The Lamar Rifles

Tenting Tonight?
The Confederate Infantryman in Camp on Campaign
(Part 1)
K.C. MacDonald
Of the Lazy Jack Mess

I have long harbored doubts about most progressive/hardcore Confederate campaign camping arrangements. There are those, and bully for them, who just hurl themselves down on the hard ground and fall asleep in all weathers. However, I reckon the vast majority erect shelter-tent-cities that look more like 'Grant's army on the march' than a truly Confederate encampment. Indeed, there has been a tendency, simply because we have so much good information on Federal campaigning, shelter tents and the like, to follow proper Federal hardcore camping procedure while portraying Confederates. This essay is a first stab at trying something different. In time I hope to improve it, but for now I hope it will encourage experimentation. (for a good article on Federal camping see 'Home Sweet Home Away From Home' by John Rees, Camp Chase Gazette October 2000, vol.27, no.10).

Confederates and the Shelter Half

After years of speculation concerning manufacture and distribution, Frederick Gaede's book on The Federal Civil War Shelter Tent (O'Donnell Publications 2001) may be regarded as virtually the final word on the subject. From it we learn that the Federal Shelter tent went into mass production in 1862, with 402,000 being contracted for that year by the Union Quartermaster General (Gaede 2001:109-11). Their issue began at least as early as March, 1862 and at least 15,000 pairs accompanied the Army of the Potomac at the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign (Gaede 2001:19). By the summer of 1862, the shelter tent was widespread in the Army of the Potomac, although it was not a universally used in the western Federal armies until 1863 (replacing the Sibleys and the A-frame). Thus, notionally, the Confederate infantryman's encounter with the Federal shelter tent would have begun in Spring 1862 in the east, some months later in the west. When they encountered it, did they adopt it, and whatever did they do before it? Bell Irvin Wiley gave an appropriate summary response to this question in The Life of Johnny Reb some time ago:

Poets have delighted to dwell upon the tented field of Confederate days, but canopies were rarely found outside the imagination of the verse makers. During the terrible downpours in Virginia of March and April 1862, the great majority of Johnston's forces marched without raincoats and slept on the muddy ground without benefit of shelter... Later in the war oilcloths (rubber blankets) and tent-flies, both obtained largely from the Yankees, were in greater evidence, but even so, the soldier who had such protection was the exception rather than the rule - (Wiley 1943, pg.246)

Wiley's notion of Confederate use of captured Union Shelter Half's was buttressed by a quotation from the unpublished journal of O.T. Hanks (Texas Brigade) after the battle of Gaines Mill:

We have had a glorious victory with its rich Booty. A many one of our boys now have a pair of Britches a nice rubber cloth and a pair of blankets also a pair or more of Small Tent Cloths. - (Wiley, 1943. pg.76)

This may indeed be the earliest Confederate reference to the shelter half. But for many in the Army of Northern Virginia, the situation did not improve after stunning victories in the Peninsula or in the Valley. Private William Montgomery of the 2nd SC, ANV wrote on 7 December, 1862 near Fredericksburg:

A great many that I know are entirely barefooted & but very few have over one blanket & you know that one blanket to the man & he is exposed to pelting snow without any tent or shelter of any kind, save what he can readily construct of brush is not enough. (Montgomery, Georgia Sharpshooter, 1997 pg.74)

Nor were things much better for this same soldier on 7 May, 1863:

"...(along the Rappahanock) it has been raining for two or three days & we have been lying here on the riverbank without tents." (Montgomery pg.86).

Indeed, the state of affairs for most eastern Confederates ,outside of Winter quarters, may be concisely summarized by the eloquent memoirist David Holt (Private, 16th MS, ANV):

"Next we moved on a short distance into a pleasant grove of trees, where after roll call, we broke ranks, laid on the ground, and went to sleep." (Holt Cockrell & Ballard eds.), A Mississippi Rebel in the ANV 1995, pg.264.

Further to the west, as in the east, for most regiments the tented field ceased to be a reality once they began campaigning:

Journal entry from Lt. E.A. Pinnell, 10 August, 1862, 8th Mo (CSA), Trans-Miss "Not a tent in the Brig. (brigade(" Pinnell (Banasik ed.) Serving with Honor 1999.

Memoirs of Pvt. J.P. Cannon, on detachment with the 33rd MS, Aug/Sept 1862 KY Campaign

"We carried no tents, bivouacking anywhere we were allowed to stop long enough to get a few hours sleep, considering ourselves lucky if it happened to be in the timber where we could have the shelter of a tree." pg. 10 & April 1863, with the 27th AL, On leaving a fixed camp at Port Hudson for Jackson as to packing it was a small job, having no tents and nothing to pack except our scanty knapsacks." pg.26

Cannon (Crowson & Brogden eds.) Bloody Banners and Barefoot Boys 1997

But a few regiments, raised later in the war and equipped by more organized quartermasters departments, managed to briefly maintain a semblance of 'proper' camp life well into mid-war, as these letter entries by Pvt. Grant Taylor (40th AL) attest:

Near Columbus, Ms 22nd December, 1862 (pg. 137)

"We are beginning to see something of a Soldier's Life. When we are ordered to move, it is always done in a hurry and everything in confusion. We have lost a good many of our cooking utensils since Mobile. But we have been fortunate enough to keep our tents up and to draw more. My mess has a good wall tent, brand new like the officers had when you were down..."

Near Vicksburg, 14th Jan. 1863 (pg. 150)

"We have got all our tents and baggage with us at last and we are doing finely, but I tell you the first 8 days after we got here saw sights for we left everything in Vicksburg but one blanket each and for two nights it rained terribly." (Taylor (Blomquist & Taylor eds.) This Cruel War, 2000)

But of course, this idyllic state lasted for the 40th AL, only a few months. The same writer during the Atlanta campaign, 1864:

Near Marietta, 15 June, 1864 (pg. 257)

"I can hardly imagine how I would feel with all my clothes dry on me. I get wet and let my clothes dry on me and of a night tumble down on the wet leaves and grass and get up wet the next morning."

In the west, once losing their baggage train by some mishap (usually quite early in the war), soldiers were left to improvise shelter as best they could. I have not yet been able to find any contemporary Confederate references to their using captured Federal Shelter half's. I would suspect that this may be due to the lack of opportunities for the unfortunate Army of Tennessee to plunder vanquished enemies after 1862 (excepting Chickamauga). But still, there are persistent rumors that some Confederate soldiers might have had some personal tent equipage:

Reminiscence of Capt. John H. Worsham, 21st VA, ANV writing of late 1862

"The2lst Virginia had by this time learned to live without tents, [and] it was easy for the men to move. The only shelter the men had were oil or rubber cloths and cotton flies. The latter were of cotton about four by six feet in size and hemmed around the borders. Button holes were worked around these borders and buttons sewed on at certain places... In moving all that was needed was to roll up our fly or oilcloth to take with us, put our small lot of cooking utensils in the wagons, put on our accoutrements and take arms."

Robertson, James I. Jr. 1964. One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry pg.90

This remains one of the most perplexing of all Confederate tent references. Was Worsham referring to captured Federal Shelter half's, as one might logically assume, or did the Confederates make some of their own shelter half's, 'the tent fly', just as they made their own oilcloths as equivalents to the Federal gum blanket?




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