The Sibley Tent in the Civil War

During the warmer months of the year and especially when actively campaigning, soldiers in the Civil War lived in tents. Several types of tents were used during the war, one of which was the Sibley Tent.

The Sibley Tent was invented in the 1850s by Louisiana native Henry H. Sibley, a West Point graduate and officer in the U.S. Army. Sibley resigned from the Federal Army when the Civil War began, and became a General in the Confederate Army.

The Sibley Tent was a cone shaped structure 18 feet in diameter and 12 feet high, supported by a single pole in the center that rested on a tripod. A hole at the apex of the cone helped provide ventilation. In colder weather, a  stove provided heat and a stovepipe would pass through the opening at the top. The hole was covered by a cap in stormy or rainy weather. The Sibley Tent looked very much like a Native American  tepee used by tribes on the plains, and Henry Sibley’s design no doubt was influenced by what he had observed while he was stationed in the west.

The Sibley was designed to accommodate 12 men. The men slept in a pattern like spokes on a wheel, with their feet towards the center of the tent. In addition to the hole at the top, ventilation was provided in good weather by raising the canvas up at the edges. In inclement weather, all openings would be covered, and the air inside would get quite stale, as Massachusetts artilleryman John D. Billings recalled:

“In cold or rainy weather, when every opening is closed, they are most unwholesome tenements, and to enter one of them of a rainy morning from the outer air, and encounter the night’s accumulation of nauseating exhalations from the bodies of twelve men (differing widely in their habits of personal cleanliness) was an experience which no old soldier has ever been known to recall with any great enthusiasm. Of course, the air was of the vilest sort, and it is surprising to see how men endured it as they did.”

Occasionally, Sibley tents were raised up on four foot wooden stockades. These were used for winter quarters or camps for convalescent soldiers. This type of Sibley accommodated up to 20 men.

Though they remained in use in training camps and other locations away from the fighting, Sibley tents were phased out of service for field use in 1862. They were expensive and due to their size, were difficult to transport, requiring lots of wagons and horses. They were replaced with  smaller lightweight tents like the shelter tent, similar to today’s pup tent.

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