Rare Mid-1850s Refitted M1839 Cartridge Box


Rare Mid-1850s Refitted M1839 Cartridge Box – The US M1839 cartridge box was initially issued without belt loops; it was designed to be carried by soldiers only via a shoulder sling. By the 1850s, as indicated in several period letters written by field officers to the Army’s Adjutant General, enlisted soldiers intensely disliked the sling-only mode of carrying the boxes; as a result, many of these boxes were slit, by the enlisted men, in the back of the boxes, to allow them to slip their belts into the slits, thereby adding stability when marching and running. In an effort to prevent the boxes from continued damage, Colonel Craig, Chief of the Army Ordnance Department, wrote the following letter, on October 31, 1856 to Lt. Thomas J. Brereton, then commander of Allegheny Arsenal:


   It has been found that the infantry cartridge box suffers great injury from the practice which soldiers indulge in, for the purpose of attaching it to the waist belt, of cutting two parallel slits through the back leather long enough for the reception of the Waist Belt. To obviate this abuse, it is proposed to attach two loops, similar to those on (the) Rifle and Carbine Box, to the back in addition to the present buckles and loops. The new loops ought to be capable of receiving freely a belt of 21/2”. If necessary, the points of suspension ought to be about ½ inch below the back seam of the box. The loops ought to be strong but not clumsy, and the weight of the box should be on a double of leather at the top of the loops, and not immediately on the sewing thread.

   I wish you would cause such a box to be prepared and sent to this office for examination.*

These modifications were accomplished, by riveting the newly added belt loops to many of the existing M1839 cartridge boxes. Indication of this post, initial construction modification is evidenced by the belt loop, riveting process – the copper brads and washers of the rivets are on the outside of the box, unlike the later M1861 boxes and other accoutrements, where the riveted belt loops were installed during the construction of the accoutrements, as indicated by the washer and brad of the rivets, being hidden in the interior of the accoutrement. In addition, the belt loops exhibited on this box, are somewhat crude in construction. This is a rare, transition cartridge box; this is the first of these pre-war boxes that we have encountered.

The box retains its original box plate and both tins and remains in overall very good condition; the inner implement pouch is completely intact and in excellent condition. The outer, cover flap exhibited some weakness where it hinged to the top of the box, so we had our conservator reinforce this area with blackened webbing that is almost unnoticeable. Attached to the loop for the closure strap of the inner implement pouch is a strip of old, brown leather with the initials “HML” cut in; unfortunately, although this may have been the initials of the original soldier-owner, it is impossible to determine who the specific soldier was.

*Civil War Cartridge Boxes of the Union Infantryman by Paul D. Johnson