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Huts, Shanties, and Cabins: Winter Quarters in Central Virginia

Updated: Feb 12


Winter Camp of the 16th Michigan near Falmouth, Virginia (Library of Congress)

The timing of the Civil War battles and campaigns fought in central Virginia helped ensure that the soldiers spent a significant amount of downtime living in winter quarters. The battles of Fredericksburg (December 11-13, 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), the Mine Run Campaign (November 26-December 2, 1863), the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House (May 5-21, 1864) all coincided with static periods, either before or after, or both, for the belligerent armies.


Why Winter Quarters?

Some periods in winter quarters were brief, while others went on for months. Many considerations factored into the amount of inactive time. Perhaps the most important was the condition of the roads. Typically, during the winter months in central Virginia, the fluctuations in temperatures created a significant amount of freezing and thawing. Add rain and snow into the mix and it creates a grand recipe for seas of mud that made it virtually impossible to move soldiers and vital supplies effectively and efficiently. Most commanders fully understood the challenges of attempting large military maneuvers during the winter months and tried to avoid making such gambles. Another important consideration was the health of the men. Sickness in the ranks was a significant problem during the best of weather. But during winter, extended exposure to the elements could greatly exacerbate an already challenging health crisis. In addition, there were also times when political pressure demanded military action regardless of what time of year it was, and thus limited time in winter quarters.


Picket Duty

Examining passes - Union and Rebel Pickets - Fredericksburg (Library of Congress)

Whether on active campaign or in winter quarters, picket duty was a necessary part of army life. During winter quarters, when military matters relaxed a bit, it was still important to maintain a vigilant watch for any potential enemy attack or offensive. Few soldiers enjoyed picket duty, but the cold and wet weather of winter especially tried their nerves, physical constitutions, and morale. Lt. Edmund Patterson, 9th Alabama, explained in January 1863, “I go on picket and remain twenty four hours. We stand on our side of the [Rappahannock] river and look at the Yanks. They stand on their side and look at us. Sometimes we exchange [news]papers . . . and sometimes the boys trade them tobacco for coffee.”

Soldier's Huts in Winter Camp (Library of Congress)


Constructing Winter Quarters

Abandoned Ninth Corps Winter Camp in Falmouth, VA (Library of Congress). Note the construction of the log and mud chimney.

Occasionally, soldiers got lucky and simply moved into the abandoned huts of a regiment that had received orders to move elsewhere. Such was the case for John Walters of the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues who posted at Bank's Ford. In January 1863, he wrote, "We found here some well put up breastworks . . . and then went to work making ourselves comfortable, a not very difficult job from the fact that . . . we found a number of log huts with good fire places, and . . . within twenty yards of our cabins, there is a run of excellent water, large enough to supply both men and horses."

Finding abandoned huts was the exception to the rule, so the comfort level and quality of construction of winter quarters usually depended on the skills the soldiers building them brought to the project. It was common practice for a “mess,” a group of about three to six soldiers, to work together to erect their temporary living space.

Construction materials consisted of whatever soldiers could readily get their hands on. They cut trees and saplings to serve as the walls and roof supports, and scavenged planks from abandoned nearby buildings for flooring, doors, and windows. Stones, old bricks, logs caked with clay mud, and even discarded army barrels became chimneys for their dwelling’s fireplace. Canvas tents and shelter halves buttoned together made an improvised if not always impermeable roof. Plentiful mud daubed the cracks between wall logs to keep out the wind, rain, and snow. Old hardtack boxes nailed to the walls became shelves. Soldiers fashioned space-saving bunkbeds from recycled lumber, saplings, and barrel staves. Pine and cedar boughs padded their beds, and if unfortunate enough to not have a plank floor, served as carpets to keep the dust and mud in their huts at a minimum.

The place chosen for a regiment's winter encampment often determined its layout appearance. Hills, streams, and other geographical features challenged normal expected symmetry. Lt. Millet S. Thompson commented on the 13th New Hampshire’s camp at Falmouth. “The ends of the company . . . streets, are widest down near the brook, the narrower where they rise upon the slope, though on the whole quite irregular, and thrown upon the curve of the slope something like the ribs of a huge fan . . . there can be on this campground neither order or regularity,” he wrote.

In February 1863, Alabamian Lt. Edmund Patterson, jotted in his journal from their winter camp near Scott’s Dam northwest Fredericksburg, that, “most of the boys have built little huts of pine poles and roofed them over with pieces of tent cloth. They are chinked and daubed well, and have good fireplaces and chimneys.”

Camped near Belle Plain in Stafford County, Willard W. Glazier, 2nd New York Cavalry, recalled that: “Nearly everyman has suddenly become a mason or carpenter, and the hammer, the axe and the trowel are being plied with the utmost vigor, if not with the highest skill. Many of us, however, are astonished at the ingenuity that is displayed with this department.”

Just after the Mine Run Campaign, Capt. Mason Whiting Tyler, 37th Massachusetts, started construction on his third hut after movements caused him to have to abandon the first two. “To be sure, these houses were not very elaborate, but we found them very comfortable. They were twelve feet long by seven wide, and made of split logs with the cracks filled with mud, with a chimney made of stone or wood at one end. The roofs were made of shelter tents . . . .,” he wrote.

Some soldiers were quite pleased with their carpentry skills and inventiveness. Winthrop D. Sheldon, 27th Connecticut, admired his regiment’s winter huts near Falmouth: “with no little satisfaction we surveyed our rough architecture, pork-barrel chimneys, and cracker box doors, feeling that though the winds might blow, and the rainy season pour down its flood, we were prepared to endure it patiently.”

Gathering the materials for building winter quarters dramatically altered the landscape. Soldiers devoured vast forests for construction resources and fuel to warm themselves and cook their meals. Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont, writing to a newspaper back home claimed, “The land here was covered by an oak forest, similar to the camp we have just left, but which has been removed by one or the other of the contending armies. Now and then there is a line representative of the forest’s former glory, but in a week from now, if we stay here, these will have perished with the rest.”


Life in Winter Quarters

An Army Graveyard - Winter Camp Near Stoneman's Switch - Falmouth, VA (Library of Congress)

Soldier life went on, even in winter quarters. However, the pace of outdoor activities typically slowed. As Pvt. Carlton McCarthy of the Richmond Howitzers poetically put it: “When the leaves begin to fall and the wind to rush in furious frolics through the woods, the soldier’s heart yearns for comfort. Chilling rains, cutting sleet, drifting snow, muddy roads, all the miseries of approaching winter, pressed him to ask and repeat the question, ‘When will we go into winter quarters.’”

Writing in his diary on February 17, 1863, from his camp in Stafford County, Corp. Andrew J. Boies, 33rd Massachusetts, noted: “It is snowing hard and bids fair to be a severe storm before it is over. I am comfortably seated in my log cabin, before a good blazing fire, and am both dry and warm. Owens, Roth, and Parker, share with me, and they are all good tent-mates.”

Also writing in February 1863, but making winter camp near Moss Neck Manor in Caroline County, Capt. George Bedinger, 33rd Virginia (Stonewall Brigade) commented, "I am extremely comfortably fixed, have an excellent tent and stove and would rather prefer bad weather, as it reduces the possibility of our marching until a more favourable season."

If winter quarter residents expected to get along in their tight spaces, sharing duties helped. An anonymous Second Corps soldier at Falmouth, writing to the Lewiston, Maine, Daily Evening Journal noted that, “The number of occupants to each hut is from two to four persons, these mutually perform the agreeable offices of cooks, wood-choppers, laundress, chambermaid, bottle-washer, and kindred employments.”

Col. J. Warren Keifer, 110th Ohio, understood the challenges of discipline in winter quarter camps: “The season not permitting much opportunity for drill, discipline is hard to maintain. Sickness becomes prevalent, and there is much unrest, both of officers and soldiers.” Soldiers read, wrote letters home, played indoor games, smoked their pipes, drank, fought snowball fights, attended religious services, and if fortunate, listened to regimental band music. However, boredom drained morale. Confederate William Palmore wrote his grandmother in December 1863, “If the Yankees are to whip us finally, I wish they would do it before tomorrow night, for anything is preferable to this sort of living. I am completely worn out with it.”


On it Goes

"Returning from Outpost Duty" (Library of Congress)

Even after breaking winter quarters in Central Virginia to fight the Overland Campaign, Union and Confederate soldiers endured another season of winter quarters at Petersburg before the cruel war was finally over.


Sources & Suggested Reading

Albert Z. Conner, Jr. with Chris Mackowski. Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge" and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union. Savas Beatie, 2016. James A. Davis. Music Along the Rapidan: Civil War Soldiers, Music, and Community during Winter Quarters Virginia. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, and Matthew B. Reeves. Huts and History: The Archaeology of Military Encampment during the American Civil War. University Press of Florida, 2006. Clark B. Hall, "Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground," in Blue and Gray Magazine, April 1991.


Parting Shot

"Study of an Infantry Soldier on Guard - Sgt. Maj. William J. Jackson, 12th N.Y. Volunteers, sketched at Stoneman's Switch near Fredericksburg, Va., Jan. 27, 1863," by Edwin Forbes

(Library of Congress)

"They have fixed themselves up quarters, much more comfortable than I had expected to find them this winter. I had supposed the boys were suffering everything from exposure to all kinds of weather, and indeed they have, in their battles and marches, but in camp, they are comparatively comfortable." Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont Infantry, Camp near White Oak Church, Va. March 14, 1863.


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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