Friday, January 31, 2014

The Origin and Uses of the Ceramic Canteen

A definition of a “fool’s errand”  may be trying to find out if soldiers in the Civil War used  ceramic canteens to hold drinking water.   But it is a task I once undertook, at the request of a collector friend who believed it to be so.  I read Civil War reference books and inquired of experts, but to no avail.  Common sense should have told me that  during the conflict canteens must have been made of wood or metal or a combination of the two.  Ceramic or glass containers clearly would have been too fragile for such use.  BUT, after the war ceramic canteens abounded.

They were part of a postwar phenomenon known as the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), shown here in 1892, 80,000 strong, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  After the end of the Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Veterans joined first for camaraderie and later for political power. Most influential among those organizations was the G.A.R., founded in 1866 in Illinois.  The Grand Army called its  national and state meetings “encampments,” because its members often literally camped out in tents on local open areas.

Washington had been the site of the organization’s Fourth Encampment in May 1872 as group was getting started. The next time the Nation's Capitol was chosen for the event was 22 years later in 1892. By that time the G.A.R had grown to almost 400,000 members and were accounted the most powerful political and social organization in America.  

In the decades after the conflict the canteen became a powerful symbol of the bonds of comradeship forged in battle.  The G.A.R. motto, repeated often, was “We Drank from the Same Canteen.” As a result the canteen became a familiar souvenir at such gatherings, with ceramics being a major format.  Shown here, for example, is a stoneware canteen commemorating the 1892 national encampment in Washington.  These would be taken home by delegates and cherished as their proof of attendance.

Although the canteen that follows is a more generic item,  it likely was sold by vendors at  encampments.  The design shows a wartime camp with a Union soldier on duty front and center, a musket in his hand.  This canteen is large enough to hold a reasonable amount of liquid.   Rumor has it that a fair amount of hard drinking went on at these encampments as the participants swapped stories about their wartime experiences.

By 1905 when a “Grand Reunion “ of the G.A.R. was held in Trenton New Jersey, the membership of the organization was beginning to shrink significantly, to just over 230,000. The Civil War had been over for 40 years and many veterans had died in the interim.  The National Encampment was held that year in Denver, a far off destination for many.  That may have triggered regional meetings such as the one in Trenton.   This canteen is a miniature and while it features a stopper, it would hold at most only a swallow or two.

The next canteen, shown front and back, is a relic of a state rather than a national encampment.  It commemorates the a G.A.R. gathering in Davenport,Iowa, in June of 1900, the twentieth time that Iowa veterans had come together.  This ceramic is attributed to Shafer & Vader, a German pottery noted for creating whiskey “nips,” small figural containers that could hold limited quantities of liquor.  (See my post on Shafter & Vader,  February 2010.)

The canteen following is also the product of a state gathering,  this time not from the G.A.R. but from an affiliated California organization of Civil War veterans calling itself the California Volunteer Veteran’s Association. Dated 1894, the seal of California is depicted on the back. This organization met annually in conjunction with the G.A.R. and included veterans from around the U.S. who had served in the Western Army.

Another souvenir demonstrates the iconic status that the canteen had achieved among Civil War veterans.   Created for the 1891 Encampment of the Ohio Department of the G.A.R. in Steubenville, Ohio, it is in actuality a medallion to be worn on a coat or jacket.  The reverse side of the tiny canteen featured the likeness of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War in the Lincoln Administration.  Stanton, credited with much of the success of the Union Armies, had been born in Steubenville.

The next canteen also is a miniature, created for the reunion of a single unit, Battery D of the West Virginia Light Artillery. Organized in August 1862,  that outfit initially was stationed at Winchester Virginia and forced to retreat quickly when the Confederates attacked the town in force.  After that humiliating defeat the Battery D saw action both in West Virginia and Virginia.  It spent the end of the war doing garrison duty in Parkersburg until mustered out in June of 1865.  This unusual souvenir marks the veteran’s encampment of October 1890.

Some ceramic canteens were personalized.   Shown here is a vessel with painted markings designating it as the property of John Cherry of Company F in the First Regiment of Hancock’s Veterans.   In 1864 Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had been empowered by the War Department to raise an Army Corp of 20,000 troops from among “that class of discharged soldiers who have served two years in the army.”   Calling themselves “Hancock’s Veterans,” this corp subsequently saw action near the end of the conflict.  John Cherry, who already had served one tour, was among them and apparently proud to be identified as such.

The final artifact shown here is a generic souvenir called a “bullseye canteen” because of the concentric circles on the surface growing smaller and smaller toward the center.  These ceramics were often painted with wartime scenes.   Shown on this item is a line of tents pitched at the edge of a tree line.  The opposite painting is of Union troops charging through a woods.  This container also would have been a sale item at a G.A.R. or similar gathering.

While it was a “fool’s errand” for me to look for ceramic canteens being used during the Civil War, it can be worthwhile to seek them out in a postwar context.  Today those symbolic vessels presented in ceramic evoke two important chapters in our Nation’s history, the Civil War and the period of social and political activity that followed the conflict.


  1. I think we have a personalized canteen. 95th Reg- Co - NY vol-USA
    The surname matches ours - how we would love more info.

  2. Unknown: Your canteen clearly dates from post-Civil War encampments. Marvelous that it contains your surname. You can track the progress of the 95th Regiment through online sites and sometimes even find the names of all the members. Have done that several times. It is also possible to find out where and when the encampment occurred. You may be related to a Civil War soldier.