In movies set in the Civil War, you can bet that a camp scene will show up somewhere in it. It might be early in the morning just as a hazy, blue dawn is creeping its way across the sky, or in the evening when men huddled around campfires and talked low about their fears for the coming battle. Almost always, these scenes depict neat rows of white tents where these soldiers slept and whittled away their non-combat, non-drilling hours. While there’s some validity to these Hollywood images of Civil War shelters, the truth is more varied and demonstrates the ingenuity of the common soldier. Below, I’ll explain each of these shelter styles and how they were constructed, according to John Billing’s “Hard Tack and Coffee”.
Barracks – After soldiers were enlisted, they would be sent to camps, sometimes within their own state or closer to the battlefront. These camps would set the foundation for what a new volunteer might expect in the army. That wasn’t the case and the level of comfort experienced in these camps would sometimes be the best that they had throughout all four years of the war. The common shelter for permanently established camps was the barrack, “generally a long one-storied building not unlike a bowling-alley in proportions, having the entrance at one end, a broad aisle running through the centre, and a double row of bunks, one above the other, on either side.” If you ever went to summer camp, you might have stayed in something like barracks. Or, if you served in the military (or watch Full Metal Jacket), you might have also seen examples of barracks where the soldiers spent their off-hours. These Civil War barracks could hold an entire company (about a hundred men) and were perfect for the colder months of the year. Barracks were also implemented inside brick/stone fortifications like at Fort Gaines outside of Mobile, Alabama. Though rare, barracks could also be erected to house prisoners, like at the infamous Elmira prison camp in New York. However, this wasn’t the most common of training camp shelters.
Sibley/Bell Tents – Named after the supposed inventor, Henry Sibley in 1857, these bell-shaped, conical tents were semi-permanent. They could only house about a dozen men, but were not near as comfortable as the barracks. The model for these tents can be linked with the Native American Teepee. They were “eighteen feet in diameter and twelve feet high, and is supported by a single pole, which rests on an iron tripod. This pole is the exact radius of the circle covered by the tent… At the top is a circular opening, perhaps a foot in diameter, which served the double purpose of ventilation and of passing a stove-pipe through in cool weather.” Though, the pipes for these stoves didn’t often reach to the top unless the soldiers happened to have extensions at the ready. The top opening also risked catching fire from the heat of the pipe if one wasn’t careful. More often, the pipe wouldn’t extend to the top and smoke would have to naturally find its way out through the opening. It prepared the lungs of the soldiers for the campfire setting. A “cap” or covering could also be utilized in extreme weather to cover the ventilation hole. From the tripod, a chain could be hung to suspend cooking pots over the fire if a stove wasn’t available. Though, they didn’t typically cook in the stove anyway – just for warmth.
About a dozen soldiers could fit in a Sibley tent, but it was a tight squeeze. And the more men that could fit in a tight space usually created different problems. “In cold or rainy weather, when every opening is closed, they are more unwholesome tenements, and to enter one of them of a rainy morning from the outer air, and encounter the night’s accumulation of nauseating exhalations from the bodies of twelve men (differing widely in their habits of personal cleanliness) was an experience which no old soldier has ever been known to recall with any great enthusiasm.” At night, these men would sleep with their heads to the tent wall and feet to the center, keeping clear of the “door”. During the day, men could take their rations in this tent, but due to the sloping sides of the shelter, it wasn’t advisable to stand and one had to walk about ducking their heads.
Alas, the Sibley tent began to disappear from camps in 1862, probably due in part to the mobile nature of the army as the big campaigns began. The tents were also expensive and wagons were better utilized for carrying rations and ammunition (things way more important to the common soldier). Sibley tents have been spotted outside of the army at training camps or used by militia by building stockades (explained below) to raise the Sibley tent by a good four feet. This created more headspace and were able to house up to twenty soldiers. But it was far more likely that they would carry something smaller and less accommodating.
Wedge Tents – Used since the Roman times, wedge tents are what we see in those historical films or documentaries. Simple and easy to piece together, a wedge tent was “a canvas tent stretched over a horizontal bar, perhaps six feet long, which is supported on two upright posts of about the same length. It covers, when pitched, an area nearly seven feet square.” Anywhere between four to six men would claim these tents as their sleeping quarters, “spooning” in the night to keep warm and utilize all the space inside the tent. Many soldier accounts describe this arrangement as ideal and not the least bit awkward. Strong bonds are formed between these tentmates that persisted even after the war (read “Private Confederacies” by James Broomall for more about that).
Hospitals modified the wedge tent to include four upright walls, raising the roof and considerably expanding the dimensions to house wounded soldiers. “Those used at field hospitals were quite large, accommodating from six to twenty patients, according to circumstances. It was a common occurrence to see two or more of these joined, being connected by ripping the central seam in the two ends that came in contact. By looping back the flaps thus liberated, the tents were thrown together, and quite a commodious hospital was in that way opening with a central corridor running its entire length between a double row of cots.” Think of barracks, but with canvas walls instead of wood.
Officers used a smaller version of walled, wedge tents. On August 10th, 1862, General George McClellan issued an order prescribing all tents for “general field and staff officers, and a single shelter tent for each line officer.” But like the Sibley tents, it wasn’t feasible for every six men to have a tent for themselves, or for every commissioned officer to have one either. As the war progressed, mobility and the natural tax of war upon the supply trains limited what creature comforts the army could afford to carry. Wedge tents were then more common to see in training camps or in the sections where generals and higher commanders took their leisure.
Shelter/Dog Tents – Next to sleeping under the stars and at the mercy of the elements, the “Dog Tent” or “Shelter tent” was far more likely to show up around a battlefield than anything else I’ve already mentioned. “I can imagine no other reason for calling it a dog tent than this, that when one is pitched it would only comfortably accommodate a dog, and a small one at that.” These popped up almost as soon as men were thrown into the field on a campaign in 1861. They had no time or material to construct barracks, the Sibley tent was too expensive, and the wedge tents were just too much for the wagons. So, men resorted to duck cloth or rubber blankets – nothing ever as sturdy as canvas – with which to make their shelters. These “half-shelters” would be “five feet two inches long by four feet eight inches wide, and is provided with a single row of buttons and button-holes on three sides, and a pair of holes for stake loops at each corner.” Men were expected to carry these sheets themselves and men often joined forces to try and make something bigger, utilizing the button-holes to lash the two shelters together. Again, another situation of forming these bonds of necessity between soldiers during their time in the service.
These tents wouldn’t be erected every night, but during storms or harsh conditions, the soldiers benefited from them. They would pitch them in this fashion: “two muskets with bayonets fixed were stuck erect into the ground the width of a half shelter apart. A guy rope which went with every half-shelter was stretched between the trigger-guards of the muskets, and over this was a ridge-pole the tent was pitched in a twinkling. Artillery men pitched theirs over a horizontal bar supported by two uprights. This framework was split out of fence-rails, if fence-rails were to be had conveniently; otherwise, saplings were cut for the purpose.”
In the summer months, men would sometimes pitch their tents up a little higher to allow for air circulation. Other times, canopies of bower branches would be constructed over the dog tent for extra protection. When it became too much to carry all of that weight on the march, men would toss aside their shelter materials, along with anything else they felt they could expend. When they didn’t have dog tents, they slept under the stars or sought shelter in nature or an obliging barn along the way. But when push came to shove, especially when harsh winter weather was setting in, men would take their shelter construction one step further.
Stockaded Tents/Winter Quarters – The term “stockaded” refers to a wooden enclosure constructed of logs. In the context of shelters, Billing describes, “In stockading a tent the posts were split in halves, and the cleft sides all turned inward so as to make a clean and comely inside to the hut… the most common way of lifting up a tent was to build the walls ‘cob-fashion,’ notching them together at the corners.” Any variety of tents could be lifted and strapped to the top of stockade structures to create another semi-permanent shelter or winter quarters. The walls of the stockades would be somewhere between two to five feet high and men would sometimes dig down an extra couple of feet inside the shelter for added warmth. Chinks between the logs would be patched up with mud and would have to be reapplied after heavy storms. The door would be either cut into the side of the stockaded logs or one end of the shelter may be left open with a flap to create a “door.”
A chimney, too, would be constructed on the opposite side of the door. “It started from a fire-place which was fashioned with more or less skill, according to the taste or mechanical genius of the workman, or the tools and materials used, or both… The fireplaces were built of brick, of stone, or of wood. If there was a deserted house in the neighborhood of the camp which boasted brick chimneys, they were used to be brought low to serve the Union cause in the manner indicated… When built with wood, the chimneys were lined with a very thick coating of mud… Very frequently pork and beef barrels were secured… being put one above the other, and now and then a lively hurrah would run through the camp when one of these was discovered on fire.”
These shelters commonly housed between two to four men, all bringing their half-shelters to help in the construction and security of the home they would keep for a few months. One or two bunks would be built in, depending on the height of the structure. “The construction of these bunks was varied in character. Some were built of boards from hardtack boxes; some of barrel-staves laid crosswise on two poles; some men improvised a string-bed of slender saplings, and padded them with a cushion of hay, oak or pine leaves; others obtained coarse grain sacks from an artillery or cavalry camp, or from some wagon train, and by making a hammock-like arrangement of them thus devised to make repose a little sweeter.” They would then use anything as a pillow, including their knapsack of personal belongings. Anyone sleeping on the top bunk might need their rubber blanket to protect them from the elements – given that rain could easily leak through the shelter if it was heavy enough. The soldiers would do their best to simulate a proper home within these shelters, since they were far more permanent and personal than any of the other shelters already mentioned. Furniture like stools and chairs would be made and sometimes a mantel above the fireplace would collect “bric-a-brac” from the soldiers.
Whether they were in the barracks, Sibley tents, wedge tents, dog tents, or their stockaded winter shelters, the soldiers would pass their time doing just about anything to fight the boredom. Reading, writing letters, playing games, smoking their pipes, mending their clothes, playing music, or just socializing. All of it began and ended in whatever shelter they made to make them feel a little less far from home.