Riflemen and Cartridge Boxes?

By David A. Schmid

Let's set the stage: The Battle of Long Island, September 1776. The gallant British Army supported by elite German soldiers from Hesse-Cassel. After the victorious British and Hessian Army chased the Retreating Rebels off the Island, a Hessian officer describes the dead on the battle fields:

"They wear black, white, or purple linen blouses with fringe on their sleaves and collars in Spanish fashion. Their guns, having rifled barrels five feet long, are much too heavy for one to aim well without support. They have a kind of cartridge box, from which hangs a powder horn and in which is a wooden frame holding twenty-three cartridges."

The man who wrote this was an experienced Soldier by the name of Carl Leopold von Baurmeister. Born in 1734, in Hanover, Germany, Baurmeister was the son of a professional soldier. Becoming an Ensign in 1756 and working his way up to Staff Captain in 1762 in the Prince of Anhalt's Regiment he saw service in the Seven Years War and was an experienced soldier. At the time of the American Revolution he was serving as Adjutant General Major of the Hessian forces and in addition he served as Aide-de-Camp to Sir Henry Clinton commander of the English forces. He had seen all types of soldiers in his career. From the irregulars like the Croats and Pandours of the Austrian Army in the Seven Years War to now the Riflemen of Virginia and Pennsylvania in Washington's Army. His experience with all types of soldiers is impeccable, which makes him a more than reliable source.

Let's look at the description of the Hunting shirts that these men of the frontier wore. The colors are interesting -- black, white, and purple. The use of these colors can be backed up in another primary source: newspaper listings of deserter descriptions also list these colors. I find it interesting that there is no mention of the infamous walnut dyed shirts!?! Could it be that walnut was an uncommon color (or perhaps a re-enactor invention)?

Baurmeister's other statement about "a kind of a cartridge box" is also interesting. He knew what a cartridge box looked like and had certainly seen enough of them in his career. Was this a leather-type hunting bag of some sort? The next statement of "a wooden frame holding twenty-three cartridges" shows his eye for the detail. The use of a wooden block was a very common practice of the time. By looking at all of the existing examples in Neumann and Kravic's Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution you will see that 99% have a wooden block to hold the individual cartridges. In fact, there is one that might be very similar to the type Baurmeister describes (see page 75 item #37).

The main point that I would like to bring up to your notice is the use of Cartridges by Riflemen. The German States that participated in the Revolution all supplied rifle troops of their own. They where called Jägers, which means Hunter, and where armed with privately owned or issued Jäger rifles. Most of the early recruits where huntsmen or gamekeepers from the Black Forest. The Jägers were also issued a small "belly box" that had a tin-lined open tray to hold the individual cartridges (an original is in the museum in Marburg, Germany). The question arises -- did they use the cartridge paper as a patch for the ball?

We have no direct Military Manual describing the loading procedures of the Jägers, but we do have a manual describing the loading of Rifles in the military fashion. The 95th Rifle Regiment of the British army was the first official Rifle Regiments organized for service. I have collected a copy of their drill that was written in 1808 by Captain Barber, commander of The Duke of Cumberland's Corps of Sharp-Shooters. It is called Instructions for the Formation and Exercise of Volunteer Sharp-Shooters and describes quick and short-ranged shots against charging Calvary or advancing Infantry using paper cartridges -- separate powder and ball was reserved for long distance shooting. There is speculation that the ball could have been rapped up in a cloth patch (looking much like a Hershey's Kiss) and placed in the paper cartridge tube with the powder charge. When loading, the paper would have been simply ripped off and the wrapped ball placed in the muzzle with the tied tuft of cloth up. I have experimented with this procedure for 15 years and it works -- when you shoot the patch just falls to the ground a couple of feet in front of the muzzle and does not interfere with the ball.

The Jägers -- and our Long Island riflemen -- could have used a simular procedure with a patched ball inside the cartridge, or they may have stored the cloth patches separately in their patch boxes.

We as re-enactors would do well to read more than the just typical journals like Doddridge, Cresswell, and Smith. Look beyond that "tunnel vision" of study and see what the opposing sides impressions were as well. I recommend the Hessian and British journals of the American Revolution to give you a bigger scope of view. The Hessians took note of everything and wrote down their experiences for the folks back home. This is valuable information for you. Below is a list of journals that mention good information for those of us doing "American" impressions. These are available through inter-Library loan:

Revolution in America; Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces, Translated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, Lib. of Congress # 57-6221

Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty; Baronness von Riedesel and the American Revolution, Translated by Marvin L. Brown, ISBN 0-8078-0933-0

A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution by Johann Conrad Dohla, Translated by Bruce E. Burgoyne, ISBN 0-8061-2254-4

Diary of the American War; A Hessian Journal by Captain Johann Ewald, Translated by Joseph P. Tustin, ISBN 0-300-02153-4

Things that you will find in these journals: von Riedesel, the lack of beards on the frontier and generally in the 18th Century; Dohla, food and good campaign information, geographical information; Ewald, Great book on campaign tactics.