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Explicitly Clear Blog - Beneath an Endless Sea of Canvas

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  • Jboring
    Re: Explicitly Clear Blog - Beneath an Endless Sea of Canvas

    Wow....a "Bell Tent" in that one photo. I knew these were ubiquitous in the British Army at the time, but didn't realize they made a significant mark in the US at the time.

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  • Johnny Lloyd
    Re: Explicitly Clear Blog - Beneath an Endless Sea of Canvas

    Awesome article! Almost seems Mr. Watson tapped into Charles Heath's knack for information and research there!

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  • Explicitly Clear Blog - Beneath an Endless Sea of Canvas


    It has been suggested that much of my Civil War blog contains insights and information about original material of interest to this community, and that I should post links to it for your use. OK, so I'll do that. I just want to explain that the blog is aimed primarily at people who are NOT members of this community and that you may have to squint once in a while to avoid seeing boogers on your authenticity windshields. I do promise never to attempt to tell you how to build a cooler that looks like a crate, however.

    Some of you will recall that I've been active in the past in campaigner events. While I still attend such once or twice a year, advancing age and family health issues have taken their toll. I now attend mostly less intense events and living histories where the immersion in the time period is not as consistent. That had the side effect of showing me how far many groups still have to go to be true facsimiles of historical realities, and how so much of what's going on out there is simply lack of knowledge. And that drove me, a retired journalist, to re-impose a weekly writing and research deadline on myself in support of getting people closer to historical accuracy.

    Having said all that, here's this week's topic, messed-up reenactor tent cities. I invite you all to browse the site, which now has upwards of 50 articles that include everything from drill to switchel and which incorporate not just my insights from 27 years of doing this, but original photos, sketches, comments, maps, newspaper clips and anything else I can find to document what they did and contrast it to what we do and really ought to do. It publishes every Tuesday at 8:26 a.m. (that's the retired journalist, who actually misses tough deadlines. Enjoy.

    Beneath an Endless Sea of Canvas ... that doesn't look like anything from the Civil War

    We are revisiting tents and tent flies this week. I remembered I styled myself the Jersey Gallinipper*, an annoying large mosquito. Mosquitoes reminded me of flies, and flies reminded me of "reenactor porches" in military camps at too many events.

    (Let me clarify that this is not about reenactor camps of expedience, under whatever euphemism they exist. They are what they are. They are not, though, purporting to be facsimiles of military camps. The military camps should look like military camps. They don't. Reenactor porches are visually distinct from anything that appeared 1861-65 and are a big reason why reenactor encampments don't look like Civil War military camps. )

    Flies initially went over tents, for protection from both rain and sun. The fly blocks the sun from hitting the tent itself, so the tent canvas doesn't heat up from direct sunlight and thus heat up the air in the tent. Next event I'm measuring temperatures in tents with flies and without them, and will add the results here later.

    I don't know who in our hobby got the idea to forego the fly over the tent and turn it into a porch, but, like crabgrass, the porches grow and proliferate every summer.

    So if you do nothing else, a fly put back over the officer's tent gets us back to Civil War practice. And if you want a fly in front of your tent as a work area, make it look like the photos I'm going to show you.

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    Those tent-fly "porches" on officer tents at most reenactments are wrong. You can look long and hard through period photos and you will never, ever find anything that looks like this, taken Somewhere in America Sometime in the Last 20 Years:

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    Let's count the things that are not representative here.
    The fly is too small.
    The center poles are not tall enough.
    The slope of the fly does not match the slope of the wall tent.
    The wall tent is not high enough or wide enough.
    There is no fly over the wall tent.

    There's much to admire in this camp, it's got a nice table, some crates, and a lot of the farb stuff we sometimes have to accept is all out of sight. These folks, whoever they are, are making an effort, even though it looks a lot like a camp of expedience rather than an officer's tent - I'm looking at the dresses hanging inside. I'm not real sure about that fire grate, but that's a topic for another day. Today it's tents and flies. And poles, because that's part of the problem of "size."

    So what does "right for the period" look like? Here ya go:

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    This appears to be the back of the officer's tent.** If you look closely you can see a fly over the tent itself, and another extending toward the background. The tent is pretty tall, since we don't know how tall those officers are we can't do more than speculate that it's probably about nine feet. There appears to be a reinforced hole near the peak, perhaps for a stove pipe? Hard to tell. Nice chairs, too.

    We can, however, do better than that. Here's another photo, which shows, among other things, how to do a "porch" properly. (Porches aren't wrong - we just do them wrong!)
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    October 1862, Pinkerton, Lincoln and McClernand.

    Now, Lincoln was six feet four inches under that hat, and with the hat he appears to be just about at seven feet.** Look how much higher the ridge of the tent and fly are - nine feet? And the average reenactor wall tent is seven feet tall. You would be in the position of demanding that the President of the United States doff his top hat for the privilege sharing your fly. Don't be like that!
    Let me pile it on here.

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    Rebels. Identified as 9th Georgia regiment, but don't quote me. Unless we've got some dwarves, that's an 11-foot pole to the peak. With a fly. And how about those nice chairs and short little longarms. I'm not even going to guess.

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    Give up? No? OK, here's as close as you are going to get to a reenactor-like setup, and it's not really close:

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    OK, so there's the problem and there's what the solution looks like.

    How did we get in this pickle and what can we do to gradually correct it?

    Buy or make bigger tents and bigger flies with taller poles and use your old "side poles" for firewood.

    Find some other use for the small flies.

    Why haven't we already done that? Several reasons.

    → Ever try to fit a nine-foot pole or an 11-foot ridgepole inside a Camaro or Explorer?
    → Cost. The bigger the tent, the more it costs.** And if you got to be colonel, you already found yourself spending some big money on uniforms and whatnot. The least expensive wall tent is eight feet, six inches wide, eight feet, six inches long, seven feet high and has two-foot sidewalls. Sound familiar? It should. They are everywhere.
    → Over the years newbies emulated what they saw around them at reenactments, which was seven-foot-high tents (see above) with little postage stamp flies out front in the ubiquitous reenactor "porch."

    Here's a clue: The bigger the bug 1861-1865, the bigger the tent. (Check out the first newspaper clip below if you want to see How Big.) So if you're a big bug in our little world of curious people with a peculiar pastime, you really need a big tent. Here's a nice start on big tents, at Tentsmiths: nine feet tall, 11.5 wide, 11.5 long, sidewalls five feet high. And even bigger if you want* Other tent makers have similarly sized tents, I included these folks simply because it was the first vendor I got to.

    How about the poles? Yeah, you aren't getting poles for these tents into a Camaro. But we're talking about a tent for the leadership of a unit: Somebody has a van or a pickup truck with a ladder rack. Let them bring the poles.

    What about the fly? A big bug needs a big fly. How big? Look at the photos from the war itself; the flies are slightly longer than the combined length of the two diagonal edges of the tent. So you need to work that out, colonel, which is why we have engineers on our staffs. Wake 'em up, surprise the heck of out them, give them a problem to solve.

    Then take the dimensions to your female civilians with a Web source for light canvas and beg them to spend some time this winter with the period-correct activity female civilian activity called "Making Things for the Boys at the Front."

    What about putting it up? No one person can put up one of these big tents. That's why you have a staff, if it's pre-event, and why you have what are known as "work details", where a sergeant directs several men and your tent goes up in period fashion.

    So the correct tent does a lot for you. Virtue is it's own reward, of course, but in this case you've made the correct tent into a group project in both planning and execution. It's not up there with dodging bullets as a bonding experience, but we work with what we have, right?

    Now, colonel, here's your first task: Start a Go Fund Me page so your unit and its friends can support the quest for authenticity, verisimilitude, good cheer, world peace AND a cooler tent by purchasing all this for the use of whomever gets to be colonel this year.

    *Mosquitoes are the state bird of New Jersey. (A Cliff Claven moment brought to you by the Jersey Gallinipper.)

    Here's your newspaper clip rewards for this week:

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    Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 29, 1861

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    Last edited by Eric Tipton; 06-08-2019, 08:05 PM.