Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Tents

By Matthew Pizzolato

One of the biggest disparities at a reenactment when compared to the War is that for the most part, every reenactor has his own tent.  The soldiers during that time weren't so fortunate. 

When the War began, both armies used Sibley tents, named after Confederate Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley.  The design was based on Native American tepees.  A Sibley tent was a round cone that was eighteen feet in diameter and twelve feet high.  It was supported by a center pole and was designed to sleep twelve men comfortably aligned around the center pole.  However, when supplies were short, they sometimes housed up to twenty a night.  During the summer months, bathing was a luxury for an army in the field so conditions often were intolerable inside a Sibley and many men chose to sleep under the stars when the weather was permitting.

Different sizes of wedge tents or A-frames
As the War dragged on, the large Sibley tent was replaced by smaller tents often called wedge tents or A-frames.  The official size of a wedge tent given by the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army was 6'10" long, 8'4" wide and 6'10" tall.  These tents would generally sleep four men.

The reproduction tents used today are somewhat larger, most of them being nine feet long by nine feet wide and seven feet high.  However, they come in several different sizes.

What most soldiers would have used while the army was marching is the shelter tent or dog tent as they came to be called because they didn't require wagon trains for transportation since they didn't use ridgepoles.  A shelter tent consists of two canvas shelter halves (each man would carry one half in a knapsack) that buttoned together and were held up often with freshly cut saplings and rope. They were barely five foot square and only provided enough room to crawl in and lay under and would sleep two men. There was no front or rear flap and on cold nights, soldiers would often throw blankets over the openings.

Those were the regular accommodations for the enlisted men in the Union Army.  Those in the Confederate army weren't as fortunate and due to the lack of supplies, often slept out in the elements with nothing more than a wool blanket.

There were larger tents for officers, known as a wall tents and the largest wall tents often served as hospitals.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw as well as his newest release, Two of a Kind.

Matthew is the editor and webmaster ofThe Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal websiteor on Twitter @mattpizzolato.


  1. Matt, I bet those Sibley tents DID get unbearable during the summer months! I know they would not only have been stinky but hot as heck too! These are things that the average person wouldn't stop and think about--you always do a great job on these posts of letting us know how things WERE and how the re-enactors have had to adapt certain things to make them work.

  2. I heard some men poured water over the tents to form an ice layer, which acted as insulation. Hmm. Great info, Matt. I can't imagine spending years outdoors with a few weeks of leave - if that. Hoo boy.

  3. I think I would rather sleep outside than inhale the odiferous aroma of stinky men. Ugh! When my sister and I were kids, we used to camp in the backyard with our grandfather's old canvas tent. It had a flap on one end, no Windows or air vents and no floor. It always smelled musty and housed at least one granddaddy long legs spider, but we loved it. It was heavy to carry. We sure have come a long way in camping equipment. Great blog, Matt.

  4. I cringe when I think of the terrible conditions the CW soldiers endured--actually, all of our soldiers--but it seems like the CW soldiers had it the worst. Between malnutrition, disease, and the elements, it's a wonder as many survived as did.

  5. We sometimes forget the truth of conditions. We have bought into the 'Hollywood' version. The truth as you point out was harsh. I would imagine even the earlier conflicts in our country were not much better. Doris

  6. It's interesting to look at pictures of the time, as men often built little log cabins when their bivouac was of sufficient duration (like all winter). Good stuff Matt.

  7. Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post. Even though the conditions seem harsh from our modern point of view, the people back then lived entirely outdoors and were more accustomed to those conditions than we would be today. One reason that I've heard as to why modern tents are slightly larger is because the people of today are more substantial than our ancestors were and therefore require more room.