American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp IV
Home Away From Home: The Shelters
“You probably read in the papers so much of the details of camp life that I won't bore you by any lengthy description. Our regiment, I suppose, lives as all others do. Five of us sleep in a tent six feet by seven (1.83 m by 2.13 m) and keep our arms and accoutrements, too, in it.”
- Oliver Wilcox Norton, 83rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861
In the beginning of the war, large, cone-shaped Sibley Tents (similar to Native American tipis, which were the inspiration) were often issued for shelter. A center pole, sitting upon a metal tripod, formed the “foundation” upon which the canvas tent was placed and staked to the ground with wooden or iron pegs. In cooler weather, the center of the tent, right by the tripod and pole, often contained a wood or coal burning stove for heating purposes. The stove’s chimney reached up and out of a circular opening at the top of the tent, which was covered with an attached canvas flap in cases of stormy weather. In the absence of a stove, a fire pit was dug into the ground. There was one entrance to the interior, close to the ground, covered by another attached canvas flap. Navigation within this type of tent was tricky given the crowded conditions within it. A dozen, or more, men could have been sheltered in one of these, lying with their heads toward the canvas and their feet pointing toward the center (not unlike spokes in a wheel).
Wedge Tents were smaller tents, shaped like an A, and sheltered about four or six men each. It was erected via two vertical poles punched into the ground with a third pole that lied horizontally across them. Over this horizontal pole, the canvas was stretched and staked to the ground. The tent was closed on one end, and the other end’s entrance had flaps on either side of the vertical pole that could have been tied together. The men that were sheltered in these tents lied parallel to the crossbar. They were often so cramped that they needed to sleep in spoon fashion. If one wanted to turn over, he needed to call out “Spoon” so the others could roll over onto the same side.
Both the Sibley tents (and stoves) and the Wedge tents needed to be transported to campsites via horse-drawn wagons. It was due to their size, and the amount of wagons needed to transport them all, that led to the demise of these tents as realistic shelters for field use. They continued in more static camps throughout the war, however.
Shelter, aka “dog” Tents, were small tents, made of cotton or duck, not canvas. They were open at both ends, and were so low to the ground that men crawled on all fours like dogs (thus the tent’s nickname) to enter them.
Each man was given only half of the tent (aka “Shelter Half”). This forced the men to form partnerships with others, within the same Company, so that all halves could be buttoned together to form complete tents. Ironically, two men could barely fit inside these tents.
Like the Wedge tent, Shelter tents were erected via two vertical poles and one horizontal pole over which the canvas was stretched and staked down. In a static camp, the poles were made out of saplings or branches. If on the march, muskets planted into the ground by the bayonets became the vertical poles. A guy wire (which came with the tent) was strung between the two muskets and tied-off at the trigger guards, which thus made for the horizontal “pole”.
Introduced in 1862, these tents continued in use to the end of the war. No wagons were necessary to transport them as the men carried their shelter halves on their persons as part of their accoutrements.
There were other types of tents used by the troops during the war, but the three mentioned were the most common.
For winter shelters in areas where the weather was not as temperate as it tended to be along the Gulf Coast, the troops constructed log huts (if timber was at all available). Holes were dug about two feet (~61 cm) into the earth and the log structures were built up from there. An entrance way was cut into one end, covered by a rough wooden door. Crude fireplaces were constructed with chimneys that consisted of rocks wherever possible, though often they were mud-coated wood and/or wooden barrels. If wood was somewhat scarce, these huts often employed canvas tents as roofs, pitched very similarly to the way they were pitched on the ground, though with the ends closed-off with more canvas or rubber blankets. Bunks were built into the side walls of the huts, with pine needles or straw to serve as mattresses onto which the men spread out their rubber blankets. Rolled up in their woolen and rubber blankets on these bunks, the men were tolerably comfortable. Some men actually brought mattresses with them (which weren’t much more than large, empty sacks the size of a single mattress). They filled these mattresses with leaves, pine needles, straw, or other somewhat soft foliage (or whatever could be foraged from nearby dwellings). This enabled an even more comfortable sleeping surface on the bunks with minimal spilling of the contents. For other furniture, emptied wooden crates were built into tables or chairs inside the huts. If enough wood was available, floors were added, but more often the floors remained dirt with perhaps leaves and pine needles serving as rough carpeting. The huts housed anywhere from two or four men to a dozen.
If wood was too scarce for huts, men dug “gopher holes” into the sides of hills or ravines and covered the openings with their tent walls.
The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life in Camp V; Routine: The Day In Camp.