Shelter Tents Part I

by Steve Hanson
Co. C, 2nd U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars

First, we need an overview of regulation so we can deviate from there to what can be accepted as correct. Each man was issued one shelter half, a single upright pole in two pieces that fitted together, a rope approximately 55 inches long, and four wooden tent pegs. That was one mans load Two men buttoned their shelter halves together, each put his two pole halves together, one in front and one in back, and each tied his rope to the top of the pole and secured it to the ground with one of his tent pegs. Then each staked one side of the tent to the ground with his remaining three tent pegs. There was no ridge pole. The tension of the two ropes on the uprights held the center taught. Regulations state that leather gear is not to be hung on the ends of tents – and this is why. In regulation construction, the peak corners of the tent are not strong enough to support all of a mans leather gear, and would not support his rifle leaning up against it either. Because not very many of these uprights and tent pegs survived field use at the time to exist today, it must be assumed that either they broke easily, were used for kindling on cold rainy nights, or were thrown away because they could be easily replaced with available field material. We are all familiar with the field-material alternative because all of our tents are constructed with them: two uprights notched at the top to hold a ridge pole and six pegs to stick in the ground. This construction dispenses with the ropes that would stretch into the company street under regulation construction. As it turns out, because limited space usually prevents our company streets from being the regulation width of 5 paces (11-2/3 feet or almost 4 yards), those ropes would be in the way of any company formation on the street, and would be a constant tripping hazard at all times. Plus, the added strength of this construction allows us to hang our gear and lean our rifles on the ends (even against regulation).

One of the biggest problems we have to overcome today is that various sutlers align the buttons and buttonholes differently, so tents from one manufacturer often will not button together with those of another. As a result, and possibly other personal factors, we have to come to the unrealistic alternative of each man carrying an entire tent, already buttoned together and rolled around the uprights and ridge pole, which are both usually much bigger than necessary. Then, because we dont have to lug this house on our backs as did the Civil War soldier, we tend toward railroad spikes or bent pig-iron as tent stakes – neither of which a soldier would tolerate having to carry in his pack Today the unnecessary weight is not a factor because we dont have to carry it. Also, unless a railroad yard or blacksmith shop was nearby, from which these things could be liberated, neither would be available as a field expedient the great majority of the time. So, metal tent stakes are incorrect on all counts at all times.

As for the canvas itself, first of all, no metal grommets! The only metal on your shelter half should be the buttons. On all four corners and on both long edges (on the center seam), there should be a 4 1/2-inch-square reinforcement patch. Within the patch should be two stitched round holes Through these holes should pass a 3/8-inch rope 8 inches long and tied in a loop with a square knot, the loose ends of which are cut as short as possible without the knot coming untied. So, without metal grommets and without metal tent pegs, the incorrect practice of sticking the tent peg directly through the grommet is already eliminated.

In a bivouac situation, any style structure and any combination of readily available materials can be used for a simple one-night stand. This is where the image of the tent tied between two rifles with bayonets stuck in the ground comes from. Of course, this would not have been allowed in close proximity to an enemy force, but in a long campaign march away from any enemy, the danger was minimal enough to allow it The next morning, everything was packed up, the march continued, and any construction material used was burned or abandoned to rot or be used by some other unit to camp on that ground the next night.

However, in any permanent camp (a few days to a few months duration at least), all tents were free-standing 2-man tents, and all need to be constructed as such and look like two men are living in them. In cold-weather camps, they might be constructed for three or even four men with the extra shelter halves used as front and rear covers. For a unit just coming in from the field, especially by mid or late war, the men probably would not have their issued uprights and tent pegs, and would have to make do with field expedients until such items were reissued or purchased, if then This is the situation seen in a typical CW reenactor camp.

Next month, where to find and how to construct field-expedient material.