Civil War Weather: Water In The Tent!

Once upon a time, my mother and I took my grandparents camping. At the time, they were in their early 80’s and still loved to tent camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. This particular camping trip had a soggy ending… It was our last night at the campground, and against the younger generations’ better judgment, we found ourselves caught in a mountain downpour. The wind drove the rain through the the sides of our dining canopy and before long a small creek gushed through the dirt at our feet. We huddled there with Grandfather loudly proclaiming above the noise of the storm that it couldn’t get any worse. Of course, it did.

Eventually, we decided to turn-in to the tents for the night. (My mom and I had previously “trenched” around the two tents to help with water run-off.) We escorted the grandparents to their tent with umbrellas, lanterns, and flashlights, then we made a dash for our tent across the site. It wasn’t bad inside the “girls’ tent.” We had prepped for the bad weather and as long as we didn’t touch the inside of the tent itself, we knew we would stay fairly dry. But across the campsite, all was not well! Apparently a tent window had been accidentally left open from afternoon naptime, and one of the beds was now soaked. A great deal of loud talking ensued with some directions and metaphors that are probably best left to the silence of history and giggles of the witnesses.

This adventure came to mind as I thought about the Soldier Experience during the Civil War and the inconveniences of a rainstorm. Sure, we think about weather in its extreme sense or how it affected a battle or campaign. But what about the regular rainstorms that flooded tents? What were some of the 1860’s responses to that unpleasant occurrence?

Sometimes the complainers found creative metaphors for their flooded tents. For example, in July 1861, Union soldier Francis C. Barlow in the 12th New York offered quite the description in a letter to his mother, strongly implying that his tent had been swamped multiple times:

(July 9, 1861) If I had stayed home & gone out & slept in the pig pen at night I should have had about the same experience that we have had here…[1]

On other occasions, a flooded tent seemed like the least of the troubles, especially when exhaustion had set in. Volunteer nurse Clara Barton had stayed behind at Fairfax Station as the Union army retreated toward Washington D.C. following the battles of Second Manassas and Chantilly. She worked tirelessly, trying rescue wounded soldiers and get them on the railroad cars. She later wrote about a moment between ambulance arrivals when she knew she had to try to get some rest.

“A little Sibley tent had been hastily pitched for me in a slight hollow upon the hillside. Your imaginations will not fail to picture its condition. Rivulets of water had rushed through it during the last three hours. Still I attempted to reach it, as its white surface, in the darkness, was a protection from the wheel of wagons and trampling of beasts.

Perhaps I shall never forget the painful effort which the making of those few rods, and gaining of the tent cost me. How many times I fell from sheer exhaustion, in the darkness and mud of that slippery hillside, I have no knowledge, but at last I grasped the welcome canvas, and a well established brook which washed in on the upper side at the opening that served as a door, met me on my entrance. My entire floor was covered with water, not an inch of dry, solid ground.

One of my lady assistants had previously taken train for Washington and the other worn out by faithful labors, was crouched upon the top of some boxes in one corner fast asleep. No such convenience remained for me, and I had no strength to arrange one. I sought the highest side of my tent which I remembered was grass grown, and ascertaining that the water was not very deep, I sank down. It was no laughing matter then. But the recollection of my position has since afforded me amusement.

I remember myself sitting on the ground, upheld by my left arm, my head resting on my hand, impelled by an almost uncontrollable desire to lie completely down, and prevented by the certain conviction that if I did, water would flow into my ears…. I slept two hours, and oh, what strength I gained! [Hearing the arrival of more ambulance wagons] I sprang to my feet dripping wet, covered with ridges of dead grass and leaves, wrung the water from my hair and skirts, and went forth again to my work.” [2]

Then, there were the moments of unpleasant surprise – going to sleep in a dry tent and waking up soaking wet. For example, during the Pennsylvania Campaign in 1863, staff officers Sandie Pendleton and Hunter McGuire of the Confederate Second Corps had that unpleasant experience, and Pendleton later described the frustrating moment to his mother:

Just about daylight I was stirred up by McGuire’s exclamation that it was raining – turned over to see, & turned right into a puddle of water some six inches deep. I had to get up & found the tent full of water, my blankets all wet & the hardest rain falling I ever saw…. [3]

From annoyance to weariness-makes-this-unimportant to a morning surprise, flooded tents provoked various reactions but inconvenienced all. How would you react to find your tent flooded?


[1] Francis C. Barlow, edited by Christian G. Samito, “Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major Francis C. Barlow (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004). Page 8.

[2] Letter by Clara Barton, referenced from Percy H. Epler, The Life of Clara Barton (New York: Macmillian, 1915). Accessed through Google Books.

[3] Pendleton Papers, 1863 Folder, Washington & Lee University Archives.

3 Responses to Civil War Weather: Water In The Tent!

  1. Great post, Sarah. I am sure those Sibley tents were just as bad in hot weather with the sun beating on the canvas let alone the stench of others sharing the space.

  2. Back in the 70s I was camped on the Outer Banks when a nasty squall blew in. Had to run out around 1 AM and hammer the weather-most tent stake back in as lightning flashed. In the morning I crawled out of the tent and walked across the road to a site where a fisherman from Michigan was hammering in stakes with the back of his hatchet. His tent had collapsed. Intending to commiserate about the lousy night’s sleep, I was met with him shaking his hatchet at me, hollering “Don’t you say a word!” I guess the sight of my tent still standing got to him. I smiled and turned about, without a word. No need to tell him I had 3 inches of water in my tent and my sleeping bag was soaked.

  3. I was camping in the Olympic Rainforest with my four kids, and you can imagine the outcome. The baby stayed dry in his portacrib; the rest of us, not so much. Currently reading “The Legion’s Fighting Bulldog” which contains the correspondence between Lt. Col W.B. Delony and his wife Rosa. I am continually feeling sorry for Delony and his men as they battle the elements! ( And look for something to eat.)

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