A Christmas Tale by Christa Hook – Soldiers of the 2/42nd, 5/60th and 1/79th of Graham’s 1st Division, Stopford’s Brigade, Guarda, Portugal, December 1811.
A comparatively little-studied aspect of the Revolutionary War compared to the battles or the great personalities, looking at just how camps were established and what they were constructed from provides us with a window into the day-to-day experiences of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The British Army utilised a number of different methods for housing its troops, and the type of camp depended on several factors including the season and the nature of the particular campaign being embarked upon.
British battalions and companies were divided into mess groups of six to a dozen soldiers. These men ate together, and were also provided with a-frame tents at the expense of the regiment. These tents were used during summer seasons or warmer climates, typically either during peacetime or when not conducting a specific campaign during war - a good example is the British tent encampment on Boston Common in 1774.
When the weather closed in on troops occupying a particular location for extended periods of time, the Army resorted to what it called “huts” - small but stout shelters usually built into a hillside, providing greater protection from the elements than mere canvas. Such hut encampments were built all around New York during the Army’s long occupation of the city between 1776 and 1783. While construction materials were sometimes in short supply, the army was filled with former builders, thatchers and labourers with the necessary expertise.
When possible soldiers also made use of vacant buildings for shelter, particularly during winter. Contrary to popular opinion British soldiers did not regularly take over people’s homes throughout the war but, like the Continental Army, did occupy structures like barns warehouses en mass. The fact that there were not enough such structures in places like New York resulted in the creation of the “hut towns.” There were some purpose-built barracks buildings throughout North America, such as in Trenton, but these were few and far between.
While on campaign soldiers obviously did not have time to construct huts, and the baggage train that carried tents tended to slow down a force on operations. Consequently, while actively engaging the enemy soldiers often resorted to what they called wigwams - simple structures and lean-tos constructed from brush, branches and leaves that could be quickly thrown up and offered a modicum of shelter. There was no standard design for these.
Lastly, it was not uncommon for soldiers on campaign to sleep outside without any shelter beyond their blanket or coat. Such privation was common throughout many campaigns of the war. It should be noted that, even in such circumstances, the general accommodation experienced by soldiers across the conflict was not a great deal worse than the living standards they might have enjoyed outside of the military.