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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life in Camp 4

I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

“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

Home Away From Home: The Shelters

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).

Progression - or perhaps Regression - in shelters: from the Sibley Tent, to the Wedge Tent, to the Shelter (Dog) Tent

Progression - or perhaps Regression - in shelters: from the Sibley Tent, to the Wedge Tent, to the Shelter (Dog) Tent

Illustration of a Sibley Tent. Note the top flap from which protrudes a stove pipe

Illustration of a Sibley Tent. Note the top flap from which protrudes a stove pipe

Sibley tents for a unit that guards a railroad station

Sibley tents for a unit that guards a railroad station

Sibley tents on a winter encampment

Sibley tents on a winter encampment

Troops lounge outside their Sibley Tent

Troops lounge outside their Sibley Tent

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, where all occupants slept on their sides the same way. If one wanted to turn over, he needed to call out “Spoon” so the others could roll over onto their other sides.

Both the Sibley tents (and stoves) and the Wedge tents needed to be transported to campsites via draft animal-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.

Modern representation of a Wedge Tent

Modern representation of a Wedge Tent

Sibley and Wedge tents dominate this encampment

Sibley and Wedge tents dominate this encampment

Illustration of the interior of a Wedge Tent. Note the six occupants are "spooned" together.

Illustration of the interior of a Wedge Tent. Note the six occupants are "spooned" together.

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.

Illustration of Shelter Tents in camp. Note the muskets with fixed bayonets as tent poles

Illustration of Shelter Tents in camp. Note the muskets with fixed bayonets as tent poles

An illustration of a man, about to enter a Shelter Tent, "on all fours".

An illustration of a man, about to enter a Shelter Tent, "on all fours".

Painting of an encampment with Shelter Tents in the foreground

Painting of an encampment with Shelter Tents in the foreground

Modern day representation of a Shelter Tent

Modern day representation of a Shelter Tent

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 tents (mostly Shelter Tents) as roofs, pitched very similarly to the way they were pitched on the ground, though with the ends closed-off with more tents or rubber blankets. Bunks were built into the side walls of the huts, with leaves 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, 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/or straw 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.

Log Huts, with Shelter Tents for roofs and stacked barrels for chimneys, in a winter encampment

Log Huts, with Shelter Tents for roofs and stacked barrels for chimneys, in a winter encampment

Log huts in a winter encampment. Note the roofs, which were tents, are all down, which indicates that this encampment is either about to be abandoned or the huts are only recently constructed

Log huts in a winter encampment. Note the roofs, which were tents, are all down, which indicates that this encampment is either about to be abandoned or the huts are only recently constructed

Illustration of an interior of a log hut

Illustration of an interior of a log hut

Winter Encampment with log huts and corduroyed Company Streets

Winter Encampment with log huts and corduroyed Company Streets

A log hut and a corduroyed Company Street in a winter encampment

A log hut and a corduroyed Company Street in a winter encampment

Log Huts with tent and / or thatched roofs

Log Huts with tent and / or thatched roofs

Afterword

The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life in Camp V; Routine: The Day In Camp.