The Army of the Potomac in Winter Quarters
As a general rule, the Union Army in the east scaled back active campaigning in the winter months and constructed shelters and camps of a more substantial nature than those of the warmer times of year. This was particularly true for the Army of the Potomac which spent the first three winters of the war camped in the Maryland, Washington DC, and northern Virginia area. Shelter tents alone would make for a cold and very uncomfortable camp, so when the army went into winter quarters, semi permanent structures were built to keep the soldiers comfortable while they waited for the weather to warm up and the campaigning to begin again.
The two most common shelters in winter camps were either small log cabins or structures that were combination of partial log cabins with a tent or canvas roof attached to the top of the log base. Those with combination structures often times dug out a few feet of earth so the floor of the shelter was below the surface, making them more roomy and a little less exposed to cold winds. Both types were heated by fireplaces, and the men fashioned bunks, desks and shelves out of whatever materials were available. Floors were typically split logs with the flat side up or straw; some were just a dirt floor. Usually, the huts contained four enlisted men.
The 10th Massachusetts Infantry spent the winter of 1863-64 at Brandy Station, Virginia. The regimental historian described the unit’s winter quarters:
Logs constituted the walls of the huts and shelter tents formed the roofs; they stood six feet by ten on the ground, the walls being about four feet high. At one end were the door and fireplace, at the other, the bunks, each one made for two occupants, the lower being about six inches from the floor, the upper three feet. The remaining floor space, six by six feet, was reserved for all the purposes of housekeeping by the four men who called this home.
After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Iron Brigades’ 24th Michigan Infantry spent the winter of 1862-3 at Camp Isabella (named after the commanding officer’s wife) at Belle Plain, Virginia. The 24th’s regimental historian recorded that unit’s winter homes:
They were about eight by ten feet in size and five feet high, with shelter tents for roof and gabel coverings. The hillsides furnished good fireplaces, which were finished with stone, and had mud and stick chimney. The spaces between the logs were plastered with mud which soon hardened. The hard ground answered for a floor, while bedsteads were fashioned from poles covered with pine and cedar boughs. The beds served for chairs and knees for tables. A bed was constructed on each side of the cabin, and the space between was kitchen, sitting room and parlor in one. A hardtack box served for a pantry, and such was the soldiers’ winter quarters. A bayonet stuck in the ground with a candle on top served for lighting the humble abode, which was usually occupied by three or four comrades. Here the soldier cooked, ate, slept, and passed his time when other duties permitted, waiting for the activities of the army in the spring.
Another Iron Brigade regiment, the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, spent the winter of 1863-4 in winter quarters near Kelly’s Ford, Virginia. In a letter, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes wrote about his regiment’s winter preparations:
Our men have built fine log cabins and the encampment of the brigade is very respectable. It is curious to see the ingenuity displayed by the men in making themselves comfortable in their log houses. With no tool but the little hatchet, they house themselves snugly and comfortably, and provide all the necessary furniture.
Officers had similar, but somewhat upgraded accommodations compared to the enlisted men. Dawes shared a cabin with one of the regimental surgeons. Dawes described their cabin as “cheerful and bright” and the fireplace as a “complete success and our chimney is all of brick…We have a tight board floor and are very comfortably established for a soldier’s winter”. Dawes’ cabin had two 10 foot by 10 foot rooms with four windows and two desks plus bunks and that fireplace he was proud of.
The 1st Maine Cavalry got a late start on its winter quarters during the winter of 1863-64 due to reconnaissance patrols, finally settling in at Warrenton, Virginia in early January of 1864. The regimental historian recalled:
The quarters were of one general plan,–usually each building was occupied by four men,–log cabin walls some four feet high, made of white oak logs halved, with the chinks filled in with the sticky mud of the locality, long as two lengths of shelter tent and wide as shelter tent would make a good roof for…The chimneys were on the rear, and were made of stone, wood, and mud, many of them being topped off with a barrel. Inside, the quarters were finished according to taste, ideas of comfort, and material at hand…Many a pleasant hour was passed in those quarters that winter, with the cheerful open fire, the kindly feeling of the comrades for each other, cemented by two years of hardship and suffering together, reading and writing, joking, telling stories, singing, playing cards, and in the various ways with which soldiers had by this time so well learned to pass their spare time. Indeed, some of the boys were inclined to pity their friends in Maine who knew not the enjoyment of the open fires, or the comfort which to them seemed so great in comparison with their condition the few weeks previous to their settling down for the winter.
While settled in for the winter, the army had a chance to resupply everything, and that included the food. Spending the winter of 1862-63 at Falmouth, Virginia, following the Battle of Fredericksburg, the regimental historian of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry recalled:
The commissary department procured iron shields for the tops of ovens and a regimental bakery was built, Levi Woofindale, of Co. B, being appointed regimental baker. By this appointment the men profited greatly, being supplied with soft bread of an excellent quality and often hot from the oven. On Sundays baked beans were served and, in exchange for cash,the men could get brown bread and ginger bread. After Gen. Hooker took command the regiments were excellently provided for. Many stricken ones of earlier fields returned to the regiment and the wasted ranks gradually became better filled.
Although fighting continued in other, warmer locations, the Army of the Potomac saw much less action in the colder months of the year and settled into winter quarters to wait for spring. It was the calm before the inevitable storm of battle, and when the weather warmed up and the dirt roads dried up, active campaigning and the casualties of battle returned once again.
Hardtack and Coffee: or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life
by John D. Billings
History of the First Maine Cavalry 1861-1865 by Edward P. Tobie
History of the Nineteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 edited by Ernest L. Waite
History of the Twenty-fourth Michigan by O.B. Curtis
The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union
by Bell Irvin Wiley
The Tenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1864 by Alfred S. Roe
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