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Winter Camp in the Civil War

In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became fascinated by all aspects of that war. If you're a Civil War buff, check out my topics.

Log Cabin for Housing Troops in Winter

I saw this example in a Civil War museum which shows a log structure with a canvas roof.

I saw this example in a Civil War museum which shows a log structure with a canvas roof.

Winter Housing for Civil War Troops

There weren't many winter battles during the Civil War. The logistics were just too difficult as dirt roads turned into mud. Travel became unmanageable for cavalry, foot soldiers, and for heavy artillery. Mostly the armies settled into crude winter quarters to wait for better weather.

The construction of the camps varied depending on the locale and the resources available to the troops. During the summer, they traveled with portable tents, but in winter they could construct sturdier shelters.

What Were the Shelters Made Of?

Trees were readily available and there was plenty of manpower with expertise from their farming days in cutting down trees.

Below is one which uses less wood and more canvas. Can't imagine that it could handle much snow on that roof, so it would be for areas that were cold but not that snowy.

History buff, Marcelo Pontin, suggested "Most of the war was fought south of the Mason-Dixon Line so snow was not that huge an issue. More rain and cold. The tenting roofs were sometimes fortified with issued rubber blankets to block some of the rain, but heavy canvas, once wet is quite rain resistant as long as you don't touch it.

Mud fireplaces were used in many of the larger hybrid structures with mud lined wooden barrels as chimneys. Invariably they would catch fire if not maintained properly.

Typically, in the type of structure pictured, 4 to 6 soldiers or a "mess" would be quartered. The bounds of creativity were limitless with accounts of one PA unit, mostly carpenters erecting a makeshift log cabin city with its own log church with a steeple.

Either way, the life of a winter quarter soldier was, as you mentioned, filled with tedium and usually troublemaking."

Example of winter quarters at Petersburg, Virginia

Example of winter quarters at Petersburg, Virginia

Chimneys or No Chimneys?

The cooking would have to be outside over an open fire as the cabin above has no chimney.

This interior shot below is for the first cabin shown in this article. It does have a very small fireplace. It probably depended on the time and skills available in the group constructing each cabin. There would have needed to be the right kinds of rocks for making the fireplace.

Walt Short, a Civil War buff, noted that many of the men did build chimneys, even out of old barrels seamed with mud. He added, "Unfortunately, this practice was also the reason for many huts burning down."

Interior of a cabin like the troops would have crowded into for the winter during the Civil War. (Petersburg, Virginia)

Interior of a cabin like the troops would have crowded into for the winter during the Civil War. (Petersburg, Virginia)

Feeding the Soldiers in the Winter Camps

Rod Lackey, a Civil War buff, shared this information:

"One of the biggest differences between winter camps and campaigning was that the 100,000+ men and 50,000+ animals with a Federal army received reduced rations when campaigning, the “marching ration,” and full rations when in camp (i.e., just under four pounds for the men and roughly twenty-six pounds for the animals). Winter camps increased the logistics burden on the Quartermaster and Subsistence departments in terms of demand and transportation requirements."

Supplies for the troops in camp.

Supplies for the troops in camp.

Passing The Time in Winter

I'm sure the men would have preferred to be back with their families in their own snug homes. The tedium and discomforts of winter camp must have worn on their spirits. Gathering firewood, preparing meals, and marching in drills and training would fill some of the day as weather permitted.

As time hung heavily on their hands, they would have played checkers or cards, wrote letters to their loved ones, told stories and sang songs, or found other ways to relieve the boredom of inactivity.

Some would have kept a diary, others might read newspapers or a book when there was sufficient light.

Scene at the Civil War museum in Petersburg, Virginia, showing the interior of a cabin serving as winter quarters.

Scene at the Civil War museum in Petersburg, Virginia, showing the interior of a cabin serving as winter quarters.

In some cases, soldiers' family members may have accompanied them. They sewed, cooked and did laundry for the army. There were no logistical support troops like we have today until the last year or so of the war.

YouTube Video of Civil War Winter Camp Life

Vintage Photos of Brandywine Station Camp

Winter camp at Brandy Station. Note the blankets drying on a line near the tents. Notice the tree stumps in the foreground where trees were felled for building cabins or for use as firewood.

Winter camp at Brandy Station. Note the blankets drying on a line near the tents. Notice the tree stumps in the foreground where trees were felled for building cabins or for use as firewood.

Camp at Brandy Station in Virginia

Camp at Brandy Station in Virginia

Notice the elaborate fireplace that the soldiers built. The camp is being cleared away and it is left standing alone. This was for a general. Brandy Station

Notice the elaborate fireplace that the soldiers built. The camp is being cleared away and it is left standing alone. This was for a general. Brandy Station

The troops and camp workers had varied shelter with some log structures, mostly tents though.

The troops and camp workers had varied shelter with some log structures, mostly tents though.

Shelter at Andersonville for Prisoners of War in the Winter

One of the great failures of the Civil War prison at Andersonville was that it provided no structures to protect the prisoners from the weather. Although Georgia has fairly mild winters, the temperatures could reach freezing at times.

The National Park Service gives the average low temperature in January as 35 degrees with it warming during the day into the fifties and sixties. Imagine yourself as an underfed prisoner of war with no tent to keep off the rain as you huddled with the other men from your company trying to keep warm.

This reconstruction shows how prisoners of war created shelters for themselves in Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The lucky ones used canvas to form tents and a few even got some wood for slightly larger structures. The majority lacked any shelter.

This reconstruction shows how prisoners of war created shelters for themselves in Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The lucky ones used canvas to form tents and a few even got some wood for slightly larger structures. The majority lacked any shelter.

Imagine the Scene Jammed with Sick And Starving Men

A total of 45,000 prisoners entered the gates into Andersonville during twelve months near the war. Of those, 13,000 died there. When prisoners died, the others kept his clothing to supplement their own which were falling into rags.

There was no wood for fires except when a detail of prisoners was sent into the surrounding woods to bring back firewood. If one tried to escape while in the woods, the tracking dogs were sent after him.

What the Civil War Camps Were Like the Rest of the Year

At the Civil War museum in Petersburg, Virginia, the exhibits show what life was like for Union soldiers in camp. Let's take a look at how they were housed while in camp.

The panorama below served as a backdrop for a display. Note the tidy row of tents beyond the soldiers practicing their marching. The larger tents with walls were not for the common soldiers. These were occupied by officers.

winter-camp-in-the-civil-war

Looking further, you see one tent set apart for the sick. They wait to be seen by the doctor. In the foreground, you see that men spent much of their time outdoors. They've set up a rough table with boards over two barrels. There's a folding camp stool of canvas with wood legs and also several wooden benches.

A coffee pot hangs by a metal bail from the tripod over the fire.

winter-camp-in-the-civil-war

Below, you see a smaller tent and behind that, a canvas-topped shelter with log walls. Hanging from the tent pole is a canteen. On the ground are some blankets, a book, and an open haversack. This kind of tent is called the A-frame.

winter-camp-in-the-civil-war

The life-sized figures show the soldiers relaxing on a blanket where they've been playing cards and gambling.

winter-camp-in-the-civil-war

Behind them, you see a pile of firewood and a metal basin with some wooden boxes.

Notice that this camp was structured for easy packing up and moving, while the winter camp would have more substantial housing for the soldiers.

Short Video of Confederate Winter Camp

Officers Often Found Housing in Local Residences

This officer's room looks pretty comfortable.

This officer's room looks pretty comfortable.

He might sit here to write up his reports.

He might sit here to write up his reports.

© 2018 Virginia Allain

Please Add Your Comments Here

John Murphree from Tennessee on July 13, 2018:

Quite a comprehensive study. Thank you for all your work and info,,,enlightening. I visited Andersonville once, and found the scene quite depressing.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 31, 2018:

This is very interesting. I can just imagine what it must have been like especially in the winter and if you're wounded. Today, we still have men and women who are out there in camps.

Readmikenow on March 31, 2018:

Excellent article! I enjoyed reading it as well as watching the videos. The people of that time where a bit more strong than many of us today.