On May 23, 1863, Illinois volunteer George Messer, nursing a swollen ankle and the first signs of scurvy, penned a letter to his wife from Camp Hobson near Glasgow, Kentucky. Some of his news, he admitted, “may appear somewhat ridiculous but it is nevertheless true.” He and his comrades had been ordered to surrender their tents in exchange for new ones. He then described the wedge-shaped tents that appear in so many images of Civil War encampments. Each soldier carried one half of the tent, a two-pound sheet of canvas about six feet square. When buttoned at the top, supported with poles or saplings, and anchored to the ground, they formed a rudimentary shelter for two men. Judging these accommodations to be more fit for canines than humans, the soldiers quickly dubbed them “dog tents.”
Messer noted sarcastically that when his regimental commander required the men “to appear like Gentlemen on all and every occasion,” yet made them haul and use these “low and unhandy” tents, “it is more than enough to cause the soldier to be pleased and satisfied.” His mates had made sure to communicate their “satisfaction” the next morning while preparing for roll call. “You never heard such barking as the boys made,” he wrote, “they imitated from the Bull dog down to the little Rat terrier and they would frequently break out into a fight in imitations of dogs.” A couple of unpopular promotions had also rankled the men, but Messer admitted that the wisest course was “to quietly submit” to these recent affronts. In such circumstances, however, he found the rumors of a military draft disquieting. Imagine the barking then, he implied: “There is enough of the soldiers dissatisfied now and those that would be drafted into the army would be more so.”
George Messer’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to access a finding aid and typescript. For other Civil War collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.