Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tents: Procurement and Materials in the Continental Army

Bunbury, British Camp, 1790 [1].

         Recently, a friend sent me a link for a blog article (excellent blog by the way) in which he was featured that also had a picture of "18th c" tents on it.  The tents in question were cotton canvas, machine stitched, and fire retardant.  I could tell this immediately from the photo.  How, you may ask?  They look exactly like the ones from my unit, with the exception of a few of the painted numbers.  This is something that has bothered me ever since I got a look at Washington's marquis and the marquis at Yorktown a few years back.  It does not have any of the aforementioned three anachronistic qualities as the tents in our organizational equipment.  So the article brought up the issue of improving camp impressions in several areas, to include tentage material.  I think this is a good direction, but its a little more complicated than saying, "Let's switch to linen."
         The problem of shelter for the 18th century soldier, particularly Continental forces, met with similar obstacles as clothing, rations, and forage.  My hypothesis is little more that this:  The private soldier did not sleep under a cotton canvas, machine stitched, fire-retardant tent. That was what did he sleep under? 
          My guess is that like that most facinating of gentlemen in the Dos Equis commercial, he would say,"I don't often sleep in a tent, but when I do, I sleep under ________." (Insert a myriad of different fabrics). This is the first of what I hope will be many discussions on tentage:  procurement, materials, design, cantonment-not to mention the alternatives to it.  I think alternatives to tents is perhaps even more important than the tent itself, since there was a persistant shortage throughout the war and units rarely carried them on active service away from the main army (keep in mind Washington was fighting a "War of Posts" that involved "Flying Camps" and small unit actions-Giap-of  Indochine/Vietnam War fame was a great admirer). I say discussion when I refer to this research, rather than article, as with the increasing availability of digitized and transcribed information at university and free libraries, it is my hope that we can spark a conversation and find even more information than my small offering. 


         Initially, tentatively setting precedents for its limited authority, Congress intended  to have the various colonies supply their militia in continental service directly. 

         Virginia had already seen fit to do so with the first two regiments it fielded in 1775, intending to provide one tent for each officer, one for every two serjeants, one for every two musicians, one for every six privates, and a bell tent for every company. [2]  This was at least the lofty goal in the initial days of the war, when even before the 1st and 2d regiments were formed at Williamsburg,

           "A camp is now marked out, behind the college; tents and other camp equipage are getting ready with the utmost expedition; and the troops, from the different counties are on the march for this city..." [3]

Artist unknown, French Camp, 1779. [4]

           When you consider the distances involved for Virginia to supply its forces in New York or New Jersey in 1776-77 the task becomes nearly insurmountable.  Shipments from Virginia were forthcoming, but could not meet the needs of its brigades in Continental Service.  This not being sufficient or efficient, Congress turned directly to contractors.

          "Mr. J. Mease having, in consequence of the resolution of the 30th August, made a report, that he cannot find there is any cloth in this city, fit for making tents, except a parcel of light sail cloth, which is in the hands of the Marine Committee: Whereupon,

Resolved, That the Marine Committee be directed to deliver to Mr. J. Mease all the light sail cloth in their hands: And that Mr. Mease be directed to have the same made into tents, as soon as possible, and forwarded to General Washington:

 That the Secret Committee be directed to write to the continental agents in the eastern states, desiring them to purchase all the duck and other cloth fit for tents, which they can procure in their respective states, for the use of the continent." [5]

       In October of 1776, Congress planned to procure 5,000 tents for the spring campaign of 1777, suggesting that the Continental Army was intended to build huts in fortified cantonments in the winter similar to European armies. [6]

       Unfortunately, their interest in the matter was more often merely an admonision to a general to "...order the deputy quarter master general of the eastern department, forthwith to provide 1,000 good bell tents, and send them to the army..."[7], rather than ensuring that the cloth or tentage was actually acquired and on hand.

Detail from "Accurate...",  by Will, 1788 [8]
Notice the narrow width of the fabric panels seams.  While this scene
is probably located in Austria, Will did serve in North America
with German troops in British service during the Revolution. 


       We have already seen sail cloth and duck used for tent material, as an expedient-and expediency was the order of the day.  In practice, it seems any type of fabric deemed heavy enough and to have a tight weave was used in the production of tents.

Hemp Canvas                                      Hemp Russia Drill

       "That the Board of Admiralty take order for supplying the quarter master general with such quantity of the duck and Ticklenburg belonging to the United States in possession of the Navy Board at Boston, as he may have occasion for, to compleat the number of tents wanting for the army, and which can be spared from the immediate use of the navy" [9]

        Ticklenburg was a coarse linen fabric manufactured in Ticklenburg, a german town near Osnabruk (Osnaburg), which suggests that the two fabrics (ticklenburg and osnaburg) were probably similar in weave and weight.  Both were used for coarse working applications and were exported to North America  and the West Indies.

Linen Osnaberg                                      Linen Duck Canvas

       "That John Bradford, continental agent at Boston, be and hereby is directed to sell all the canvas in his possession, except what the Navy Board of the eastern department
may deem sufficient for the immediate use of the navy, or suitable for soldiers' tents..." [10]

        "We have stripped the seaports of canvass to make tents; and it is of great importance to possess ourselves of about five hundred pieces of Ravens duck to keep the soldiers in health." [11] 

        "Pursuant to your order, I have purchased, on the publick credit, 261 Ravens Duck that is in Town; also, 26 bell-tents, and 635 haversacks, of Mr. Levy; one bell and one officers' tent, from Captain Devereux. I have delivered, 137 pieces duck to the tent-makers, out of which they have made 250 tents, which are finished, and in my store. There remain 124 pieces duck in my hands, which will make about 227 soldiers' tents more." [12]

Detail from "North view of Fort Royal in the Island of Guadaloupe,
when in possession of His Majesty's forces in 1759",
after Campbell, 1764. [13}

Again notice the vertical seams, consistently showing seven panels
on the enlisted tents.  This engraving was struck after a sketch by a
leftenant serving on Guadaloupe.
         "Ordered, That Mr. Peter T. Curtenius, as Commissary of this Congress, be desired to purchase the following quantities of Ravens Duck, Ticking, and Bell Tents, of such persons as will sell the same on the publick credit, to wit: 427 pieces of good Ravens Duck; 182 yards of Ticking, fit to make Bell Tents; and twenty-six Bell Tents, which are at Hayman Levy' s, if they are of a proper fashion, good, and of a cheap or reasonable price." [14]

          "Mr. Van Zandt, from the Committee appointed to get as many Tents made as they shall think necessary, reported, that they had agreed with sundry Upholsterers to make two hundred and fifty Tents, and to furnish all materials (Duck excepted) for making the said Tents, with Tent Poles, Mallets, and other necessaries for the said Tents, at the rate of fifteen Shillings for each Tent. That the said Upholsterers have agreed with them to have the said two hundred and fifty Tents finished by the latter end of next week..." [15]

[1] Bunbury, H. W. (1790), British Camp Scene. watercolor. Anne S. K. Brown Collection.  Retrieved from

[2] The Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates of Virginia, July 17 1775.

[3] Purdie's Virginia Gazzette, September 29, 1775, p. 2.

[4] Artist unknown, (1779), French Camp., watercolor. Anne S. K. Brown Collection.  Retrieved from

[5] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. vol. 5, Septempber 4, 1776, p 735., Retrieved from

[6] Journals..., 840.

[7] Journals...vol. 10, 24.

[8] Will, Johann Martin, (1788) "Accurate Vorstellung so sich nach der erobrung von Schabaz den 24 April 1788, zwischen ihro Majest├Ąt dem Kayser, und General Lasen begeben",  Retrieved from
[9] Journals...vol. 17, 509.

[10] Journals...vol. 18, 911-912.

[11] Gerry, Elbridge.  Letter to Massachussetts Delegates., June 4, 1775, [S4-V2-p0905], Retrieved from

[12] Curtenius, Peter T., Letter to the New York Provicial Congress.,  June 28, 1775, [S4-V2-P01-sp32-D0576], Retrieved from

[13] Lt. Campbell, A (1759).,  North view of Fort Royal in the Island of Guadaloupe, when in possession of His Majesty's forces in 1759, Engraving by Charles Grignon, London:  Jeffrys (1764), Retrieved from

[14] Orders. New York Congress., June 16, 1775,  [S4-V2-p1303], Retrieved from

[15] Orders. New York Congress., June 17, 1775, [S4-V2-p1303], Retrieved from


  1. This may be of interest. The main impediment to making the transition to the more authentic linen or hemp canvas fabric is cost, though the 2nd VA regiment has found that purchasing in bulk and then constructing a number of tents at the same time is a workable solution. Meanwhile, converting an existing tent from fabric ties and stake loops to hemp loops, including across the bottom of the door flaps as the only closures, and using wooden stakes and unmilled poles with iron ferrules, are less expensive changes that I have made. Cheers, Tim Abbott 1st & 2nd NJ Regiments (recreated)

  2. Thanks. I appreciate your suggestions and look forward to reading the article! The 2d Virginia has a great impression from the material culture standpoint.