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Board with Tents?

Exploring Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 has required looking a lot more at the use of soldiers’ tents. The Fort itself, with a maximum capacity of only 400 officers and men, was already largely a supply depot when the northern continental army retreated back to the fort in July of 1776. The vast majority of these soldiers encamped, at least for a time in tents, rather than using the Fort’s barracks. The portrayal of Captain John Lacey’s company of the Fourth Pennsylvania Battalion this season has relied heavily on the Captain’s own memoires. Shortly after the Fourth Pennsylvania Battalion encamped up at the French Lines to the west of the Fort Captain Lacey described modifying his tent some time after the 18th of July.

I had procured some Boards from the Saw Mill, made a good and Drie floor, raised the sides of my Tent two Boards high, made a Chimny & fireplace at the back end with Sods of Dirt or Earth, which made it a commodious habitation. Having first sat the Example it was soon followed by all the other Officers, many of whome exceeded mine by carrying the sides of their Tents higher with Boards, with more commodious fireplaces, having improved on my Plan.

At first Captain Lacey’s description seemed like an isolated occurrence caused by their proximity to the saw mill on the LaChute river, encamping on clay soil during a miserably rainy summer, and the ingenuity of a few officers. However, some other documents indicate that the use of board flooring may be more common than this one instance.

Shelter made with wooden boards appears in several accounts of the 1776 and 1777 northern campaigns. By the middle of September in 1776, the Fourth Pennsylvania received orders to build, “lodging as the nature of the campaign will admit.” This lodging was constructed using principally boards as the regiment was forbidden to remove any boards from their huts when they moved into FortTiconderoga itself at the end of the campaign season.  They diary of Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Sewell described similar construction when encamped on MountIndependence. His diary from September 4th, 1776, stated, “The regt. Employ’d building wooden tents and without tools too-almost.” Back at Ticonderoga the following year, Henry Sewell wrote down more detail describing on June 20th, 1777 “went to the mills & got slabs to build us a house.” While marching south to re-join the Continental Army amassing at Stillwater, New York, private Ezra Tylden recorded in his journal on September 23rd, 1777, “We stayed there that night and lay in little hutts out a doors; only a few boards or bushes put up over our heads to shelter us.”  Encamping at Stillwater on October 4th, 1777 Ezra Tylden noted, “we have now hutts which we built with the logs & few slaps to cover over our heads.” These accounts of building temporary or semi-permanent shelter using boards hint at how common boards were as a material in encampments. Other accounts hint that the use of boards as flooring under sleeping soldiers might have been similarly common.

Contained inside Anthony Wayne’s orderly book are Brigadier General Sullivan’s orders for his brigade to march northward from their camp at Albany on May 12th, 1776. These orders specifically describe decamping for the march.

Col. Winds Regt to March tomorrow at 6 o’clock the Col. to order the General to Beat at half past Four upon which the Soldiers are to strike their tents and make them up; the tents and baggage are immediately to be sent to the wharf and put under the care of those who are to Guard the baggage on board the Battoes. The boards for the tents and oars also to be taken and piled in one pile, and at 6 o’clock the Col. is to order the assembly, upon which the Regt is to parade with their Bage & c, and are to be marched off immediately for Ticonderoga.

Brigadier General Sullivan in a very matter-of-fact way orders the, “boards for the tents,” to be piled up just like the oars in one big pile. For an army that travels by battoe it is not surprising at all to see orders for oars to be collected up in preparation for the march. Much like each battoe had an allotted number of oars this would hint that each tent, including enlisted tents, had some number of boards with them. These boards likely constituted flooring. The search continues for 1776 diary accounts or orderly book entries at Ticonderoga about issues or collection of bedding; hay, straw, or even pine boughs. These Brigade orders ask for these boards to be collected as the tents are taken down, implying this was the practice up through the time of these orders. Sullivan’s orders could be interpreted as merely piling up the boards as if they were to be left behind for a subsequent encampment. Conversely, these orders could indicate that these boards were to move with the baggage, much as the piled up oars were to be used to row the baggage north. Either way it’s a tantalizing detail about the use of these tents with board floors.

The use of boards as shelter as well as flooring seems to have further evidence in the letters of William Weeks, Paymaster to the Third New Hampshire Regiment. In an August 6th, 1777 letter home penned in Stillwater, New York he writes about his lodging after the evacuation of Ticonderoga.

It is not at all to be wondered if we have a few sick when living upon fresh Provisions & lodging upon the ­bare Ground cover’d with Dew without Blanketts having a few Boards for Cover- But now they begin to be more healthy as they get hardened to this Method of living—I find there is a great deal in Use, when living at Ticonderoga I though I had very poor lodging, when laying on my Mattress, what can I say now—this I can, that I sleep as well upon the Ground as I ever did on a Bed, but how long shall this be my Mind, God only knows—Since I left Ti: I have purchas’d a Blankett which I find very useful—at Night I wrap myself in it & lay down upon the bare Ground & sometimes upon Boards, in the Morning my Blankett is wet, cover’d with Dew:

As an officer it is not terribly surprising that he had a proper mattress while encamped at Ticonderoga. Weeks’ baggage, like so many other officers’ baggage was captured at Skenesboro. British gunboats caught up with the wounded and baggage from Ticonderoga, which the Continental Army evacuated by boat while healthy officers and men marched overland through Vermont. Describing his living conditions at Stillwater he laments merely having boards propped up as a simple hut. In describing his typical dew coated night he says that he lays, “down upon the bare Ground & sometimes upon Boards.” Rather than any sort of bedding, an improvement over sleeping on the bare ground was to sleep on top of boards. If available, he would use boards as a floor, even without a tent.

Taken together, these accounts still don’t constitute evidence of a general practice of board flooring in tents or field improvised huts. However, the proximity of some Northern Continental Army encampments adjacent forests or sawmills, whether at Ticonderoga or on the upper Hudson River may have made sleeping on boards an attractive option for the Army. Research will continue and contributions of diaries or orders related to this topic are very much welcome. In the meantime, it’s time to at least try out laying down a simple floor of boards and imaging making that spot home for a night in 1776 or 1777.