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The Sapper

By Ron Field 

Sixth plate tintype by an unidentified photographer. Author’s Collection.
French sapper, circa 1853. Library of Congress.

Axe-wielding sappers were an invaluable asset to Napoleonic armies, and still prominent in many antebellum U.S. militia units. During the 1850s, sappers were the militia equivalent of the Corps of Engineers of the regular army. They were responsible for clearing obstructions from the path of an advancing column, digging trenches, and constructing temporary bridges and river crossings. Traditionally, they carried a large axe, wore an apron to protect their uniforms, and sported long beards underneath tall bearskin caps. This sapper has a dark blue apron fastened around the waist of his frock coat, and cradles a large axe with neatly painted head. His gauntlets are of an unusual pattern with cut-away cuffs and button attached. His bearskin cap with red tinted plume and gold-tinted chin-scale rests on the photographer’s table by his side.

Ron Field is a MI Senior Editor.

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