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SHELTER TENTS FOR THE CONFEDERATE IMPRESSION
by
Pvt. R. Gregory
from the
September 2000 Newsletter of the 21st Virginia


    One of the most underutilized pieces of equipment in reenacting is the shelter half or "dog tent". Part of the problem, other than the predominant use of common tents at most events, is the lack of knowledge on the part of campaigners and mainstream campers on how to use them.

    There is also the belief that the shelter half was solely the province of Federal soldiers and Confederate usage was limited to a captured items. A few sources give us a clue that usage by Confederates may have been more prevalent than we believe.

    One of the first references to shelter half usage can be found in Gilham’s manual. In a section devoted to the proper equipage, Gilham makes two references to individual shelters tents for soldiers.

    In an early March issue of the Charleston, the newspaper carried a description of the French "Tent d Abri". To quote the Charleston "Experience has taught the French soldier to accomplish this in a great measure. The means were first employed by him in Africa, and I believe were first suggested by Marshal Bugeand, surnamed "L'Ami du Soldat", the soldier's friend. I would suggest the contrivance as one which should be adopted by our troops. Like the French soldier, the American one should never be without it in campaign. The blanket alone does not suffice. India rubber goods are too heavy to be added to the kit." The two items above give ample evidence that even in the pre-war South there more than a passing familiarity with the shelter half.

    In his book Worsham mentions specifically the use of a shelter half. In the early days of the Valley Campaign he details how the shelter half was folded up and placed in the baggage wagon prior to the march. This gives credence to the theory that the men had access to the baggage wagons as they would not put items they needed everyday in the wagon unless they were sure the wagons would be readily to hand at the end of the day.

    It is a moot point whether the shelter tents halves were issued or were captured, the important point is that there is documentation of their use by Confederates throughout the war. There are several models of shelter halves on the market. There are both late model and early war issue models to chose from. Now realistically only those who have done their research will know which model is which. To the eye of your average spectator there is no difference, but the difference is; you should know. You cannot have a mid to late war shelter half model at a living history which is supposed to be taking place in 1862.

    If you are going to purchase a particular model, I would recommend getting an early war shelter half. It will not be out of place in any particular scenario. Recommended sources for either an early war or mid war issue shelter half are: The ARSENAL, P.O. Box 5103, West Lebanon, NH 03784 or the Trans Mississippi Depot both of whom offer excellent finished products or you can purchase a kit and save yourself a few dollars. The Haversack Depot (Joe Allen) PO Box 311262, New Braunfels, TX, 78131, Phone (830) 620-5192 offers a finished product only. The Arsenal and Haversack Depot also offer the correct poles for setting the shelter up.

    One undisclosed expense of using a shelter half is that fact that it is most definitely a possibility that you will have to purchase two halves. During the war, men would buddy up and set up a shelter, but unfortunately the person who has the other half may not be there.

    Let’s discuss several means of putting these shelters up.

    First let’s talk about what federal accounts say was the most common method. "The soldier did not waste their time and strength (pitching shelter tents every night). If the night was clear and pleasant, they lay down without a roof shelter of any kind, but if it was stormy... shelters were then quite generally pitched... two muskets with bayonets fixed were struck erect into the ground the width of a shelter half. A guy rope which went with every shelter half was stretched between the trigger guards of the muskets, and over the as a ridge pole the tent was pitched"

    While their seems to be no particular problem with this set up what happens if you need your musket in one hell of a hurry? "About midnight we were awakened by the firing of muskets. Each man rose up and took his place in ranks more quickly than I ever saw it done and when the order was given to " take arms" every man had his gun ready for action"

    The other problem with this setup is the modern reproduction bayonets are made of an inferior steel. They are far more likely to bend or even break under that stress.

    So you are not going to use your musket and the budget did not allow the purchase of a pair of tent poles. What now? Well you could always go with natures tent poles. You will need to cut two poles roughly four feet long that have a fork on one end. Need a handy measuring device? Measure from the end of your barrel muzzle to the hammer. Now you need to cut a center pole. Cut one roughly five feet long. With your own tent poles you are not dependent upon finding some convenient saplings at the event. You might as well strip the bark from the poles and apply a light coating of varnish and your natural tent poles will last forever.

    If you don’t want to go to the trouble of bringing poles to an event you can try a rope variant of set up. This option does not require tent poles but you will need approximately 20 feet of small, soft manila rope or jute twine. I have stated in the past that twine and small diameter rope are mighty handy items to have in the knapsack.

    Button your shelter halves together. Locate two trees about 8 to 10 feet apart. Securely tie your rope between the trees about 4 feet off the ground (use your musket to measure). Throw the canvas over the rope and drive some tent pegs on one side and then the other.

    What if there are four or five of you and you all want to snuggle up? Button those shelters together and tie them off at each end to a tree. Stake the back edge down. Spread your gum blankets and regular blankets down and you have a cozy den.

    What to do if you only have one section of a shelter half? Just do the same as above. If it is going to rain you are going to have to lower your shelter. This will offer some protection from driving and windblown rain.

    Resist the urge to apply a waterproofing material to the canvas. All this does is make the canvas stiffer and heavier.

    What other uses can you put your shelter half to? You can use it as a bed tick. Button the half together and you can then pile straw or some other material inside.

    Your shelter half can also double as emergency sleeping bag. Button it together and put your blanket inside and it will keep your blanket from shifting away in the night. How are you going to carry this marvel of the ages? Well it should folded as small as possible and if you are carrying a federal style knapsack it goes in the envelope and is secured when you tie the flaps. If you are carrying a blanket roll, you could wrap it around the blanket.

1 Gilham, William, Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the Confederate States, (art 761) West and Johnston, Richmond Va 1861
2 John Worsham: One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

3 Billings, John D. Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
4 John Worsham: One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.


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