By Michael R. Cunningham, Ph.D.
During the 1850s, the U.S. War Department experimented with a variety of military accoutrements made with rubber and gutta percha. The items included canteens, holsters, haversacks, knapsacks, ponchos and more.
Charles Goodyear’s patent of Feb. 24, 1839, (No. 1,090) spurred the development of the rubber industry by demonstrating that the introduction of sulfur and heat increased the durability and rigidity of India gum-elastic rubber, making it suitable for manufacturing. Gutta percha differs chemically from India rubber and comes from the latex of trees on the Malay Peninsula and nearby regions.
Imported into Britain around 1842, gutta percha was found more flexible than un-vulcanized India rubber, and served as an excellent insulator of telegraph wires and other purposes. John Rider’s patent (No. 8,992) describes a three-step process of heating and curing gutta percha with sulfur. John Murphy’s patent (No. 10,977) built on Rider’s by adding a preliminary step of heating and injecting small quantities of sulfur to better drive out impurities, “which gives to the article thus treated more solidity, ductility, and tenacity than the gutta-percha has when the sulphur is not incorporated therewith.”
Although the Army ultimately adopted only gutta percha talmas (raincoats), gum blankets (ground cloths), and rubber ponchos as issue items, state militia units and individual soldiers were free to purchase other rubber and gutta perchas items from military goods dealers. One such item was the Gray gutta percha knapsack.
While the standard Civil War issue knapsack of 1858 was made of linen or cotton sewn together and painted with a black tarry solution, the Gray knapsack had an unbleached cotton exterior and interior that sandwiched a sheet of vulcanized gutta percha. The raw edges of the back flap were covered with a cloth binding, which was painted blue. Copper rivets held the major pieces of the knapsack together. The gutta percha was firm enough so that the knapsack sides remained square without the need for the four wooden slats used in a box knapsack.
While the standard issue knapsack had leather shoulder straps, with additional removable leather straps to hold a blanket on top, the Gray knapsacks’ shoulder and blanket straps are made of the same gutta percha as the body of the knapsack. The tops of the shoulder straps are attached with rivets, and the bottom of the left shoulder strap is attached with a buckle. The right shoulder strap has a brass hook, which connects to a D-ring on the bottom of the knapsack, for quick attachment and release. The shoulder straps each have an extra strap with a hook designed to fit into the complimentary brass stays on the Model 1855 Rifleman’s belt (seldom issued). Leather is used for the flap closing straps, and to attach the buckles for the shoulder strap and closing straps to the bottom of the knapsack.
Although the Gray knapsacks carry patent dates of 1852 and 1854, surviving examples of the accouterment were made in 1862 or later, because “Patented Feb. 18, 1862” (George R. Kelsey’s patent No. 34,429) is stamped on the three flap closure and two blanket buckles. Tinned iron Kelsey patent buckles were widely used and can be found on commercially made officer’s leather haversacks of the period. The shoulder strap buckle and D-ring are jappened iron, or metal finished in lustrous black.
The Gray knapsack contains a circular stencil mark on the inside of the top flap, which states:
THE GUTTA PERCHA MFG. CO.
VULCANISED GUTTA PERCHA
JUNE 1, 1852 MAY 30 ‘54
139 Broadway N.Y.
The Gutta Percha Mfg. Co. was listed in the New York City directory from at least 1861-1866 at 139 Broadway, with an additional address at 338 W. 25th Street, from 1862-1864. The president of the firm from 1861-64 was listed as Emory Rider, although Warren Lazelle secured most of the government contracts. These included 20,000 waterproof blankets on Jan. 3, 1863, and another 25,000 on July 26, 1864. Lazelle also contracted for 10,000 tent blankets and 10,000 ponchos on Aug. 26, 1864, and 25,000 blankets on Sept. 29, 1864.
Gray gutta percha knapsacks make occasional appearances in period photographs, such as the above tintype. The soldier’s dark blue jacket with un-piped epaulettes was worn by Eastern and Midwestern troops in 1861-1862, but was emblematic of New York. Two examples of the Gray knapsack are associated with New York regiments that formed in 1862.
A Gray knapsack in the West Point Museum collection is identified to James B. Hall of the 137th New York Infantry. Hall, 19, enlisted in Danby, N.Y., as a private in August 1862 and mustered into Company K. The regiment was sent to Harper’s Ferry and attached to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division (Geary’s), of the 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Hall was discharged for disability on Jan. 24, 1863, before seeing combat. His early discharge may have saved his knapsack for posterity. Unfortunately, Hall was not blessed with good health, passing away in 1891 in Racine, Wis. He was 47. His wife and a son survived him.
A Gray knapsack is prominently featured in this carte de visite of an unidentified soldier displaying a Sharps rifle. We know from the knapsack’s inscription that the soldier served in Bowen’s Independent Rifles, or Company A of the 151st New York Infantry. Capt. Hezekiah Bowen, Jr., commanded the company. This regiment was recruited in the Empire State counties of Niagara and Monroe and organized at Lockport, where it mustered into the Union army in October 1862 for three years. The 151st participated in numerous operations, including the Mine Run and Overland Campaigns, the Battle of the Monocacy, the 1864 battles in the Shenandoah Valley, the Siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaign. The fate of this man, his rifle and knapsack is currently lost to history.
References: James B. Hall, 137th New York Infantry, American Civil War Research Database; The Union Army A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States 1861-65—Records of the Regiments in the Union Army—Cyclopedia of Battles—Memoirs of Commanders and Soldiers, 8 volumes; Bazelon, Bruce S. and William F. McGuinn, A Directory of American Military Goods Dealers & Makers, 1785-1915 (Combined Edition); New York Legislature (1895-1906). Report of the Adjutant-General, 43 volumes; Woshner, Mike, India-rubber and gutta-percha in the Civil War era: An illustrated history of rubber & pre-plastic antiques and militaria.
Michael R. Cunningham, Ph.D. is a MI Contributing Editor.
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