A Trend Towards “Downsizing?”
By Mark Tully
I have NOTICED with great interest the NWTA’s apparent recent trend toward
“downsizing.” At the last few events I have attended, particularly Cantigny, a majority of the camps had very little in the way of extra furniture, “plunder” or other stuff in their camps during public hours. This trend is very encouraging as it makes the NWTA encampment look much more military and more authentic.
The NWTA has typically justified its excess “baggage” by claiming to be showing daily life in a “long-term”military encampment. However, in most long-term situations the soldiers would stay in houses or barracks (when available), or they would build huts.1 Several period illustrations showing long-term, 18th-century military encampments exist in the sketches of Paul Sandby and a few others. One of Sandby’s sketches, done in England during the Gordon Riots (ca. 1780), shows a large encampment of local militia. In this view (and several others ca. 1740s), camp furniture, personal effects and “plunder” are virtually non-existent.2
However, there are several period illustrations of military camps that DO show a certain degree of “stuff” laying around in a military camp. Two of the more common ones are View of an Encampment and Encampment of Loyalists. In the former, there are a few boxes and trunks being used as makeshift furniture and a lot of laundry hanging out to dry over and between the tents.3 The latter shows some of these same details (plus a lot of oars). There are no chairs, tables, dry sinks, jugs, oversized trunks or even lantern hooks visible in either of these illustrations.
There is a good reason for this apparent lack of furniture and other conveniences–both armies were in constant need of horses and wagons to haul their baggage. There weren’t enough wagons to haul the needed supplies, let alone furnishings or other personal items. On 7th September, 1777 Washington noted to his brigades that:
“…the Enemy have disencumbered themselves of all their baggage even their Tents, reserving only, their blankets & such part of their clothing as is absolutely necessary–This Indicates a speedy & rapid movement & points out the necessity of following the example & ridding ourselves of every thing we can possibly dispense with.”4
A few days later, on 13th September, 1777, General George Weedon issued more specific orders to his brigade, noting that:
“From the motions of the Enemy it appearing to his Excell.y [George Washington] that our Service will for some time continue to be full as active as that we have lately experienc’d, he has, from that noble Spirit which actuates his every movement & from which He wishes to share in every hardship to which his Army is expos’d Divests himself & family of every Species of Baggage, save his Blankets, The Brig.r therefore requests, that though the baggage of the Brigade has now join’d it, the Officers will not think of carrying any more Cloathing then [sic] they have hitherto had with them, as he is Determin’d to follow the Laudable example set by his Excell.y.”5
This entry suggests that General Washington himself had gotten rid of much of
his baggage to set an example to his officers and men.
As for plundering–even though it was a capital offence in both armies there was a lot of it going on. Published diaries and orderly books are full of orders against the practice. General Weedon, for example, admonishes the troops for stealing food and fences:
“Notwithstanding the repeated orders against plundering & burning fences, that abominable practice is still continued to the Shame & disgrace of the brigade–Complaints are made that Corn fields are pillaged without restraint, the fence rails burn’d up & many other outrages committed by the soldiery, to prevent which in the future, the Officers are once more requested to attend particularly to the behaviour of their men & to punish such as they see with green corn unless they can make it appear they bought it & any fence rails they may see burning, the Mess to which the fire belongs is to be made answerable.”6
There are also many transcripts of British Courts martial for stealing, but most
involve food, fuel or smaller personal items like handkerchiefs, clothing and watches.7
Punishment for plundering was often severe, so even though a certain amount of plunder
may have been present in the military camps, it was certainly not left out on display
officers might discover it! For those who were unlucky enough to be caught:
“Archer Henley a Private of Col.o Bland’s Reg.t charged with Plundering Wm Laurence was found guilty, and sentenced to run the gauntlet through a detachment of 50 of the Brigade of horse.”8
This fellow got off lucky, as many soldiers from both sides were severely whipped
or even executed for plundering.
Historically speaking, the soldiers of the day would not have had any more with them than they could physically carry on their backs or in their hands. The tents were often
transported on the baggage wagons, but several military treatises of the period indicate that each mess was to divide up and carry everything–even their kettles and tent poles. Cuthbertson, for example, states:
“In the field, five men being the usual proportion for each Tent, as many as possible should be always kept complete with that number, both on account of messing, and for the greater ease to the men, in carrying the Tent-poles and Camp-equipage, on a march, which they are obliged to do: …” 9
There are several modern advantages to packing light and keeping a “clean” camp
as well. First of all, and perhaps most significantly, it’s a LOT less hassle to
load up the car when heading out for an encampment weekend (besides, the less you
pack, the less there is to forget). The same holds true for the arrival in camp;
set-up takes no time at all, and after a long, tiring weekend of re-enacting out
in the hot sun and fresh air having less to pack up makes for a much faster tear-down
so you get home sooner! Having fewer loose items in camp also makes it a lot easier
to safely drop the ropeline around your camp for conducting camp tours.10 Though
many folks are nervous about this practice, I can’t think of a better way of getting
new people involved in the hobby than to offer them an “insider’s look” at 18th-century
If you’re not already packing lighter, why not give it a try? You’ll be surprised how little “stuff” you really need for a comfortable weekend. I theory you should be able to carry everything into camp on your person in one load, with perhaps a second load for the tent or cooler. A family would have a little easier time of packing-in than an individual, as the load can be shared (as it was in the period) among several people.11
For those that have already discovered the joys of packing light–
Keep up the good work!
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