Bed Rugs, Blankets, Bolsters, and Berths

As a crowd walks into the barracks at Ticonderoga one person shouts out “I would never want to sleep here, that bed looks so uncomfortable!”  For visitors and re-enactors alike, this is often the first thought upon seeing beds, which at a glance look very different than the modern mattress and box springs.  But, just how comfortable or uncomfortable were these beds for soldiers trying to sleep over 200 years ago?

Even after the French and Indian War, British soldiers guarded posts through the interior of North America. Not surprisingly, these posts required furniture and bedding to house these soldiers.

In July of 1759, French Fort Carillon, was blown up and burnt as French troops retreated north. Following the destruction of Fort Carillon, British and American provincial soldiers rebuilt this French fort as Fort Ticonderoga, including the barracks inside. After just a year of British reconstruction, French forces in Canada surrendered in Montreal. Still, the British Army continued to build and maintain the fort’s barracks to house British soldiers in this region of North America.  Even in the peace that followed the 1763 Treaty of Paris, ending the global French & Indian War, Fort Ticonderoga’s barracks continued to house detachments of British soldiers, like Captain William Delaplace’s guard of the 26th Regiment of Foot, who were awoken from their beds by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys.

Between 1759 and 1762, carpenters labored away to create proper beds for the barracks space. The, “Return of Bedding, Utencels, &c In my Charge Belonging to the Crown at Ticonderoga 1st May 1762,” listed 101 beds. While no records survive to describe the size or construction of the beds at Ticonderoga, those built at British Fort Number Four were described with their dimensions in 1759. The return of the, “Necessaries to be provided for soldiers… at [Fort]No. 4,” defined them as, “…berths four feet wide & six feet two inches long within the boards.”

“Berth” was the designated word to describe the place where one slept in, or the bed itself.  A profile view of the barracks at Half Moon, NY in 1757 depicts beds that are double, akin to modern bunk beds.  The only way to fit 101 beds inside the barracks of Fort Ticonderoga was exactly that, doubled like bunk beds. These beds would have been constructed just like other contemporary military pieces of furniture would have been.  Four end posts of oak or other hardwood would house a series of mortise holes to accept boards from all four sides.  In-between, smaller oak boards were joined into those posts with tenons, and held secure with wooden pins.  Between these boards, lying level will the ground, were more hardwood boards that created the berth. This simply made up the physical space for the soldier to sleep.

Bedding, provided by the British army, made these wooden boards into comfortable berths for soldiers.  A letter dated March 20th, 1766, from the Barrack Master General in North America; General James Robertson derived a, “Proposal for furnishing the Kings Barracks…in America with Beddings and Furniture.” Robertson proposed a system of bedding and furnishings for his Majesty’s barracks rooms.

A room for non Commissioned officer and soldiers is to contain at least twelve men and is to be furnished in the following manner—six bed cases and six bolster cases to be filled with straw, twelve blankets, six coverlets, two iron potts, two trammels, a pair of tongs, a fire shovel, a pair of dogs, two cross bars, a hatchet, a candlestick, a table, two benches, and a bucket….. as bedding can be had in England for one half of what it could cost here, this should be got from England immediately, that what is wanted may be sent to the post before winter….All the different articles should be mark’d with GR and a Crown in undelible colors, or some stripes of thread to distinguish them should be wove in by the maker.

An August 1783 return of “Barack Beding wanted,” for barracks in the Province of Quebec described the bed cases and bolsters in further detail.

The bed cases were of strong osnaburg linen six and one half feet in length by four and one half feet in width… bolsters four and one half feet long by one and one half feet broad. While the dimensions of the bed case appear larger than the dimension of the bed itself, when filled with straw the bed case would expand in thickness, and reduce in width and length. These dimensions ensured the filled bed case fit firmly inside the boards of the bed. Bed cases were made open at one end so that they could be filled with straw.

Two beds or, ‘berths,’ were stacked together as bunks. By regulation, each of these berths was for two soldiers.

The case would then be coarsely sewn or basted closed until it was time to change out the straw again. The long cylindrical linen bolster laid across the top of the bed case. When filled, this bolster was akin to a modern pillow, but large and firm enough to raise the soldier up at a slight angle. With twelve soldiers assigned to a room with six beds, the 1766 orders from the Barracks Master General assume there would be two soldiers sharing a berth. This may sound cramped to a modern reader, but it is worth considering that a typical British soldiers’ tent housed an average of five to six soldiers. Likewise, contemporary French army regulations assigned three soldiers to a similar sized bed.

While much later than the period of 1775, records during the War of 1812 indicate the continuation of this mode of bedding, including some great details on other pieces for a proper army bed.

The Commissariat Record for 1814

Ordered for the Barrack Dept.

Blankets (6 ft broad and 7 ½ ft long)—40,000

Rugs, Green Knotted—18,000

Sheets of Russia Sheeting—36,000 pairs

Paillasses[bed cases] of Oznaburg (6ft by 7 ½ ft)—18,000

Bolsters of Oznaburg (1 ½ ft by 4 ½ ft)—18,000

To be stamped each with durable marking stuff (G.R.) in each corner.

Eight original British barrack blankets still exist today, one of which resides in the Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum.  Robert Stone, master weaver, examined these original examples.  His findings indicate that each blanket was made of white wool, heavily knapped, has the marking “GR” and are woven with two stripes on each end, exactly as proposed by the Barracks Master General back in 1766.  All such blankets varied from 75” to 90” in length and 60” to 72” in width and could easily fit over the bed case and sheets and still be tucked in neatly.

Each barracks room at Ticonderoga was filled with six berths as well as a table and two benches for twelve soldiers. Strict regulations required adequate room for furniture, gear, and living space.

The coverlets described by General James Robertson are likely better understood as bed rugs.  In August of 1765, Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America ordered that, “The Furniture of a Barrack Room to consist of Six Palais[bed cases], Six Coverlids or Rugs, Twelve Blankets…”General Gage noted, “Coverlids or Rugs,” indicating they actually mean the same thing.  Moreover, Samuel Johnson’s, “Dictionary of the English Language”, published in 1755, and described bed rugs as, “a coarse nappy coverlet used for mean beds.” With strikingly similar bedding requirements in the 1814 Commissariat Record to those from 1765, it is quite likely that bed rugs or coverlids at Ticonderoga in 1775 were literally rugs, with a deep pile of green yarns knotted onto backing canvas.

According to the Commissariat Record for 1814, heavy-duty sheets were commonplace. However, their use in the 1760s and 1770s was less frequent. Commander in Chief of British Forces in North America, General Thomas Gage, was ambivalent about their use in barracks berths in his August 10, 1765 orders.

At such Barracks where sheets are now provided, one pair of clean sheets is to be furnish’d for each Bed of the Non Commission’d Officers and Soldiers, once every thirty days, for which they are to pay two pence Sterling no more sheeting will be provided than what the Barracks are already furnish’d with.

Welbore Ellis, Secretary at War, shared General Gage’s skepetism about the utility of sheets in barracks room. In a letter to General Gage received September 6, 1765, Secretary Ellis pointedly stated his thoughts on bed sheets.

The Article of Sheets I thought might very well be saved to the Crown; The Soldier will not find the want of them unless He is used to them, He will be much fitter for service without them, and it is better He shou’d not be used to them.

Given that no sheets appear on any return at Ticonderoga between 1759 and 1765, and no new sheets were provided to barracks without, it is likely that the beds never had any sheets.

Imagine a double wooden berth inside the barracks at Ticonderoga.  Inside each berth lay an oznaburg bed case filled with straw.  At the head of each bed lay a round bolster also filled with straw. To cover those was one of the large white blankets, tucked in neatly on all sides. Next, the two soldiers assigned to the bunk would find their cozy place inside. On top of the soldiers lay another large wool blanket and a green bed rug to cover everything.  Does this sound comfortable yet?

By the time of the 26th Regiment’s arrival at Ticonderoga in the 1770s, layers of boards, oznaburg, straw, and wool helped to outfit the 101 berths with a pleasant means of bedding. According to records and regulations, the barracks at Ticonderoga could feasibly house just over 200 soldiers.  Yet, the reality is that only 18 soldiers and an equal number of wives and children were stationed at Ticonderoga in the winter of 1775.  Given those ratios, each person would have their own bed.  Even when more reinforcements of the 26th Regiment arrived in April, there was still plenty of bedding to accommodate all the soldiers, wives, and children within.

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