I have already discussed the building of a (more or less elaborate) “shebang” , so now I would like to describe related abodes. This paper will delineate the selection from simple shelters to the exalted “winter quarters”.
For many soldiers, the “camp” at the end of the day’s march was any available plot of ground. Lying down on a ground cloth or poncho, they covered themselves with a blanket or two. If more time permitted, several members of a mess might clear a space of rocks and sticks, pile up dry leaves, grass or straw, and with an oil cloth and blanket underneath, lay down and cover themselves with the other blanket(s) and poncho(s). This would suffice for cool dry nights, but once the rains started, they would get wet fairly soon, unless they had the good luck (or wisdom) to set up under a tree (like a hemlock or a fir) or were fortunate enough to lay claim to a porch or barn. If time and materials permitted several logs or fence rails could be laid side by side to keep the campers from sleeping directly on the cold, wet ground. This is about all that could be done, without canvas, while on campaign. But as the order for winter quarters came along, and before the soldiers could complete their more permanent winter abodes, other shelters appeared that made life cozier.
The obvious shelter, of course, was the tent. The “correct” tent depends on the period of the war you are portraying. “Early war” shelter would show a preponderance of four- to six-man tents. Later, it would be the shelter tent for Federals and a piece of canvas (or liberated shelter tent) for the Confederates. Early in the war, of course, both sides would have tried to bring the larger tents along in baggage wagons, but both wagon and tent quickly disappeared from the ranks as the war dragged on, except when the armies went into winter quarters.
A less involved structure is nothing more than a rubber blanket and a convenient tree or rail fence. Tie the rubber blanket between two low branches, so the wind doesn’t carry it off. When using fence rails, one could lean two rails off the top of the fence, and tie the blanket to those. If you’re industrious, you might even find an obliging tree root or log to make a “tolerable” pillow. Again, you still leave yourself open to a thorough soaking in a driving rain, but it may suffice for the occasional shower. You can’t do much better for a campaign impression at most events, but you can still do better.
…and not-so-cheap sleeping.
This needs the work of three to four men. Remove any brush or large rocks from the campsite, and then place several logs or planks side-by-side, wide enough to accommodate the number of campers. Cover these with leaves, straw, or pine boughs to cushion the sleeper(s) from the “floor”. Lay yourself and your blankets on top of that and cover everything with your ponchos if wet weather threatens. You could then put your tent over that, if you have one.
If you are presenting a late fall / early winter camp, try the following: using logs or planks about the length and width of your tent, build up a pen about two feet high. Clear the ground of all rocks, sticks, and other detritus (that’s Latin for “cow patties”), or fill the pen about half full with straw, grass or dry leaves (I’d still get the “detritus” out of there). Lay your ponchos down (cloth side up). You may want to put a few blankets on top of that. When ready to bed down, climb in, cover up with the remaining blankets, and then lay the remaining ponchos and shelter-halves on top. If you did this well any rain will run off to the sides and flow under the leaves and ponchos, leaving you ry (at least, drier).
Rain, rain, go away…
If you know it’s going to rain, put your tent up over the pen, or use your ponchos to make a shelter over it. If you angle this rig just right, the rain won’t spill in through the open ends. If not, you can close the ends off with more canvas or a blanket. This will keep most of the rain out. The pen works well for A-tents and wall tents. You can also scale it back, put a shelter tent over it and sleep up to four people comfortably . The truth is, this structure works best for the shelter tent, as the wood for the pen is going to be difficult to find nearby, and the shorter the logs, the less they weigh. This is a very important consideration if the lumber is a fair distance from your campsite (which it invariably is). Make a pallet of logs or fence rails for your floor, and you will not have to worry about water seeping into your bed. For really wet weather, dig a hole in the lowest corner of the pen to collect any rainwater that may get inside. Some readers may remember the 125th Shiloh event, in which firewood was used to corduroy the floors of the tents and the company streets. Hey, it worked (although I understand the property owner was upset).
Remember that the more elaborate the structure, the less likely it was to appear in a campaign camp. Elaborate structures were more common in winter camps, as the builders were likely to enjoy the fruits of their labors longer. They also had more time to build them. But the simpler shelters might have been erected in situations where the armies had been involved in building trenches, and other static constructions, and it appeared that they weren’t going anyplace soon. This could have worked well for those of you who slept in the trenches at the Lee vs. Grant event last year.
“The Willard (or Spottswood) Hotel”…
If you ever get the chance, build a winter cabin. It is a fun project, and can serve to bring a mess or a unit together. Begin by cutting logs about twelve feet long, and notching about six inches in on each end of every log. The notch should be no wider or deeper than needed to rest the next log in place. Stack these logs up like Lincoln Logs? until you get a wall about five to six feet high. The inside dimensions should be ten to eleven feet square, give or take. Depending on how you appoint the interior of the cabin, you can sleep anywhere from two to eight men. If you are putting bunks inside, figure four men to a cabin. This works out to two bunks each on two of the walls, with the door on the third and a fireplace / wood stove in or along the last wall. Since you want the cabin to last more than a few months, remove the bark, so bugs won’t crawl in between the bark and the wood and eat you out of house and home. Cedar or gum work best for the sill logs, as critters tend not to eat these trees as quickly as pine or oak. Swamp cypress will work well as sill material, too. Pine and cedar work best for the upper courses, as they are lighter and require less effort to lift overhead. You could cheat and use pressure-treated wood for the sills, but that’s your call (and expense). Trees are free.
A wooden door can be made from slab wood, or use a blanket or piece of canvas to cover the opening. A wooden door is correct, but the cloth will serve for all but the coolest of nights, and can be secured against the wind nearly as well as a crude door. Chink all cracks in the walls with a mixture of wet clay and straw. The fewer drafts the better. If you want to get fancy cut a window out the same way you cut out the door, and use oiled parchment paper for the windowpanes. You won’t be able to see through it, but the oil will make the paper waterproof and admit more light into the cabin. Some accounts of actual winter cabins had this sort of window “glass” in it. In other cases, simple shutters were made to close over the window during bad weather.
Central heating (?)
Some cabins had some sort of fireplace in them, but many did not. The chimney can be made of anything, but if you use the “wattle and daub” approach, be sure to cover the inflammable material with lots of mud (clay is best). Layer it on, it’s your only fire protection. Large rocks and stones would be better for the fireplace itself, and if you can stand the chimney away from the wall of the cabin, you lessen the risk of burning down more than the chimney . Barrels could be (and were) used as chimney flues. Stovepipe, not uncommon, may be an acceptable, and certainly safer, alternative to mud and sticks. If you use barrels or sticks, expect a chimney fire
The fireplace does not need to be large, but it should hold two or three pieces at a time. The chimney need be only three to five feet higher than the fireplace. This is sufficient to get a good draft going to draw the smoke out of the fireplace (and your cabin.) The shorter the chimney, however, the greater the likelihood of smoke going back into the cabin, especially if a breeze gets up.
Another option is to use a stove inside the cabin. Look about, as small cast-iron stoves can be found in some antique stores or flea markets. A sheet iron stove will also work, and is certainly appropriate. Field ovens or Sibley-type stoves would not be common, but they, too, were used.
One final approach is the firepit. This is an early English style, and was used in the beginning days of the Virginia and New England colonies. It was used later as a means of smoke-curing meats, and was therefor, removed from the home to the smokehouse. Line an area of one wall with brick or clay . This should be directly under an open gable of the cabin, at the highest point of the ceiling. Build your fire directly on the ground in front of the fireback. The smoke will (eventually) drift out the open gable. This is probably the worst fireplace idea, but it was common enough that it warrants mention here. Please note that there is no protection for the occupants of the cabin from the flames and embers of the fire.
Since many cabins were built over a shallow pit, a good (and common) fireplace is nothing more than a shelf built into the earthen part of the back wall of the cabin, with a small “rabbit hole” to the surface from the back of the cabin. This gets the flames out from under the sill of the cabin, and removes the need for a built up chimney outside the cabin. You may want to outline the fireplace on the ground outside, to keep the inattentive from putting their foot through the roof of the fireplace (and into your fire). A hollow log works as nice chimney top, if one is available. Line it with clay and set it over the rabbit hole.
You can top the cabin in a number of ways. Some cabins had split shingle roofs on them. A common roof was a tent (an excellent choice for the pit-style of cabin,) or canvas tarpaulin over a simple pole frame. The ends can be covered with canvas or a wall can be built up to fill the open space on the ends. You may also want to dig a shallow trench around the sill to direct runoff away from the cabin. There should be a pronounced pitch to any roof, to prevent ponding of water on the roof, with the inevitable leaks following.
The canvas roof has an appeal to us as reenactors for a number of reasons. First, it is cheap. Second, it can be taken down between camps for repair or maintenance. Last, with the roof removed, there is less possibility of “critters” taking up residence during the off season.
Finally, you should never turn down the opportunity to get some sack time on (or under) a porch or in a nearby barn. Why build when a “turnkey” is already there?
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