“We had learned by this time to live without tents, so it was easy for the men to move. The only shelters the men had were oil or rubber cloths and cotton flys. In moving, all that was needed was to roll up our fly or oilcloth to take with us ... then we were ready for a march to another camp, or to meet the enemy.”
We have all seen old photographs and tintypes from the Civil War showing vast “tent cities,” spread out as far as the eye could see. While this was a common sight in the Union army, it was a very rare sight to see a Confederate tent camp. Staff officers mostly carried large tents. Below the rank of staff officer, tents were pretty much nonexistent.
One of the few times a Confederate soldier ever saw or lived in a tent was when he mustered in and went to training camp. Tents of that period were not particularly well made, and tentage material was scarce. As the war dragged on, it became extremely scarce in the Confederacy. Most tents did not survive the first six months of basic training and were usually left behind for a new crop of recruits. On the march, it wasn’t practical to carry tents. Only staff officers, the surgeon, or maybe a sutler might carry tents. Gradually, tents disappeared from the scene in most Confederate units, as they could not be replaced. It was a lucky trooper or soldier who had a shelter-half and a messmate with another shelter-half. Together, they could put together a dog tent, or rig some kind of shebang using rope and poles cut from nearby trees or brush. Those less fortunate had to make do with a gum blanket or poncho, if they even had that. In summary, carrying tentage on the march was impractical because of the weight, and, eventually, it was impossible to get. The best sources of supply were Yankee warehouses and supply trains.
As re-enactors, sometimes we have to take a few liberties with historical fact. When the 7th Texas Cavalry is in camp, we attempt to portray an authentic Confederate cavalry camp from the Trans-Mississippi theater. Even though it is unlikely that many tents were available, especially late in the war, we are portraying the way that camp would have looked under ideal conditions, with tentage readily available. Besides, we’d like to be comfortable while we’re in camp.
The A-frame is the most common tent you will see at drill or at a re-enactment. As the name suggests, the A-frame is in the shape of the letter “A.” A-frame tents come in a variety of sizes. A typical size is 6 feet high by 6 feet wide by 8 or 9 feet deep and sleeps two comfortably with all their gear. Upright poles on either end, attached to a ridgepole, running lengthwise, support the tent. (These do not come with the tent; you make them yourself.) It may have brass grommets or canvas loops for the tent stakes, usually three or four on each side. Tents provided by most sutlers have a few modern improvements over the old Civil War tentage. A good-quality tent will be double-stitched, flame-retardant, and waterproof. This is your best bet. A reasonably good A-frame can be had for about $200. There are cheaper tents that don’t offer these extras; don’t waste your money. You get what you pay for. When buying your tent, always invest in a set of period-correct iron tent stakes. Do not use farby aluminum stakes with colored plastic keepers or (God forbid) day-glow orange plastic tent stakes. Keep it correct from top to bottom, inside and out!
Although the Confederacy issued very few tents, the shelter-half saw extensive service in the Confederate army. Most of these tents were captured from Federal supply trains or camps that were overrun. The dog tent is one of the most common, authentic, period-correct tents you can have. The dog tent is nothing more than two shelter-halves, buttoned together to form a tent. A shelter-half is a section of canvas tent that is roughly 4 X 6 feet. As stated, when two shelter-halves are buttoned together, it makes a dog tent. When a soldier was lucky enough to have a shelter half, he would buddy-up with a messmate or someone who also had a shelter-half. They would throw in together and make up a dog tent. This arrangement would sleep two people in reasonable comfort. These tents had various nicknames, including “A-tent,” “fly tent,” “dog kennel,” “picket tent,” “pup tent,” “shanty,” and “shebang.”
“...simply a piece of cloth about six feet square, with a row of buttons and button holes on three sides: two men pitched together by buttoning their pieces together and getting two sticks with a crotch at one end and one to go across the top and then placing their cloth over it and pinning it down tight. On the whole, after we got used to them, we liked them quite well.”
The dog tent requires two vertical poles and a ridgepole, which are usually cut from whatever brush or trees are available. A few iron stakes and some manila rope are also needed to pitch the tent. Most troopers in the 7th who use dog tents regularly carry pre-cut uprights and a ridgepole, cut from trees, for an authentic period look — no lumberyard 2 X 2s! The dog tent is simple, lightweight, and easy to put up. If you prefer to stay dry in a driving rain, end pieces are available from the sutlers that can be buttoned into the ends of the tent to keep out the rain. A dog tent, with a ground sheet and a blanket, can be very cozy on a cold wet night.
“I counted over ninety bullet holes through one dog tent ...
When purchasing your dog tent, look for tentage with the same specifications and quality as described in the discussion of A-frame tents. After you’ve “roughed it” for a while, you may want to graduate to an A-frame; however, many prefer the simplicity and authentic look of the dog tent. It’s your choice.
For a really bare bones, hard-core setup, many prefer to make a simple lean-to, using just one shelter-half. It still requires two uprights and some manila rope and a few stakes, but it’s about as simple as you can get. And, it’s easily carried on your back as part of your blanket roll. This is ideal for a campaign-style event, where you are required to carry everything on your back or on your saddle, if mounted, that you will need for a re-enactment.
Irishmen, who wound up serving either in Union or Confederate armies, brought the word “shebang” to the U.S. In Ireland, it is a crude hut or hovel. A shebang was one of the most common shelters used by soldiers on either side during the Civil War. A shebang is any type of temporary shelter, usually made up from a simple shelter-half and some rope, to more elaborate shelters, with shelter-halves, ground sheets, and ponchos pieced together. Soldiers were ingenious at this and could throw up a shelter in very short order.
“I built a unique “house” made of cornstalks, with walls three feet high and long and wide enough to spread a blanket over a bed of straw on the inside. A little ditch around the structure conveyed the rain from the “roof’ away from my bed.”
A shebang is also an ideal shelter if you are on a “campaign style” re-enactment. Your own personal shebang is limited only by your imagination.
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