This article originally published in the North South Trader’s Civil War, Jan.-Feb., 1996.
The of the most obscure items ever issued by the Confederate Ordnance Department was certainly the Spanish moss saddle blanket. Nearly every arsenal’s records feature references to this cavalry item, some of them quite prominently, yet saddle historians have long been baffled as to how it may have looked and, more important, just how common was it?
In reality, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a true moss, nor is it a parasite to the host tree. As an epiphyte it draws its food and moisture directly from the air. Found commonly in the deep south hanging from oak and cypress trees, this beautiful yet gloomy plant has done much to inspire, if not shape, the mystery and romance of Southern culture. Academic application of its strong, waterproof, and resilient inner fiber has made it an excellent industrial substitute for horsehair and even wool.
The use of Spanish moss in American culture goes back at least three centuries when immigrant Europeans settling the coastal south used the green moss as a livestock feed. By early 1718 a significant commercial moss industry had appeared in the marketplace, curing and baling the green moss’s black fiber end-product for use as a substitute for the more expensive horsehair. Its most common application was as a stuffing for mattresses, furniture, saddle-seat pads, and, mixed with mud, to make mortar and bricks. Frequent pre-war use as horse equipage included spinning and braiding or weaving moss into bridles, cinches, reins, horse collars, and saddle blankets.
The method of curing or “retting” Spanish moss, while little changed in over two hundred years, is today almost a forgotten industry. In general, the process begins by gathering the moss growing abundantly from the trees and in the swamps of the deep south. It is piled in heaps and soaked in water, then thoroughly wetted daily, and turned occasionally for two to three months while it cures. Bacterial action creates heat during this period, which serves to rot and loosen the green outer cortex. When judged sufficiently cured, the moss is hung over fences or racks to dry. The cured moss must then be separated from the chaff. Sticks, dust, and dead cortex is removed by hand by beating the moss with paddles, raking it over latticework, and finally shaking it in the wind, leaving only the wiry, black inner fiber.
The resulting shiny, horsehair-like thread may have been further treated with tallow or other greases and oils to help maintain its resiliency before being baled, like cotton, for shipment. The final step of creating saddle blankets out of the cured moss involved twisting or spinning the moss fibers, often using a small wooden device called a “tarabi,” into a cord-like thread and then hand-weaving them into blankets.
The business of harvesting Spanish moss as a cash crop accelerated after the war with the use of gins to speed up the commercial process. It peaked in the 1930s when moss was used primarily as stuffing for automobile seats, largely replacing, if not entirely obliterating, the horsehair business. By the 1950s it, too, was being replaced by foam rubber, and by the 1980s the business of harvesting Spanish moss had almost completely vanished. Today it is making a small comeback serving as egg-laying beds at fish hatcheries and catfish farms.
Confederate use of Spanish moss saddle blankets began at the very outset of the war when wool, felt, and moss blankets then for sale commercially were quickly bought up and put into service. As the Ordnance Bureau’s arsenal system took shape, it became their responsibility to provide saddle blankets for cavalry use. The relentless demand for sleeping blankets, however, made the wool item quite scarce. The South, having few manufacturers of blankets of any kind and at best a very volatile supply of wool, turned to imports. This, however, failed to meet the South’s demand. It fell to the Bureau to develop a reliable domestic source of saddle blankets. Spanish moss was already proven to be an excellent substitute and readily available, so various suppliers were contracted to provide moss and manufacture moss blankets. The old US arsenal at Mt. Vernon, Alabama, which had been previously abandoned and dismantled by the Confederates, was reopened by the Ordnance Bureau as a facility to gather and cure Spanish moss for saddle blankets as well as timber for use in the making of saddle trees.
What did the Confederate moss saddle blanket look like? An extensive year-long search of Confederate Ordnance Department records, manufacturers, and over sixty textile museums, libraries, associations, and experts failed to locate a specimen or even a satisfactory description. Its exact appearance remained largely speculative—until recently, when a wartime trash pit unearthed in Nashville, Tennessee, provided the only known samples of Spanish moss saddle blankets to have survived to the present.
|Close-up of Spanish moss saddle blanket section recently excavated in Nashville, Tennessee. There were four different styles of weaves in the four blanket portions recovered. Photo, Steve Sylvia; courtesy Shane Miles.|
Excavation for a mall in downtown Nashville located the trash pit twenty-one feet below the surface where its chemical composition amazingly preserved in near original condition leather boots, brogans, saddle parts, accoutrements, uniform cloth, and other civilian, Federal, and Confederate military artifacts. Most of the artifact collectors and historians attracted to the site seem to have preferred the more valuable items to the unknown items, but fortunately Shane Miles of Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, decided to keep some of the less promising unidentified mud-covered relics. I came upon Shane with some of these finds at last December’s Nashville Civil War Show, and was able to conclusively identify them as portions of Spanish moss saddle blankets. This one-of-a-kind discovery resolved many of the mysteries of the true appearance of the Confederate Spanish moss saddle blanket.
In general, the Confederate-made moss blanket was manufactured by curing moss in the aforementioned process, then shipping it to commercial contractors at whose facilities it was twisted or spun into cord, then hand woven on large looms into blankets. Thanks to Shane’s recoveries, we know that there were at least four different weave patterns, some very tightly woven and thick. Different size blankets or mats were made, but most cavalry blankets were likely 40″ wide and approximately 60″ long. The moss fiber’s inability to readily accept bleaching or dyes left the finished saddle blanket dull black in color. Some moss “mats” for artillery use were similarly twisted and woven, though smaller in size, as was other horse equipage like artillery collars.
Although the moss’s wiry, coarse texture makes it more scratchy than wool, the blankets’ innate waterproof resiliency and strength make it a fine, if not excellent, substitute for the wool saddle blanket. Most importantly, the cost of these blankets was quite attractive to the Confederate Ordnance Bureau. In 1863, when blankets in some parts of the South were being impressed or selling for as much as $40, the moss blanket cost the Bureau only $2!
|Spanish moss mats similar to the one shown above are believed to have been issued to artillery. This is a turn-of-the-century, civilian-made sample measuring approximately 36″ x 30″. Image courtesy Louisiana State University Rural Life Center.|
How common was the moss saddle blanket? In the western Confederacy, a shortage of wool and felt blankets necessitated the appearance of moss saddle blankets or mats in the records of virtually every ordnance facility—some as early as the spring of 1861. Purchased primarily from commercial suppliers, they were quite commonly issued, though by 1862 saddle blankets of all descriptions were getting difficult to obtain. One arsenal was even forced to issue “carpet” horse blankets. Imports were of little help as comparatively few English blankets or “numnahs” (British Army felt pads) were available in the west and most of those went almost exclusively to officers.
Records are sketchy and inconclusive, but it is clear that moss blankets were quite frequent issue items from the ordnance facilities of Macon, Augusta, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Selma, and Columbus. At Atlanta, Macon, and Augusta, wool or felt blankets were scarce by 1863 and almost disappeared entirely by early 1864; the moss blankets, on the other hand, were often the only type of saddle blanket listed in the record of “Ordnance Stores on Hand.” At Macon, more than 8,470 moss blankets were issued from June 1863 to February 1864. In fact, this arsenal’s leading supplier, Junius Jordan of Eufaula, Alabama, manufactured and shipped over 15,200 moss blankets in one fourteen-month period alone! Further, it is clear that many of these western arsenals shipped moss blankets to eastern ordnance facilities, including Richmond and Charleston.
Moss blankets do not appear to have been nearly as common in the east, although they are found in the records of the Richmond Arsenal as early as summer 1861. A shortage of wool and felt blankets was felt here too but, unlike the west, the east’s manufacturing capacity and large numbers of imports of English blankets and numnahs served to greatly alleviate its lack of supply. In fact, of the 176 bales of blankets and numnahs imported by the Ordnance Bureau at Wilmington, North Carolina, between July 1863 and January 1865 nearly 65% went to Richmond!
|A close-up of a twisted and hand-braided moss mat. Image courtesy Louisiana State University Rural Life Center.|
Throughout the war a significant number of moss blankets were shipped to Richmond from several western arsenals and contractors, and at least one large local supplier of horse equipments, Cottrell & Co., provided several thousand.
In August 1863 a moss blanket, obviously sent to the Richmond Ordnance Depot for official approval, was inspected by Superintendent of Armories Maj. William S. Downer, who considered it well-made and durable: “It is a handsome blanket of the kind, of good dimensions and of proper thickness sufficient so to prevent any saddle from hurting the horse.”
|Twisted and hand-braided Spanish moss collar. A few references to “moss collars” have been found in Confederate ordnance records. Image courtesy Louisiana State University Rural Life Center.|
A severe shortage of sleeping blankets later that fall necessitated that Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Ordnance Bureau, order blankets on hand in Richmond that were “serviceable to soldiers in the field” be sold to the quartermaster—obviously meaning selling the wool blankets, leaving the less desirable moss blankets and numnahs for their intended use. This critical shortage of blankets of all kinds continued throughout the war. All of this makes it clear that moss saddle blankets were, in some quantity, issued to the Army of Northern Virginia.
Just how prominent the use of the moss blanket was with Confederate cavalry may never be definitively known. However, Ordnance Department records show that tens of thousands of these blankets were manufactured and issued to troopers and artillerists in both major armies, particularly those in the west. That they were the only saddle blankets available strongly suggests that the Southern horsemen used them.
The Spanish moss saddle blanket provides yet another excellent example of necessity-driven Southern expedience overcoming lack of resources. The almost forgotten Spanish moss saddle blanket is no longer relegated to some obscure archival footnote but can now assume its rightful place among Confederate and Southern cultural history. .
“Account Book of Capt. John M. Payne, Comprising Imported Ordnance Stores at Wilmington 1863-1865.” Richmond, Va.:
Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy.
Confederate Ordnance Manual: Regulations for Government of Ordnance Department, C.S.A. Richmond, Va. 1863.
Fritchey, Robert. “When Moss Was Boss, “Louisiana Life, spring 1995.
Gorgas, Josiah. Overview of the Work of the Ordnance Bureau. Original first-draft 1881 manuscript on file in Gorgas Family Papers, Series 678, Folder #9, Hole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala. Manuscript published in the Southern Historical Society Papers, 1882.
Jones, John B. Rebel War Clerk’s Diary. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.
Kniffen, Fred B., and Malcolm L. Cameos. “The Spanish Moss Fold Industry of Louisiana,” Melange, #12. Baton Rouge, La.: Museum of Geoscience, Louisiana State University, 1979.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Ersatz in the Confederacy: Shortages and Substitutes on the Home Front. University of South Carolina Press, 1952.
Mauersberger, Herbert R. Matthews’ Textile Fibers.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; London: Chapman & HaIl, 1947.
National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Group 109, “Citizen’s File.” Analysis of over 200 military contractors supplying horse equipage to the Confederacy, including files relative to Spanish moss saddle blankets: Junius Jordan, Eufaula, Ala.; Cottrell & Co., Richmond Va.; J.O. Ford & Co., Memphis,Tenn; James Morrow & Son, Nashville, Tenn; Winn & Co., Memphis, Tenn.; George Wyman & Co., Augusta, Ga.
National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Ordnance Bureau, Chap. IV, Group 109: Vols.8,9,19,78,100,104,105, Nashville and Atlanta Arsenals; Vols.33,34,36, Augusta Arsenal; Vols. 32,101,3,4,6,7,36,58,59 1/2,83, Macon Arsenal; Vols. 90,91,91 1/2,92,93,96,97, Richmond Arsenal and Clarksville Depot.
National Archives, M33 1, Military Service Records, General and Staff Officers, Maj.William S. Downer (#78), Col. M.H.Wright (#265), Capt. Richard M. Cuyler (#69).
The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series IV, Vol. 1, p. 314; Vol. 11, p. 654.; Vol. III, pp. 38, 683, 684, 1090.
Vandiver, Frank E.Blockade Running for the Confederacy. Austin, Tx.: University of Texas Press, 1947.