"Bread and Provisions on a March" -Why Massachusetts Militia Companies Did Not Carry Haversacks on the Eve of the American Revolution

By Alexander Cain

Since 2000, many reenactors have asserted that haversacks were commonly worn by Massachusetts militia and minute companies when they fielded against British forces on April 19, 1775. The two most common arguments advanced have been militia and minutemen were in possession of haversacks because they were previously issued to Massachusetts troops during the French and Indian War and the item was acquired on the eve of the American Revolution from a third party source.

Unfortunately, neither argument is valid.

To begin with, what was a haversack? According to Bennet Cuthbertson, author of Cuthbertson’s System for the Complete Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry, a haversack was made of “strong, coarſe, grey linen” and carried a soldier’s “bread and provisions on a March.”

During King George’s War and the French and Indian War, Massachusetts troops received a variety of military supplies from both His Majesty as well as the colony itself. While British supply records are silent on the issue, a search of the Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Massachusetts Bay, between 1741 and 1764 reveals a single instance in which the Massachusetts legislature authorized the colony to issue haversacks to provincial troops. Specifically, in 1761, the colony ordered “the commissary general … to provide for each of said soldiers one haversack and one wooden bottle containing about three pints, also a large hatchet to every ten men, and a tin kettle containing about two gallons to every six men in each of said regiments.”

Cuthbertson noted that this item was “always issued as part of the Camp-equipage” and was considered regimental and not individual property. Thus, at the end of a campaign season, it would have been returned to the regimental or government stores. While in storage it was likely the bags would have rotted, been eaten by rats or other vermin, or been disposed of at the end of the campaign season.

I asked noted historian and expert tailor Henry Cooke about his thoughts on the issue. As Mr. Cooke noted, haversacks were typically issued on an as-needed basis. He also pointed out that haversacks were only issued to troops who were on the move. If a soldier was located at a fixed position, for example as part of a garrison, there would be no need for a haversack to be issued.

Interestingly enough, in 1761 the theater of war had shifted from North America to the Caribbean. As a result, most, if not all Massachusetts provincial troops were stationed at fortifications in Nova Scotia and New York and did not participate in military campaigns. As a result, it is unlikely haversacks ever made their way into soldiers’ hands and instead remained in storage.

However, for argument’s sake, assuming haversacks were brought home by provincial soldiers at the conclusion of military service, why does the item not appear in Massachusetts estate inventories between 1761 and 1783?

Probate records comprise all materials related to a deceased’s estate. Documents often found in probate records include wills, administration accounts, and estate inventories. Of these documents, estate inventories are often the most significant as it lists a person’s possessions at death and their rated or fair market value. Interestingly, estate inventories from 18th Century Middlesex, Essex and Norfolk Counties reveals extensive information about male clothing and their worldly possessions, but yield no information about haversacks. For example, the inventory of the estate of Samuel Jones describes in detail a wide array of personal items, including one hat, three coats, five breeches, over eight shirts and seven pairs of stockings. However, a haversack was noticeably absent from the inventory list. Similarly, a review of William Wilson estate details a wide array of personal items and belongings, including “one staffe….one gun”, but fails to reference a haversack. The inventory list of Job Brooks went to great length to identify his worldly belongings and included references to insignificant items such as a hat case and garters. Unfortunately, a haversack was never identified amongst his personal clothing. Finally, the estate inventory of Captain John Parker of Lexington describes several military items, including a knapsack and powder horns but makes no reference to haversacks.

A second common argument advanced is that haversacks could have been acquired from a commercial vendor or a third party. Unfortunately, this argument is not supported by existing documentation. A review of Boston, Salem and Newburyport newspaper advertisements on the eve of the American Revolution yields no examples of haversacks being offered by commercial merchants. Furthermore,, Massachusetts runaway descriptions that appeared in colonial newspapers between 1760 and 1776 make no reference to males wearing or carrying haversacks

Is it possible that local towns or the Committee of Supplies provided its militia and minute companies with haversacks? Between October 1774 and April 1775, Massachusetts was in full wartime preparation mode. Towns and villages, as well as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, scrambled to supply its minute and militia companies with muskets, cartridge boxes, bayonets, belting, blankets and canteens. Conspicuously absent from this list of supplies were haversacks.

The strongest evidence demonstrating that haversacks were not utilized by Massachusetts minute and militia companies in 1775 are the claims for lost property following the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Militiamen submitted a wide array of compensation claims for items lost during both of these engagements. The list of discarded property included knapsacks, guns, shirts, coats, canteens, neckerchiefs and even shoe buckles. To date, I have not encountered a single claim for a lost haversack.

Given the above, it is fair to conclude that haversacks never made their way into the ranks of Massachusetts militia and minute companies on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Minute Man National Historical Park

Last updated: April 6, 2022