To Shelter the Enlisted Man: A Study of Other Ranks Tents During the American War for Independence – Part I

"A Perspective View of an Encampment" by Bowles & Carver, 1780. (A.S.K. Brown Military Collection Brown University)

by James Mullins, Todd Post, Steven Rayner, and Gregory Theberge

A Tent for Every Mess

During the American War for Independence, each company within a Continental or British Regiment was broken down into individual groups of 5 to 6 soldiers.  These groups were collectively known as “messes”.  In order to simplify the everyday routines of army life, military  regulations of the day required that the men of these messes would prepare and eat their meals together as well as sleep as a common group. In order to do this during a campaign season, each mess was issued a tin kettle from their regimental stores. In many cases, a bag to transport these kettles was also issued. Each mess was also assigned a common tent if, and when, tents were available in the field.  With this in mind, it was the mess, the most basic unit of an 18th century army, which greatly influenced the size, shape, and construction of the tents which saw service during the American War for Independence.

In order to cover a 5 man mess, as well as their accoutrements (less their firearms which were often stored in Bell Tents), the average size of an enlisted man’s (a.k.a. “Other Ranks’) tent in the British army was 7 feet long by 6 feet tall.

Lewis Lochee: British Other Ranks’ Tent Revealing 3 Side Panel Construction, with 2 Panel Flaps, and a Bell Back


Lewis Lochee, “Essay on Castremetation”

“The Tents which are of various sorts and forms, serve to lodge and protect the troops against the inclemency of the weather; those of the private men are made of strong cloth, and are large enough to lodge 5 men.”

Lewis Lochee: British Other Rank’s Tent Poles


“These tents are fixed by means of three poles and thirteen pegs: The poles A are called Standard Poles, and are about 6 feet high; the pole B is called Ridge Pole, and is about 7 feet long: The ridge and standard poles are held together by two iron pins, fixed in the top of the standard poles.”

What is interesting is that these dimensions of British Army tents were the same as they were when the New Model Army was operating in the mid 17th Century:

3 Aprilis 1645

“Tents for the Trayne  200 of John Snow Tentmaker the Tents viien foote long viien foote broad and six foote high of good Lockeram according to the pattern & wth firre staves lynes & pinns & other appurtenances according to ye best Trench Tents at xxs p Tent”


Unlike their British counterparts, the size of a Continental Army tent often varied throughout the course of the war.  These tents were ideally built to accomodate a mess of six men. Later in the war, they were to shelter up to 7 or 8 men.

June 1776

Returns for Captain Joseph Bloomfields Company

3rd New Jersey Regiment, Continental Line

“Tents to be Drawn for … 72 Soldiers, which is 12 Tents allowing Six men to a tent.”

Orderly Book of the Pennsylvania State Regiment.

“Head Quarters Fort Mercer May 24th 1777…

Regular Division of Tents to be made according to ye number of men in each Company – one tent for six men or 5 men and one woman…” (need bibliography, p. 58.)

At times, Continental Army tents were too small to accomodate a full mess of men. This could have been due to a variety of reasons. First, there were the contractors.  Quite frequently, these men were sailmakers who did not necessarily have any set standards to go by.  Secondly, in certain cases, it may have been due to the tent manufacturing process itself. To be discussed later, there is evidence that some tents were sewn utilizing a selvedge edge seam technique.  Depending on the width of the canvas used, tents could have varied if the selvedge edge of the cloth dictated the location of the seams.

Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering

‘Since the army took the field I have heard great complaints of the smallness of the tents. The new common tents are not too big for four Men: upwards of 400 were made before my Appointment… The same sail maker I suppose have made those sent only you, which tho of very good stuff yet are ruined by the smallness of their size… Some old common tents were from 7 to 7 1/2 feet square on the ground. The ends of the new tents Complained of are little more than five feet broad. It seems that the various descriptions of tents have been misunderstood.” (need bibliography – national archives?)

On October 10, 1776 the Connecticut Assembly resolved:

“That each Tent ordered to be made by this Assembly… shall contain the quantity of twenty-seven yards of cloth, one yard wide, or equal thereto in cloth of different width, well manufactured of yarn not coarser than thirty knots to the pound;” (H-2)

In 1781, however,  Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering attempted to “standardize” the minimum dimensions of the tents used by the Continental Army.  He recommended that:

“A common, or soldier’s tent should be at least 7 feet square, larger a little if it happens to suit the breath of the cloath.” and should be “7 feet square and 7 Feet Height.” (W-2)

Once again, this implies that the length of these tents could vary depending on the width of the canvas available for their fabrication.

Tent and Sail Cloth

A detail of Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of Colonel Walter Stewart of The Pennsylvania Line revealing a typical Regimental Camp layout of the Continental Line. Note the musket rack, sparseness of the camp, as well as the individual kitchen and possible Quarter Guard with sentry at the tree line.

According to current research, the fabric and techniques utilized to produce other ranks’ tents during the American War for Independence was frequently similar to that used in the production of sails during the 18th century. In fact, sailmakers were often contracted to produce military tents.

Nathanael Greene to Captain Maberly:

December 4, 1780 (Year Uncertain)

“All the sail and tent makers will be sent to you tomorrow. You will make up the sail and raven’s duck into common tents.” (G-1,  p.79)

Likewise, the tools that were required to sew sails were also utilized in the fabrication of tents.  Although he is referencing Officer’s Marquis, Timothy Pickering, Quarter Master General of the American Army, confirms this:

Timothy Pickering, General Quartermaster’s Return, April 1, 1782

“Return of all Public Property belonging to the Quarter Master General

Department from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania & with the Main Army

Species of Property….

[p. 16.]

Materials & Spare Furniture…

Marquee {Hooks


Tent Buttons

Marquee Balls

Tent Pole Rings

Horsemans do.

Tent Sliders

Hanks Tent Cord…

Palm Irons

Sail Needles

Sailmakers Hooks…” (W-2)

Fabric utilized in the production of enlisted men’s tents was traditionally 12 to 16 ounces per square yard (on average) with a thread count roughly of 29 x 25-30 x 32 ends per inch. For an other ranks’ tent, the cloth had a Plain Weave. As an aside, there are some period examples of an Officer’s Marquee (or portions thereof) being made out of a Herringbone Patterned cloth.

While no resource specifically mentions the color of the  cloth used for tents, one period source states that it was Bleached. It is also quite possible that tent cloth was simply left in its natural (light brown) state which, over time, would bleach with exposure to the sun.

Depending on the reference, 18th Century Military Tent cloth was made of any of the following materials.  Some differed by name alone:

“Duck,” “Russia Duck,”  and “Raven Duck”

“Duck”, or “Dutch Duck”, was defined by Richard Rolt in 1761 as “a kind of Dutch sail cloth….sail cloth…is a particular sort of cloth, or canvas, made of hemp.”  Rolt also refers to a statute of George II stipulating that both hemp and flax was used for sail cloth (Duck), but the yarn used “should be well cleansed, even spun, and well twisted”.  More contemporary source refers to it as “strong, thick linen cloth, finer and lighter than canvas” (M-3)

To General Nathanael Greene.

“Newport, Nov. 6th, 1779…

Sir, your favour of the 30th ult. I received, and have, as you wished, laid hold of every

piece of duck in the town, which is only eleven of Russia and five of Raven’s, which

are now making into tents…

E. Bowen, D. Q. M. G.” (S-3,  p. 248)

An Example of Extant Unbleached 18th Century Dutch Duck Tent Cloth from the Anders Berch Papers, labeled “Taft Duuk”

An order of Congress to P. Curtenius to purchase and fill a requisition for supplying the Continental Army:

‘Amount of sundries, as per the order of Congress, of the 26th of February, 1776, and sundry other orders, viz.:…

£    s    d

12 field officer’s tents, at about £25,                                   300   0    0…

32 captain’s tents,

32 lieutenant’s tents,

16 ensign’s tents,

4 adjutant’s tents.  96, at about £8 each,                            768   0    0

4 quartermaster’s tents,

4 chaplain’s tents,

4 surgeon’s tents,

108 valises at about 40s.                                                    216   0   0

108 tent bags at 5s.                                                              27   0   0

450 soldier’s tents at about 80s,                                       1832  0   0

(The price depends on the price of duck. If I must give £5 10s for ravens duck they will cost full what I have estimated. A square tent takes a piece of duck, and making 32s.  A soldier’s, 21 yards at 3s per yard, and making 10s. P. T. C.)’” (H-3, p. 487)

Here, we can see that an individual soldier’s tent took 21 yards of “duck.”

We can also get an idea on the quantity of tent cloth required to furnish a company with tents:

Captain John Floyd to Col. William Preston

Sept. 18th 1774…

I am in hopes we shall make out pretty well about kettles we are also allowed 60 yards of tent cloth for a company…” (K-1)

On the Manufacture of Sail Cloth in Scotland:

Thomas Pennant, Montrose, Scotland, 1772:

A Detail Taken From David Morier’s Painting of the British Grenadiers of the 19th and 20th Regiments of Foot and 21st Royal North British Fusiliers Showing A Tent Possibly Made of Brown, Unbleached, Linen, c. 1751-1760 (The Royal Collection)


“The town has increased one-third since the year 1745; at that time there was not a single manufacture: the inhabitants either lived by one another, or by the hiring out of ships, or by the salmon trade. At present the manufactures have risen to a great pitch: for example, that of sailcloth, or ‘sailduck,’ as it is here called, is very considerable; in one house, eighty-two thousand five hundred and sixty-six pieces have been made since 1755. Each piece is thirty-eight yards long, and numbered from eight to one. No. eight weighs twenty-four pounds, and every piece, down to no. one, gains three pounds in the piece. The thread for this cloth is spun here, not by common wheel, but by the hands. Women are employed, who have the flax placed round their wastes, twist a thread with each hand as they recede from a wheel, turned by a boy at the end of a great room.”

Extrapolating from Pennant’s description:

No. 1 – 45 lbs.

No. 2 – 42

No. 3 – 39

No. 4 – 36

No. 5 – 33

No. 6 – 30

No. 7 – 27

No. 8 – 24, per Pennant.

Width unknown.

(P-2, p. 499)

Although the following account by Isaac Titford is dated 7 years after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, it nonetheless sheds some light on the manufacturing process of sail-cloth in Boston in 1790. While it may not exactly pertain to the fabrication of sail-cloth during the American Revolution, it does reveal that English sail-cloth was STARCHED during this period.

Isaac Titford, in a letter of December 26, 1790:

“I am lately returned from the continent of North America, and beg leave to mention the two following remarks I made at Boston, although I must conceive them known to the Society; yet their importance will, I am sure, excuse the mentioning them to you.

In their sail-cloth or Duck manufactory, which they carry on with great spirit, they publicly allege that theirs is superior to the British sailcloth, from its never being subject to mildew, which I understand is very pernicious to its wear. I observed that their weavers wet or moisten their warp in the loom, with a decoction or jelly-like substance, made of the remains of Neat-feet, after the oil is expressed from them, and which then is of no farther use: this residuum is boiled to a jelly, or kind of glue, and used by them instead of starch made with flour and water, commonly used, if I am rightly informed, by sail-cloth manufacturers in England.” (need bibliography p. 184-85. (transactions of the society)

Arthur Young also elaborated on both BLEACHING and STARCHING sail-cloth during the manufacturing process in his 1771 “A Six Months Tour through the North of England” :

Manufactures at Warrington, Cheshire.

“At -Warrington,- the manufactures of sail-cloth and sacking are very considerable. The first is spun by women and girls, who earn about 2 d. a day. It is then bleached, which is done by men, who earn 10 s. a week; after bleaching it is wound by women, whose earnings are 2 s. 6 d. a week; next it is warped by men, who earn 7 s. a week; and then starched, the earnings, 10 s. 6 d. a week. The last operation is the weaving, in which the men earn 9 s. the women 5 s. and boys 3 s. 6 d. a week.” III, (Y-1, p. 164)

“The spinners in the sacking branch earn 6 s. a week, women; then it is wound on bobbins by women and children, whose earnings are 4 d. a day’ then the starchers take it, they earn  6 s. a week; after which it is wove by men, at 9 s. a week. The sail-cloth about three hundred weavers, and the sacking an hundred and fifty; and they reckon twenty spinners and two or three other hands to a weaver.

During the war (the Seven Years War, author’s addition) the sail-cloth branch was very brisk, grew a little faint upon the peace, but is now, and has been for some time, pretty well recovered, though not to be so good as in the war. The sacking manufacture was also better in the war; but is always brisk.

The spinners never stand still for want of work; they always have it if they please; but weavers sometimes are idle for want of yarn, which, considering the number of poor within reach, (the spinners of the sacking live chiefly in /Cheshire/,) is melancholy to think of.” III (Y-1, p. 164)

In Lord John Sheffield’s  1784 “Observations on the Commerce of the American States,” we gain some further insights on Russian and Raven Duck sail-cloth:

“Sail-Cloth of every kind is imported by the American States. Russia had the advantage in Russia-duck and Raven-duck, but, when charged with the duty on importation here, they were as dear as the British sail-cloth. lately, the exportation from hence of of Russia sail-cloth for America has almost ceased. Russia-duck in England is about 6s. per piece (of 36 yards) dearer than in Holland, arising from duties and other expenses, which, as far as it will not interfere with our own linen manufactures, should be lowered.

In the Spring of the present year, 1783, Russia-duck was so scarce in England, that near 3l. was given for a piece that formerly sold from 35s. to 40s. This occasioned a great demand for British sail-cloth, which has a bounty of 2d. per ell on exportation. A duty of 2l. 1s. 8 1/2d. is payable on importation of 120 ells, or 150 yards of Russia-duck or sail-cloth, no part of which is drawn back upon exportation, either to any British colony, or to any other parts whatever. It it considerably wider than English.

The number of pieces of sail-cloth exported from Petersburg for five years, was as follows:

1774        1775      1776      1777      1778

Pieces in Eng. ships         11580       6757      2659      1505        401

Do. in foreign ships         25187      28397    38660    44156     37663

________________         ——        ——      ——      ——      ——-

Tot. numb. of pieces        36767      35154    41319    45661     38054

The law that obliged all British-built ships to have the first set of sails of British canvas under the penalty of 50l. being now at an end, with regard to the ships of the American States, there will be competition for this article. Of late years considerable improvements have been made in the various species of sail-cloth in Scotland, and the price is considerably reduced, in consequence of the facility with which hemp can be brought from the Baltic, and the low price of labour in the north of Scotland. It will be in the interest of the Americans to take British sail-cloth while the present bounty is continued.

It is said,  British sail-cloth is more apt to mildew; but that may be prevented, in a great measure, by pickling when new; it is also said, that the Russia sail-cloth is more pliable. France makes sail-cloth, but is much dearer and inferior. Some has been made at Philadelphia, but the quantity must be trifling.” (S-2)


Col. William Christian to Col. William Preston

“Camp Union Septr. 12, 1774…

The kettles and Tents were chiefly distributed before I came  I could get but 16 or 17 battered tin kettles for all Fincastle & but few Tents  But I am told oxen brigs [unknown doodle] enough for Tents will be brought with the Pack horses to morrow  If the major is not marched when you get this Intelligence I really think we ough[t] to send over the whole Country and try to beg or borrow kettles for to do withougt is very hard almost [im]possible  It will presently make men sick to live on Roasted meat without broath.” (T-1, p. 198)

Col. Richard Henderson

“Fort Boone, on the mouth of Otter Creek, Cantuckey River…” (H-4, p. 221)

“Friday, 5th. [May, 1775.]… Let Mr. Wm. Cocke have five yards and a half oznaburgs off      my old tent, for which I charge him 5s. 6d. V. money.” (H-4, p. 225)

From various accounts, we can determine that osnaburg tents had their limitations when retarding the elements:

1760 (Pre-war):

Captain Samuel Jenks of Chelsea, Massachusetts:

“Thirsday, 4th Sept. [1760. Six miles from Chamblee, Canada.] Last night I had my tent pitcht & fixed so that I lay quite well… we shall soon I hope, be mouing homeward, for it begins to be cold nights, & our oznabrig tabernacles is but poor shelter for this cold climate.” (M-3, p. 375)


Henry Hudson, in a letter from Rhode Island, October 14, 1778.

“It would be pretty tolerable, if it was fair weather all the time, but these oznabrig houses are not so clever in rainy weather.” (C-4, p. 409)

1791 (Post-war):

Captain Samuel Newman, 2nd United States Regiment. St. Clair’s Campaign:

Saturday Septr. 24th [1791].

Rainy, stormy morning. rain’d all Day, but absolutely pour’d in sheets & torrents all night! Tent, bed & Clothes Wet, d–d the Economy of the Contractor who for thinness of our Tents, particularly the backs & doors which are made of very coarse Oznabrigs! & thro! which the rain beat, as if thro! a Sieve! this is the Country cheated, and the Soldier imposed on…”  (Q-1, p. 64)


“Williamsburg May 17, 1777
Commonwealth … D
To 20 Ps Ticklenburg 2681 1/4 Yds.
deliv’d W. Davenport for makg
Tents for the soldiery belonging
to this State: also 12 ll brown
Thr.d @ 8/6 for making up the said linen
Rec’d by [signed] Amb— Davenport”

“List of Camp Equipage Military Stores, Baggage &c. taken in the Brigt. Symetry Capt.

[Blank.] at Wilmington Jan: 1778.-…

Sent to Faggs

Manor Meeting house

230 New Ticklenburg Tents…

117 worn do. fit for use

38 old ditto…

Moor Hall Jan. 10 1778” (W-2)

“Tuesday, June 13, 1780…

That the board of admiralty take order for supplying the quartermaster general with   such quantity of the duck and ticklenberg 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.” (C-2, p.175)

According to this account, it is apparent that the cloth to be used for the construction of tents was originally intended to be used for the fabrication of sails for the navy.

“Tow Cloth”

“At a Meeting &c. adjourned from Yesterday. 16 July [1776.]

The Hono. Congress having requested this Colony to furnish our troops with tents, Cloathing &c.:  On consideration voted a committee be appointed to purchase and procure all the tow cloth and other suitable cloth or materials for making tents that can be had in the Colony.” (H-2, p. 482)

“This Board do appoint Messrs. Andre Huntington, Joshua Elderkin, Cauncey Whittelsey of Middletown, Jona. Fitch, Saml Squire, and Lynde Lord, a committee to purchase all the suitable tow cloth and other suitable cloths for tents, to be obtained in their respective counties, and cause the same to be made up into proper tents for the use of the troops of this Colony, in the most expeditious manner they can, and report to his honor of what they shall respectively do in the premises.” (H-2, p. 483)

Again taking into consideration the relationship of sail and tent cloth, we can gain further insight on tent material by referencing Nautical manuscripts.  In David Steel’s, “The Elements and Practice of Rigging And Seamanship” (1794) , we see that sail cloth came in a variety of different weights based on a 38 yard long “Bolt” of 24” wide material:

CANVAS. For the royal navy, canvas or sail-cloth is 24 inches wide; and 38 Yards are called a bolt. To distinguish the different qualities, each bolt is numbered, and should weigh as follows; No. 1, 44 lb. No. 2, 41; No. 3, 38; No. 4, 35; No. 5, 32; No. 6, 29; No. 7, 24; and, No. 8, 21 pounds: from No. 1 to 6 is termed double, and above No. 6 single, canvas.” (S-4, p.86)

The Marquee of General George Washington - The American Revolution Center

The Marquee of General George Washington (The American Revolution Center)

Detail of General George Washington’s Marquee showing the utilization of unbleached linen cloth for the sod flap.  Examination of the canopy and walls of this tent reveals that it was originally made from a white and blue striped linen which has faded over time.