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What They Carried: A Look Inside a Solider’s Pockets

As living historians, no tidbit of historical minutia is too insignificant to escape our attention. We work hard to present an impression of the past with as many details backed up by research as possible. From the construction of buttons and the inspection markings on our weapons, to the tiny details of drill and the dye of the fabrics of our uniforms, all the little details matter. For some aspects of the life of a Civil War soldier, we have piles of historical records and information upon which to base our impressions. But there is a whole world of information so insignificant and common place at the time that no one ever thought to record it or mark it down for posterity. This forces us sometimes to make interpretations based off limited evidence or guess entirely to fill in gaps in the historical record.

And sometimes we can find little tidbits of information that can help fill in some of those gaps. Think of something as common place as what a soldier carried in his pockets everyday. The keys, wallet, and cell phone that many of us carry everyday all serve a purpose and so, by working back from the purposes a Civil War soldier may have needed each day, we can guess at what he might have stuffed in his pockets. But at the end of the day, this is just a guess unless we can test it with some data.

That’s why the following except from the diary of Captain Michael Shuler is so fascinating for a Civil War reenactor. Captain Shuler commanded Company H of the 33rd Virginia Infantry from March 1862 until his death in May 1864 leading the company during the Battle of the Wilderness. He was only 18 when he took command of the unit. His diary covers June-December 1862 and is a fascinating day-by-day account of life in the Stonewall Brigade that is well worth a read in full.

In the middle of the entries for November 22nd, Shuler left a blank page and then used a page in his diary to record the examination of the personal effects of one Private John Decker, a member of Shuler’s company found murdered near the Stonewall Brigade’s camp on November 18th. While the entry has no details regarding the murder, Captain Shuler was evidently involved in the investigation and recorded the items Decker had on him when his body was discovered. The following is this examination (slightly edited for legibility), which provides a rare glimpse into the pockets of a Civil War soldier. While irrelevant for most historians, for the dedicated reenactor, this sort of information can help improve our impression of soldiers like Decker.

“Examination of Body of John Decker
Nov. 19, 1862
Examined his pants pockets and found nothing but penknife, pocket comb, screw driver, pencil, small piece of tobacco, and leather string. When his shirt pockets, found the left pocket torn, which it seems had been buttoned up, and the right pocket was still buttons [sic] and contained a teaspoon, small piece of soap, and little paper with two buckles in it. The right side of his head seemed to be [the entry abruptly ends]”

The diary of Captain Shuler was transcribed by Robert H. Moore, II and is available via Archive.org.

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