Hey Soldier, Where You Goin’ To Sleep Tonight?

By Phil McBride


      If you are at a reenactment and your lovely wife asks that question, “Not with you,” would be a good answer.  If that reply seems a tad rude and an invitation to a cold shoulder when you get home, I’m sorry, boys, but soldier up. Maybe you can do some extra honey-do’s to win your way back into her good graces. On the other hand, if one of your smelly mess mates asks the question, “With you, of course,” may be a very good answer.


     Sleeping arrangements really can be a big question at reenactments, strange as that seems on the surface. One of the first issues to be resolved is where the civilian reenactors sleep. In my battalion, and in all the good reenacting groups I see, civilians, meaning wives and families, pitch their tents at a separate site from the military camp. The civilian camp can be close, but the separation is distinct, intentional and consistent. I know that for some reenacting groups the term “family friendly” means a joint camp and husbands and wives in the same tent. That may be friendly, but it is wrong and not in the spirit of reenactments being weekend depictions of Civil War soldiering.


     Given that military reenactors will sleep without the comforts of their sweethearts’ presence, just how and where will the weekend soldiers bed down? Within my own company, I can expect that one guy will sleep snugly on the fold-down bed in his van in the parking lot, while others will always be found at dawn curled around the ashes of the company cook fire. These hardy fellows will be cocoons in blankets, having shivered through the wee hours if it was a cold night. One or two other men may have brought folding cots to use in their tents, with blankets hiding a foam pad or the metal frame of their cot. Injuries, aging, and a yearning for comfort drive the cot crew. But most of us will be on the ground, maybe with a layer of hay under our rubber blankets for padding and a little more insulation from mother earth. Most of the men in our group will also be under canvas.


     “Under canvas” generally means in a tent or maybe under a canvas fly set up to create a homemade shelter. So, which of all these choices is really the right choice? Once again, “It depends,” is the answer, with the exception of sleeping in the van. That’s a wrong choice. But then again, if the van is in the parking lot away from camp, I suppose it’s a no-harm, no-foul choice, if that’s what it takes to keep a guy at a reenactment.


      The “where to sleep” question is most often answered one of three ways: Under the stars and clouds, or in a wedge tent – also called an A-frame tent, or under two shelter halves buttoned together – also called a shelter tent or dog tent. Yes, there are situations where a large wall tent could be appropriate for a higher ranking officer’s headquarters tent, or a large round Sibley tent would be appropriate for up to a platoon of soldiers at a living history program.  The period images of the large Federal tent cities include all sorts of tents. Nonetheless, for most of us, wedge tents or shelter half tents are the two correct options if we want canvas overhead; and our reenacting camps reflect those choices. Every reenactment military camp I’ve seen has been a mixture of wedge and shelter half tents, usually with mostly wedge tents lining the company street.


      On a personal level, I’m a fan of sleeping under the stars as my first choice, then in a shelter half tent as a second choice, and in a wedge tent as a fall-back in wet weather. It’s a fact that sustained rain changes everything when camping. I imagine we all have had reenacting weekends ruined by rain, and a good wedge tent can be an event-saver. It’s also safe to say that a company street lined with several wedge tents on each side gives a great military appearance. Wedge tents are also practical as they can sleep up to four men and provide hidden storage for ice chests and the modern packing bags and boxes that always seem to appear in camp.  Wedge tents are tall enough to stand upright to change clothes and wide enough that the edges of blankets don’t usually get pushed outside and get wet.


      Like most other essential tools we use as reenactors, tents can be bought from several different places. There is no one sutler or company that has cornered the market for Civil War tents with an exceptional product or exceptional pricing. Yet, unfortunately, like some of the other items we use (muskets come to mind), the tents available for sale are not exactly right. None of the five brands I’ve checked produce a wedge tent made to the dimensions set forth by the US Army during the Civil War for a common wedge tent: 6'10" long, 8'4" wide and 6'10" tall. The reproductions can get close in size, but not spot on. Maybe that doesn’t matter for a couple of reasons. First, many of us have opted for tents that are both longer, at 9 feet or more, and have door flaps at both ends, unlike the real McCoys. The extra two feet of length allows space for more men, or space for the camp boxes and ice chests we bring, things the real Civil War soldiers did not have. As to the back door flaps, I reenact in the south where any cool wind is usually most welcomed. At my first reenactment when I was a green recruit, I bought a wedge tent with the backdoor flaps instead of a solid canvas wall at the back, and while the flaps make the tent even less authentic, I still enjoy the flow-through breeze the back flaps allows. I also should mention that my tent does not have inside ties, so I cannot roll and tie up the back or front flaps. I can only drape them on the outside top of the tent, and any little wind will bring them down. Some tent makers do include inside ties, and back flaps or not, I would not buy another tent without inside ties so the flaps can be rolled up.


     There may also be a second reason that none of the makers of reproduction tents produce wedge tents of the exact dimensions of the Quartermaster Department specifications. We reenactors are heavier and taller than the real Civil War soldiers, so like many of those who make reproduction uniforms, I suspect the tent makers have upsized a bit to accommodate our girth and height. 


     Confederate wedge tent dimensions are hazy, like most Confederate war supplies. Since the South simply replicated US standards in much of their equipment, the US Quartermaster tent specifications likely were used in the Confederacy as well. But the Confederacy was remarkably adept at making do with what they had, and I suspect that wedge tents produced in southern states varied greatly, and probably shrunk in size to stretch the supply of canvas.


     The actual Civil War era tent specifications also included “sod flaps,” which are rather ingenious strips of canvas sewn all the way around the edge of the tent and are to be folded under the inside of the tent with gum blankets or ground clothes overlapping them.  These sod flaps can effectively prevent cold wind coming under the tent and even forestall the creep of flooding during heavy rain. The sod flaps cost extra on reproduction tents, but if I were buying a new wedge tent, I’d fork over the extra bucks. Just one night saved from a soggy blanket or frigid wind would more than pay for the difference.


     Now the first shoe drops: While wedge tents are practical and preferred by most of us reenactors, shelter tents (dog tents), made from two shelter halves buttoned together are what Federal reenactors should be sleeping under at almost all of our reenactments, if we cared to do it right. The case for shelter tents instead of wedge tents is simple: Civil War armies on campaign when camped within fighting reach of each other usually were not accompanied by their wagon trains where the wedge tents were stored. Instead, most Federal soldiers each carried a shelter half, two of which were combined to make a shelter tent. The shelter halves were folded and packed into knapsacks. They were lightweight canvas with hand-sewn button holes and corner holes for stake ropes to be attached. A ridge pole was not needed when the tent was stretched tight by short guy ropes tied to the front and rear upright poles. Upright poles could be made from freshly cut saplings, could be two-part dowel rod poles issued to the men and carried across the top of their packs, or even two muskets upended and held vertical by bayonets pushed into the ground. The six tent stakes needed could be quickly cut from small branches or jointly carried by the two men who each carried half the tent.


    The downside of shelter tents is they are short and narrow, barely five feet square and have no front or rear flap. No doubt enterprising soldiers sometimes draped gum blankets over one end, or butted one end of the mini-tent up against a big rock, a tree trunk, or thick brush. Regardless of the soldiers’ cleverness protecting one end of the shelter tent, two men in one small shelter tent in the rain or north wind were likely to wake up wet or cold, in spite of their canvas roof or spooning through the night with shared blankets and shared body warmth.


    We see photos of brush arbors in the real photos of Civil War camps, and there are images of shelter halves set up as lean-to’s or even constructed into larger canvas shebangs. Our company often builds canvas shebangs at events where the battalion camps campaign style. Three or four connected shelter halves tied off to trees and upright branches with one side left open can make a comfortable cave for several men.


    Shelter halves are what many Civil War soldiers carried on campaign, and what we really should be using. My experience is that ninety percent of the time, a shelter tent is fine, if a little close. But the ten percent of the time when a lasting rain hits the reenactment, or a frigid wind is blowing, you can expect a soggy and frosty time of it.


    Now the other shoe drops: Confederate reenactors probably should not even be carrying shelter halves to make a shelter tent while replicating a campaign bivouac. The real old boys would have been sleeping under the sky with no canvas. Not only would the wagon trains carrying the wedge tents not be close by, but the Confederacy appears to have issued very few shelter tents. Men carried what they could scrabble together. Maybe a man would have a piece of canvas, or a piece of an old rug, or a gum blanket, but often it was nothing at all beyond their wool blanket.  No doubt they got very wet, very cold, and very sick. No doubt they spooned together and huddled around the fires. No doubt they burrowed their way up under whatever brush was close by.


      We may think being on a week or even month long campaign without shelter was a terrible hardship, when seen through our 21st century filtered lenses of what is hardship. Yet, we should keep in mind that these soldiers grew up in an outdoor society and most traveled by foot in their civilian lives. Traveling any distance beyond ten miles required overnight camping, and you can bet many of these young men had slept many nights under the stars – and clouds – before the war. Tents would have been a luxury many of them would never have afforded or used. 


    There it is: No tent, little tent, wedge tents. This is another case that to best live for a weekend as a Civil War soldier on campaign, less is best. Bigger may be more comfortable, but it’s not as correct.


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