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A PRIMER ON FIELD EXPEDIENT SHELTERS
by Dwayne Seale

(Compiled from various sources to include articles from the Rowdy Pards, 33rd Wisconsin, and the Reenactor Discussion Forum)

One of the most underutilized pieces of equipment in many reenacting units 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 recruits and heavy campers on how to use them.   This primer is intended for those who desire to do it the way the common infantry soldier of 61-65 did.

Clear weather camps: Unless there is a high possibility of rain, you don't really need a shelter.  If it is warm, then your shelter half (if portraying Union troops - small canvas fly for Confederates) can be spread over your blanket to keep off the dew.  In cold weather, the same applies; use your canvas as protection against the frost. This is assuming that your gum blanket/oil cloth is on the ground under you.

Looks like rain: If precipitation is in the forecast and the anxiety level increases…here are some additional suggestions:

For a light drizzle you can simply hunker down under your shelter half/canvas fly/gum blanket with your meager possessions and wait it out.  Locating a good spot under thick overhead cover, such as cedar trees, also will help

If the rain appears to set in for longer duration and is coming down in torrents, then more drastic measures are needed.  Buddy up with a messmate and get busy with your dog tent or shebang.

Tent with poles: Cut 2 tent end poles from tree branches.  The poles should forked at one end and the length of each should be about 4 feet, the approximate distance from the muzzle of your musket to the hammer.  A center pole should also be cut and its length is the length of the musket plus one additional foot.  Cut 4 tent pegs about eight inches in length, a couple of inches in diameter, and sharpen one end on each to a point.  Button the shelter halves together and completely stake in one side.  Put one stake in the other side but leave enough slack to raise the tent on the poles (this might take some practice).  Make a hole in the ground with your bayonet for one upright.  Insert upright into the ground and lay the center pole thru the tent.  The tent is now partially up.  Add the remaining upright and drive the remaining pegs into the ground and you're done.  (Note: a number of reenactors pre-cut their poles to avoid denuding private and parklands.  Issue tent poles are also available for purchase from one or two sources but there is much disagreement within the reenacting community as to how prevalent they would have been with Federal troops on campaign.)

Rope variant: This option does not require tent poles but you will need approximately 20 feet of small, soft manila rope or jute twine.  Button the 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 the tent pegs on one side and then the other.

Lean-to (shebang): Also requires rope and pegs but not the poles.  Assemble the shelter halves.  Locate 2 trees about 7or 8 feet apart.  Thread the rope through the grommet holes or use jute twine to tie the shelter halves to the rope. Tie the rope between the trees approximately 4 feet off the ground and drive pegs into the ground at the other end to make the lean-to angle.  Note that additional shelter halves can be added to this variation to make a fly large enough to accommodate several people.  If you want to distance yourself from the snores, a single shelter half or gum blanket can also be used in the same manner to create a "shebang" for one individual.

Fly: You can also connect the corners of your canvas to four trees or four poles arranged in a square to construct a shelter with a roof but no sides.  This variant does not provide much protection from blowing rain or wind.

The rope variant, lean-to, and fly are also applicable to the poor Confederates who do not possess the Federal shelter halves but must make do with the painted canvas or oil cloths issued by the government or brought from home.  As a side note, these did normally not come with buttons/buttonholes and metal grommets but could have hand sewn grommets at the corners.

Notes of interest: In the event of rain it might be prudent to lower your shelter height from 4 feet down to 2 feet. You won't have as much vertical room but it provides more protection from the elements.

Use any extra gum blankets or ground cloths to cover open sides of the shelters.  Brush or leaves piled up on the sides will also help keep in warmth and keep out moisture.

There are other ways to construct a suitable shelter but the musket with bayonet affixed and stuck in the ground is not recommended.  The foreign import bayonets are too brittle and easily bend or break and your musket is not readily available in the event of unexpected picket duty or surprise attack.

If you prefer to sleep under the stars, a shelter half folded over on itself and buttoned up makes a nice mattress tick when stuffed with straw, leaves, or an extra blanket.  Another option is to button the shelter half up on itself and with your blanket folded inside, use it as a period sleeping bag.

In cold weather make use of any natural or manmade windbreaks.

Soldier accounts speak of sleeping on fence rails in order to keep off of the wet ground.  Don't count on having any of these around.

Use a shelter half from an authentic maker - it is much lighter than the typical sutler row product.