Civil War – Union Shelters


Barracks were often built to house Union soldiers in training camps, such as the one at Camp Cameron. These were long buildings similar to bowling alleys of the day. Barracks held a double row of stacked bunk beds separated by a center aisle. They were designed to hold a company, which was one hundred soldiers.

Most camps, though, sheltered their soldiers in tents. One of the popular designs was the Sibley tent, also known as the Bell Tent due to its resemblance to a bell. Supported by a single pole, these tents were twelve feet high and eighteen feet in diameter.

Sibley tents were large enough to house a dozen men. A cone-shaped stove warmed them in cold weather from the center. A small circular opening allowed for the stove pipe and for ventilation. This type of tent became too cumbersome for field camps and was used mainly in instruction camps.

camp-1786750_960_720The A tent (also called Wedge tent) was a canvas tent stretched over a six-foot horizontal bar, supported by two upright posts. This tent resembles the letter “A.” The area inside is about 7 square feet. It was intended to sleep four. The number sometimes grew to five or six men, which made for tight sleeping quarters.

Another type was the Hospital or Wall tent. These had four upright sides and came in different sizes. Those used in field hospitals held 6 to 20 patients. These tents were often joined together to increase space by ripping the center seams.

All of these shelters were widely used by troops in training before they left their state.

Shelter tents were invented early in the war for the rank and file (privates) who carried half the tent on the march. These halves were about five feet by four and a half feet with a single row of buttons and buttonholes. These were made into a whole tent by buttoning the half shelter to a comrade’s half shelter to make a roof.

Armies on marches didn’t take the trouble to put up tents in good weather. If cold or rainy, comrades placed two muskets with bayonets in an upright position the distance of the half shelter apart. They stretched a rope between the trigger guards to make a tent ridge pole.

The infantry got so much practice that it didn’t take long to put up the tent—even after a long day of marching.

-Sandra Merville Hart


Billings, John D. Hardtack & Coffee, University of Nebraska Press, 1993.