bass. Great Britain, Public Record Office, War Office, Class 4, vol. 104, p. 421. Great Britain, Public Record Office, Colonial Office, Class 5, vol. 171, p. 16. See also, John Robinson to General Sir William Howe, 4 March 1777 (enclosed shipping invoice by Thomas Harley, 19 March 1777, Great Britain, Public Record Office, Treasury, Class 64, vol. 106, folio 76, LC Microcopy. Invoice of equipment for the British army carried in two ships. One vessel, the Howe, had among "the Articles Contained in the Bill of Lading... 600 Kettles... 600 Bags..." The other vessel, the Friendship, carried, among other items, "1000 Kettles... [and] 1000 Bags..."

6. British Orderly Book [40th Regiment of Foot] April 20, 1777 to August 28, 1777, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Presidential Papers Microfilm (Washington, D.C., 1961), series 6B, vol. 1, reel 117 (henceforth cited as GW Papers).

7. General orders, 9 January 1781, Fitzpatrick, WGW, vol. 21 (1937), pp. 73-74.

8. Washington to Timothy Pickering, 10 February 1781, Fitzpatrick, WGW, vol. 21 (1937), p. 206. Donald Yeates to the Governor and Council, 15 February 1781, J. Hall Pleasants, ed., "Journal and Correspondence of the State Council of Maryland... 1781", Archives of Maryland, vol. XLVII (Baltimore, Md., 1930), p. 72.

9. Timothy Pickering, "Proposed distribution of waggons for the campaign 1781." Numbered Record Books Concerning Military Operations and Service, Pay and Settlement of Accounts, and Supplies in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Record Group 93, National Archives Microfilm Publication M853, reel 29, target 4 (henceforth cited as National Archives, Numbered Record Books). "Estimate of Waggons for a regiment of infantry under the new establishment of Octr. 1780", Timothy Pickering to George Washington, 14 January 1781, GW Papers, series 4, reel 74. Timothy Pickering to Major Keese, 18 June 1781, National Archives, Numbered Record Books, vol. 127, reel 26, p. 88.

10. "Orderly Book: Brigade of Guards. Commencing 29th January 1778," GW Papers, series 6B, vol. 4, reel 118.

11. Philip K. Lundeberg, The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776 (Basin Harbor, Vt., 1995), pp. 36-43. See Howard P. Hoffman, Ship Plan, Gondola Philadelphia, drawing no. 00122, sheet 13 of 16, Anchors, Fireplace and Cooking Utensils, Division of Armed Forces History (Naval Section), National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Harold L. Peterson, The Book of the Continental Soldier (Harrisburg, Pa., 1968), pp. 147-148. George C. Neumann and Frank J. Kravic, Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Harrisburg, Pa., 1975), p. 91. Peter Force, American Archives, series 5, vol. III (Washington, D.C., 1853), p. 453.