Line of five people, each wearing blue military style uniforms with a golden eagle and the letters OLI on their back.

Photo Courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village

Knapsacks or backpacks have been an important part of a soldier’s equipment for centuries, used to carry clothing and supplies while on the march. Before waterproof fabric was invented, knapsacks were often made of heavy canvas that was painted to protect the contents from water.

In the early 19th century, knapsacks could be highly decorated to identify the unit. The photograph of the Oxford Light Infantry reenactment unit at a special event at Old Sturbridge Village shows what this knapsack would have looked like with the uniform of the 1820s-1840s.

Square shaped bag depicting a man in a large hat and the letters OLI.

NPS Photo by Emily Murphy / Knapsack, Massachusetts National Guard Collections

This knapsack is painted a dark blue and has the Native American figure and star from the Massachusetts State Seal in gold. The letters “CLI” most likely refer to the Cambridge Light Infantry, which was one of the many privately organized militia companies that were an alternative to doing mandatory military service with the regular militia units in the years before the Civil War.

These companies often functioned like clubs, with expensive uniforms and accessories, and brought together men of similar interests. One example is the Salem Mechanic Light Infantry, founded by men who were involved with manufacturing.

In Boston, there were two all-black units founded in the 1850s, the Massasoit Guards and the Liberty Guards.

Part of a series of articles titled Citizen Soldiers.

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Last updated: June 29, 2022