While researching the “Soldier’s Load” a conflict that was often mentioned was the American Civil War (ACW). Sherman’s “March to the Sea” was a frequent topic. From the Confederate side we have “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign where infantry covered 670 miles in about a month and a half.
A distinctive element of these campaigns was the use of the “horseshoe roll”, occasionally called a “croissant”. During the blogs on the WW2 Soviet infantryman I mentioned that what was often described as a blanket roll was in fact a rolled greatcoat, which was also used as bedding. The horseshoe rolls used by ACW soldiers were blankets, but they were not just blankets.
It is a matter of record that many ACW soldiers on both sides discarded their issue knapsacks and carried most of their gear in a blanket roll. There are a number of videos on-line showing you how to construct a horseshoe roll. Key point is that they are rolled LENGHTWISE. A very good article on how the ACW soldier carried his gear can be found here and is worth reading.
The horseshoe roll was generally not just blankets. Spare clothes and other suitable items were carried wrapped within it. Often the blanket itself would be protected from damage and weather by wrapping it either in a shelter half or a gum-blanket.
The shelter half of this conflict was a simple square of cloth. Two could be buttoned together and rigged up in various ways to make a very compact two man shelter. Rifle-muskets or local materials provided support.
The gum-blanket was a relatively new invention. It was a cloth coated on one side with a waterproof coating such as vulcanized rubber. The gum-blanket served as a ground cloth. Materials such as hay, cut long grass, bracken or similar can be piled under the gum-blanket to serve as a mattress. If a shelter cloth had been lost or been discarded a pair of soldiers might sleep on one gum-blanket and rig another up as cover. A single sleeper might wrap himself in his blanket(s) and sleep within a folded gum-blanket. The gum-blanket also served as a rain cape. Rain ponchos were constructed in the same way as gum-blankets but many soldiers used a single gum-blanket for everything. The shelter half might be discarded in favour of just the gum-blanket. (Note that some books clearly confuse gum-blankets with rain-ponchos).
Some comments on sleeping in blankets in the field are relevant here. I cannot do better than quote Horace Kephart:
“To roll up in a blanket in such a way that you will stay snugly wrapped, lie down and draw the blanket over you like a coverlet, lift the legs without bending at the knee, and tuck first one edge smoothly under your legs then the other. Lift your hips and do the same there. Fold the far end under your feet. Then wrap the free edges similarly around your shoulders one under the other. You will learn to do this without bunching, and will find yourself in a sort of cocoon.”
It will be noted that this arrangement tends to place a double thickness of material between the sleeper and the ground, reducing ground chill.
The horseshoe roll was supposed to be carried from the weak-side shoulder, allowing the rifle-musket to be more easily fired from the strong-side. If your activities are less bellicose the roll can be alternated from one side to the other to rest one shoulder. The end parts of the roll needn’t be at the lowest point. Such a configuration apparently hindered access to the cartridge box when worn from the left shoulder so the ends were often shunted back.
After the civil war the American Army issued a set of leather straps designed for constructing a blanket roll. This seems excessive both in weight and complication of maintenance. Use some cordage and a parcel wrap of half-hitches. For some suitable knots see my free book on the subject.
The shoulder roll can be easily discarded if needed. On the negative side it is not a very good way to carry items that you might want while on the move. Accessing the any item within it requires stopping and unrolling the roll and then reconstructing it. It is better used to carry “end of day” items. Using a gum-blanket or rain poncho as the outer cover of the roll has the disadvantage that if it starts raining you will have disassemble and reassemble the entire roll. This article describes several ways to carry a gum-blanket or similar item separately.
Osprey Men-at-Arms 214 US Infantry Equipments 1776-1910 (p.23) adds:
By the Spanish-American War Of 1898 the Army had devised a regulation manner of rolling and wearing the horseshoe roll, as Plc. Charles Johnson Post, a New York infantryman, found:
‘In the business of making a blanket roll, you lay the blanket on the ground, put into it your tent pegs [3 pegs] and your half of the two tent poles—for each man carried but one-half the tent—and then arrange your towel, socks, shirt, and extra underwear and roll up the blanket. Then, turning your attention to your half of the tent, fold it lengthwise. This you lay on top of the blanket roll, fasten it at the ends and the middle, much as if reefing a sail, then bend it until it takes its horse-collar shape, fasten the two ends—and there you are ready to stick your head through and sling it. It is excellent. But—and this we learned on our first march to the transport— the blanket roll must be made sloppy, not neat. A hard, neat horse collar will bear into the shoulder like a steel bar, so roll it loose and floppy for the part that lies over the shoulder and with no baggage inside the center section—just at the two ends. It looks like a clumsy, amateur sausage lying out straight, but it is soft on the shoulder. In Cuba our horse collars made us look like a bunch of hobo blanket- stiffs.’
Rain ponchos and similar items made from modern materials may be too light and fragile to form the outer layer of a horseshoe roll. Using them in this fashion may increase the likelihood of them becoming damaged or punctured. A heavier duty item such as a canvas shelter half or a groundcloth may be more suitable. There are a number of websites that explain how to make your own gum-blanket/ groundcloth by painting one side of a cloth with black latex paint.