How to Pitch a Camp

How to Pitch a Camp

or, Where do those Camp Colours Really Go?

by Linnea M. Bass, Brigade of Guards

The impetus for this article came at an event when I noticed that several units are still placing camp colours at the four corners of their camps. While this practice may seem logical, it is, unfortunately, incorrect. (Years ago we thought it was proper, due to a misunderstanding of the primary documentation.) In order to explain the correct function of the camp colours, it is necessary to go back and discuss the subject of camp layout in general.

There are two basic methods of pitching a camp, one which we identify as British and the other as von Steuben (post 1777 Congressional). The truth is that neither style is exclusively American, since both are included in the primary British treatise on the subject, Lewis Lochee's An Essay on Castrametation. The 'von Steuben' pitch is actually based on the Prussian system. Although the 'British' layout calls for rows of tents perpendicular to the front of the camp and the 'von Steuben' for rows parallel to the front of the camp, both methods are based on the same basic concepts.

The first principle in setting up a camp was that the companies or units were camped in order of battle or march, not in order of precedence. Thus, the commanding officer determined the order in which the units were encamped. The typical method was to place the senior units on the flanks, with the junior units in the middle. In a brigade of several regiments, the most senior regiment would usually take the right flank, the second in seniority would take the left flank, the third in seniority would camp to the left of the senior regiment, etc. In the encampment of a single regiment, the grenadier company would be posted on the right, the light infantry company on the left, the colonel's company (most senior hat company) to the left of the grenadiers, the lieutenant colonel's company to the right of the light infantry company, and so on, with the most junior companies in the center.1

A second principle was that camps were arranged so that the men could get their weapons and line up in case of an emergency. When called to arms, the soldiers formed on what was called first line of parade, the location of which was out in front of the camp (morning troop was held on this line as well.) To facilitate the quick formation of the unit, the bells of arms were just behind first line of parade with the tents of the non-commissioned officers behind the bells. The non-coms would supervise the distribution of the weapons as the privates ran to the front of the camp and lined up. Since it was not efficient for there to be any barriers between the men and their weapons#, the officers' marquees with their long ropes were located behind the soldiers' tents. The very back of the camp was home to the the kitchens, wagons, and sutlers.

The third principle in setting up a camp involved its width. The frontage had to allow room for each company and regiment to form up in front of its own tents. Thus, the determining factor was not how many tents there were, but how many people. The camp colours served as the markers for first line of parade. If the unit drew up in two ranks, there were four camp colours. The front set marked the left and right ends of the first rank. The second set was placed at a proper distance behind the first and #marked the ends of the second rank. Lochee had this to say on the subject: "Camp colours are about a foot and a half square; their colour is the same with the facing of the regiment, and the number of the respective regiment is upon each. The distribution of them on the flanks, might serve as lines for the officers and men when drawn up. In 1747, his late Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, to prevent passing between the camp colours, issued the following order: 'The camp colours are to be placed on the right and left flanks to the line of parade, from the outside of the bell of arms, with little chevaux de frize between them.'" 2 That the 'chevaux de frize' were still used during the period of the American War is clearly shown in a Bowles and Carver watercolor from

178#0 entitled "A Perspective View of an Encampment."3 It depicts a camp pitched in the 'British' style. While there are no bells of arms and a woman appears to be tending a fire in the front of camp rather than the rear, the rest of the illustration is basically correct. Short hoops (the chevaux de frize) that look like modern garden fencing run from the front camp colours to those behind.

Since there are two alternatives for setting up a camp, especially for a British unit, the question arises of which to use. Lochee provides some guidance. He says that the 'von Steuben' method is "more convenient from its not requiring so much depth, [so] it is hoped it will meet with proportionable approbation, especially as it is more conformable to the grand principle, which is to encamp in the same order in which the troops are to engage."4 Thus, if the ground does not allow a deep camp, or if the men want to be able to get to the front more quickly, the 'von Steuben' pitch is perfectly acceptable for a British unit. While almost all depictions of British camps show the elongated method generally in use by the NWTA, most of them portray units encamped in parks in London rather than in America. It is, therefore, difficult to draw conclusions about which method was used most by units on campaign.

How does all of this relate to reenacting in general and the NWTA in particular? We will probably always make some concessions that keep us from 100% authenticity. Knowing the proper method of laying out a camp can, however, improve our impression.

To be sure, there are difficult decisions to be made. For instance, if the fire pits and dining flies are put closest to the public, the beautifully painted bells of arms should go at the opposite end of camp where no one can see them!

For units to make the necessary decisions, everyone should know what a correct camp looks like. Starting at the "back" of the camp the order of things should be 1) fire pits 2) dining flies if any 3) marquees 4) privates' tents 5) serjeants' tents 6) bells of arms 7) camp colours (see fig B). For a single company pitching in the 'British' style, the proper placement for the tents is back to back, rather than facing each other across a street. What is often called a 'company street' does not belong to a company, but actually separates one company from another. Camp colours should be in front of the camp, not at the four corners.

This article has not addressed some controversial issues, such as whether camp furniture, dining flies, and the like are appropriate -- its intent is simply to provide information about the proper methods for pitching the camp of an infantry regiment. Individual NWTA units must make their own decisions of how to incorporate this information into their portrayals. The sources listed in the bibliography are recommended for those who wish to pursue the subject.


1). Lochee, p. 17

2). Lochee, pp. 26-27

3). American Heritage, p. 170-171

4). Lochee, p.33


The American Heritage Book of the Revolution. Ed. Richard M. Ketchum. NY: American Heritage, 1958.

Lochee, Lewis. An Essay on Castrametation. London: Printed for the Author, 1778.

Regulations for the Prussian Infantry, translated from the German Original. London: J. Nourse, 1757; reprinted NY; Greenwood Press, 1968.

Riling, Joseph R. Baron von Steuben and His Regulations, Including a Complete Facsimile of the Original . . . . Philadelphia: Ray Riling Arms Books, 1966.

The Volunteers Companion. Dublin: W. Colles, 1784.