The Federal Shelter Tent: A Soldier’s Home Away From Home

This article ran in the December 2005 issue of To The Colors, the newsletter of the 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Co. H, based in northern Illinois. Reprinted here with kind permission of the author and newsletter editor.

The Federal Shelter Tent: A Soldier’s Home Away From Home
A Survey of Frederick Gaede’s book, The Civil War Shelter Tent
By Matthew Cassady

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of any Civil War reenactment must be the long rows of white tents serving as shelter for weekend warriors. More than anything else, sleeping out in the open brings the reenactor closer to experiencing camp life of the average soldier during the 19th century. Every reenactor is familiar with the shelter tent, but in this time of increased knowledge and attention to detail in our hobby, surprisingly few know very much about this essential piece of equipment.

To remedy the lack of a knowledge base about the shelter tent, Frederick Gaede has written a monograph detailing the development and distribution of shelter tents to Federal troops during the Civil War. The following is a brief summary of the important points of Gaede’s work, and is not intended to replace the original work, but to give the casual reader a basic understanding of the subject.

To begin, it is important to understand the development of the shelter tent as used by the Federal armies. Through most of the early 1800s the government had used a style of tent referred to as the “common” tent and was the mainstay of the U.S. Army. This style of tent is commonly known to reenactors as the “A-frame” or “wedge” tent. In 1851 the common tent was replaced by the “French bell-tent” and was relegated to use by servants or laundresses, seeing limited use in the Union army during the War.

Replacing the bell-tent in 1858 was the “Sibley tent.” Gaede writes that “Joined early in the war by the original ‘A’ tent and a shelter tent . . . the Sibley would remain a ‘regulation’ item of enlisted men’s tentage until 1864, although generally relegated to winter quarters or other semi-permanent uses.” Due to the time constraints of production and the necessity of baggage trains to transport them, the Sibley proved too cumbersome for active campaigning; Billy Yank would be forced to forgo greater comfort for greater mobility. Images of Sibleys in the vicinity of Atlanta testify to its lengthy, though eventually limited, use by the Federal army.

The tent that would replace the Sibley, like many other military innovations of the 19th century, could trace its roots to Europe. The French army had been using a form of a shelter tent since 1837, known as the “tente-d’abri.” This tent was made of cotton cloth infused with India rubber, rendering it waterproof. This design came to the attention of a young George McClellan who noted their usefulness while acting as an American observer during the Crimean War.

McClellan concluded that the tente-d’abri would be far superior in utility and portability than the U.S. army’s Sibley tent. He was especially impressed with the flexibility the tente afforded; several men could button their tents together in various configurations to allow for the greatest amount of comfort. The characteristic button feature would become standard on the American version of the shelter tent. McClellan proposed his design to the U.S. Quartermaster Department (QMD) and it was originally designated as temporary shelter for cavalry troopers while “detachments were on picket duty.” However, the suitability of the shelter tent for active campaigning allowed for its widespread use by all branches of the Federal armies.

When the QMD began considering the shelter tent for use by the American military, several variations were proposed. One design, the “tent knapsack,” was proposed by Captain William Johns in 1856. This curious piece of equipment consisted of a gutta percha sheet with straps and buckles along one end to facilitate the fastening of the sheet into a knapsack. In this manner, the shelter tent would provide the soldier with a knapsack, ground cloth, and shelter tent in one convenient package.

A similar design, which was adopted by the QMD, was the “poncho tent” patented by a man named Day. The original design called for a gutta percha sheet, much like the tent knapsack, with an opening in the center to allow for the soldier to wear the sheet as a poncho. The tent also had a row of buttons and buttonholes along the top to allow for the fastening of two ponchos and either hand sewn or brass grommets for securing the tent to the ground. Gaede writes that the design was a success and “By the end of October 1861 5,000 of Day’s poncho tents had been ordered” by the army.

Interestingly, these two designs were not widely adopted and, as Gaede states, “at the beginning of the War, the QMD had no patterns of India rubber or gutta percha tent blankets, ponchos, or shelter halves on its list of items available for general issue.” Because of the strains of supply at the war’s opening and the difficulties of campaigning with the larger Sibley tents, the QMD authorized the issue of what we affectionately know as the shelter tent. There are three main categories of shelter tents used by the Federal army: first issued was the “Type I” style, similar in design and construction to the French tente-d’abri; second was the “Type II” which is characterized by its construction using three vertical panels; finally was the “Type III” which denotes the two paneled variety of shelter tent.

Roughly 10,000 tentes d’abri were imported from France for use in the Union army and another 10,000 of a similar design were manufactured under contract by Ruel Smith in the fall of 1861. The imported tents were crafted out of linen, had one horizontal seam, and, unlike the American design of the shelter tent, had buttons and button holes around all four edges. The use of the French-designed tent heralded the age of the shelter tent in the U.S. army, which would continue until after the First World War.

Most numerous of the various styles of shelter tent in use by the Federal army was the Type II, which is identifiable by its characteristic three panels and two pin loops. The new style was the result of a shortage of cotton fabrics in the North, “particularly the 28½- and 30-inch wide cotton duck of varying weights that were favored before and at the beginning of the War for military tentage.” Two full-size pieces of cotton (the standard textile trade width for cotton drill was 28½ inches wide) were attached to a smaller center piece of cotton, creating a regulation width tent of 66½ inches.

Other notable characteristics of the Type II shelter tent are vertical seams bisecting the ground and the ridge pole (though some tents display seams running horizontally, or parallel to the ground), reinforced pin loop corners, and hand-sewn grommets that fit a pin loop of Manila or hemp cord. The three-paneled tentes were likely made for the March 1862 contract and remained the dominant style throughout 1862 and 1863 and continued to be produced through 1864.

The final style of shelter tent produced by the Federal government was the aptly named “Type III,” which overlapped the Type II in production from October 1863 through September of 1864, making it the second most common tent used during the war. Earlier types of this model are characterized by two vertical panels, two pin loops, and bone, horn, or metallic buttons (this style is referred to as the “Type IIIa”) but by late 1864 a third pin loop was added to the center of the tent, and the bone buttons were replaced by a metallic version (“Type IIIb”). This style tent is probably the most popular with reenactors even though they were only used in the late-war period.

After understanding the history of the Federal shelter half, it is possible to examine specific details of the tent.

Size: Gaede writes that the QMD set standards for shelter tents “that measured close to 66½ inches long by 63 inches wide from the earliest contracts for shelter halves until the very end of the war.” This standard was maintained with only slight deviations in the spacing between the buttons and buttonholes, because these were hand-worked. This is attested to in the book Si Kleeg and His Pard when the author describes Kleeg and Shorty swapping tents around until they found two that matched up best.

Materials: Various materials were used in the construction of the army’s shelter tents. To quote from Gaede’s book: “While no differentiation has been made based on the type of material used, probably all Type I halves were made of linen, the majority of Type II tents were made of cotton drill, and probably all Type IIIb halves were made of cotton duck. Type IIIa halves were made of both cotton materials [drill and duck].…” When completed, the shelter tent (one half) weighed roughly 2 lbs. including the tent loops and guy rope.

Grommets, etc.: The grommets were holes hand-sewn with heavy cord large enough in diameter to accommodate a Manila or hemp pin loop. The slots, used to facilitate the use of tent poles, resembled buttonholes and were usually worked with the same cord used in the stitching of the buttonholes. Unlike most reproduction shelter tents, there were no metallic grommets on any original shelter tents. Gaede writes that it is true that some of Day’s poncho tents had metal grommets, but cloth tents were known to only have the hand-sewn variety. “Further,” writes Gaede, “there is no archival support for any shelter tents made, received, or issued by the QMD during the War having metallic grommets.” In regard to the slots and their use, there is limited evidence in the QMD archives attesting to Federal issue tent poles, but it is true that some states issued them to their troops and that some were purchased privately by the soldiers themselves. However, due to the inconvenience of carrying pre-fabricated poles and their flimsy constitution, most soldiers relied on the countryside to provide the needed poles. As attested to in many diaries, letters, and even our old friend Si Kleeg, forked saplings and other sticks provided ample support for a soldier’s tent. The same was true of tent pins, which were not Federal issue, but could be privately purchased or fashioned from raw materials by the soldier himself.

End flaps: One of the greatest complaints about the shelter tent concerned the exposure a soldier suffered due to the open ends of the tent. A solution to the problem was an “end flap” or “hood,” proposed in 1865 by Chief Tent Inspector Flomerfelt. Gaede writes that “It does not appear any of these hoods were ever made, and a version of the end-piece would not be incorporated into the tent until 1892.” Evidence exists, however, that some states might have provided end-flaps for their volunteer forces but none were issued by the Union army but it is clear that the QMD did not consider them until the war’s end. Like anything else, however, most soldiers improvised to increase their comfort. For example, a blanket, wool or gum, stretched over the exposed end of the tent, or a spare piece of canvas could easily prevent wind, rain, or snow from entering the tent.

As stated before, this article does not intend to replace Mr. Gaede’s work and those with the time and inclination are strongly encouraged to read his monograph. For those of you who wish for a basic understanding of the Federal shelter tent, hopefully this article serves that purpose.