part V, “`We built up housan of branchis and leavs ...’: Continental Army Brush Shelters, 1775-1777”
A. "This night we lay out without shelter ...”: Overview of American Soldiers' Campaign Lodging
B. "We maid us some Bush huts ...": Brush Shelters, 1775 and 1776.
C. "Huts of sticks & leaves": Washington's Army in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, 1777.
"At this place we built an agreeable Bush house ..."
American Brush Huts from Canada to South Carolina
Continental troops had a number of names for the brush dwellings they built; many terms were variations on the same theme, some indicate the different building materials used. Here is an extensive sampling: "brush Hutt," "bush housen," "bush tent," "Pine huts," "hemlock bowhouses," "shelter ... [of] boughs of trees," "hut made of bows," "huts ... [of] dry bushes," "housan of branchis & leavs," "temporary huts covered with leaves," "Huts of sticks & leaves," "huts [of] brush and leaves," "bush hut ... Covered ... with Bark," "housen ... of the Barkes of the Treas," "booth" (or "buth"), and "bowers" (or "bowries"). (Huts constructed with boards, planks, corn shocks, and/or straw, generally called sheds, were discussed in part II of this series, section titled, "'The troops hutted with Rails and Indian Corn Stocks ...': Sheds, Planked Huts, and Straw Tents, 1775–1777.")
Before proceeding let us address the problem of terminology: hut could mean either "a soldier's lodge in the field" or a rude but more substantial log construct for winter housing; bowrie or bower usually meant a flat–topped sun shade, but in some instances seems to have referred to a brush lean–to possibly used for both shade and overnight lodging (Gen. George Washington added to the confusion when he wrote of his troops living in bowers in summer 1780, though the men themselves told of building brush huts), and wigwam, an appellation popular with British troops, conveniently though ambiguously covered a multitude of makeshift structures under its umbrella.6
Besides "bower" only one other name, booth, stands out. A number of accounts indicate that booth was often just another generic name for a hut made of "branchis & leavs," but a few tantalizing references suggest the name may also have meant a specific form of brush shelter. Suffice it to say that construction details are not easy to pin down. The Oxford English Dictionary variously and vaguely defines a booth as a "temporary dwelling covered with boughs of trees or other slight materials," a "temporary structure covered with canvas or the like," or "A covered stall at a market; a tent at a fair ..."; not much help there. Additionally, an attempt to tie the term booth to a specific region shows that of the eleven soldiers who used it in their writings, five were from New England, and five from the Middle states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware), and one from Virginia; discounting the two men from New Hampshire and Virginia, who used "booth" to describe flat–topped shades (i.e., bowers) we are still left with four soldiers from New England and five from the middle states. Again, nothing definitive.7
Be that as it may, there were two New Englanders who, within brief periods, used several different appellations for brush structures, thus intimating the booths they built had some distinguishing feature setting them apart from other brush huts. Additional booth references can be found in the ensuing chronological narrative, but the two aforementioned New England accounts will be reiterated here.
Rhode Islander Jeremiah Greenman mentioned booths on three occasions in November and December 1777, the only times he used the term "buth" in his eight–year–long diary. Greenman's description of the weather as being "very cold" weather indicates these structures were some form of brush hut rather than shades; only brush huts would provide some small measure of insulation from the cold, mostly by serving as a crude windbreak for the occupants. At Whitemarsh Greenman first wrote of building "housan of branchis & leavs"; later, when British forces threatened, his regiment was sent out of the lines (from December 1st to the 10th) where the men built "buths." During the same period, on 8 December, Connecticut surgeon Albigence Waldo wrote of the men laying in "open huts," which suggests that Greenman's booths may also have been open–faced structures. Additionally, within two weeks Greenman had used two different names for the structures he and his comrades built in New Jersey and at the Whitemarsh camp. Given the context, Greenman's "buths" were likely hastily constructed and less substantial than the "housan of branchis and leavs" built behind the Whitemarsh fortifications.8
Another intriguing account comes from Massachusetts Lt. Ebenezer Wild, who served with Vose's Light Infantry under the Marquis de Lafayette in 1781. From late June through the beginning of September Lieutenant Wild made note of three types of soldier–built makeshift shelters: "bush huts", "bowries," and booths. He wrote of erecting "bowries" for shelter from the sun, and on one occasion mentioned building "bush huts (the weather being exceeding warm)"; this last is an indication that brush huts were cooler than sleeping in tents and were sometimes used as shades.9
Wild mentioned building booths on only one occasion, near Williamsburg, Virginia:
[5 September 1781] Built booths and lay still all day.The enemy have retired into York ...
[6 September] At 3 o'clk A.M. we paraded & marched about 4 miles, and halted in a field ... where we continued about two hours; then paraded and marched back to our booths. After halting about three hours ... we marched to Williamsburg ...10
In both instances he spent the daytime hours at the booths, as well as overnight on the evening of the 5th. Given the information above it seems likely "booths" were merely a lean–to sufficient for both shade and overnight lodging, but until further corroboration is found this remains only conjecture.
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As has been seen in a previous installment, the British Army made deliberate, widespread use of wigwams several times during the war, viz., the June to December 1777 operations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the 1778 Monmouth campaign, and Lord Cornwallis's 1780–81 operations in North Carolina and Virginia. Smaller British detachments also built brush wigwams and bowers, and sheds of plank, sod, and straw on other occasions throughout the war, taking their use as a matter of course.
Rudely built brush shelters were used by Continental soldiers from the war's onset, but in general it was unusual for campaigning American troops to go for as long as a month without tents. While it is true that various types of makeshift shelters, including brush huts, booths and bowers, were used in the absence of tentage, local houses, meeting houses, or barns, the reliance upon soldier–built structures was usually only the matter of a few days to a week or two, only until the heavy baggage was able to rejoin the army. And while British commanders purposely divested their forces of tents, relying on brush constructs to shelter their men, only occasionally did American generals follow suit. Additionally, Continental soldiers slept "with no other covering than the canopy of heaven" more often than they resorted to brush huts. In the next section of this monograph we will examine soldiers' accounts of brush huts throughout the war. At the same time their narratives also tell of other shelter types used, serving to place brush huts within a larger context and to give some insights as to how often, where, and why they were built. Several other questions beg asking; where did these citizen–soldiers come up with the idea of building makeshift shelters when no other covering was at hand? Were they familiar with them from peacetime travel or wilderness outings? Was their use handed down by veterans of the French and Indian War, or were they based on commonly–known shelters for the poor, or farmhands and other itinerant workers? While no clearcut answer is at hand, or perhaps even possible, we do know brush huts, "housan," and booths occasionally served the troops to good purpose.11
"We maid us some Bush huts ...": Brush Shelters, 1775 and 1776. In the first two years of the war brush shelters were used only intermittently and on a small scale. In his "account of A journey from Ticonderoga to Canada" in 1775 Sgt. Bayze Wells, 4th Connecticut Regiment, wrote of travelling through the wilderness with several other men on the way to Chamblee, Canada. On 28 July 1775 he noted, "travild till Night made A hut and tarr[ie]d all Night it Raind allmost all Night." In late August Wells was sent from Fort Ticonderoga to take provisions north to the Onion River, arriving at his destination on September 2d: "at Bakers harbor about Sun Set built A fire and Made A bush tent." While it is possible some of General Benedict Arnold's soldiers built brush shelters on their march through the Maine wilderness to Quebec, only Jeremiah Greenman's diary was examined for this treatise. Greenman tells of encamping a number of times, likely in tents since the troops carried them in their bateaux; when most of these watercraft were abandoned on 27 October some of the men commenced "cuting up the tents for to make bags" to carry food. Prior to that occurrence it is possible some of Arnold's troops slept under their bateaux, too.12
Let us look now look at two 1776 accounts by soldiers serving in the Lake Champlain region. Lt. Col. Israel Shreve led a portion of the 2d New Jersey Regiment northward to join the unit's advance companies already at Quebec. He wrote his wife from Fort Ticonderoga on 19 April, "Just arived at this place ... Last night I with our three Companies, Capt. Willis & [Josiah] Harmer [1st Pennsylvania Battalion] Slept in the woods at the foot of a mountain where there was no appearance of human trace, we made Large fires Lop[p]ed Bushes to keep of[f] the Due, and Slept very well / this night Got in a Good house ..." Shreve's shelter must have been crude indeed, but the constructs described by Massachusetts soldier Jehiel Stewart in autumn 1776 were likely more substantial. After marching with his regiment to Ticonderoga, Stewart went north with a reconnaisance party; he eventually joined Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold's Lake Champlain fleet, later participating in the Battle of Valcour Island. On 25 September Stewart wrote "This Day Capt Ferguson went [as] head of the four Days Skoutin we had about 123 in the party and we Camped by a little brook and mad[e] Some hemlock bowhouses [i.e., huts made of hemlock boughs] and Camped Down." Stewart and his comrades went aboard one of Arnold's row gallies on 2 October. Four days later he noted, "we went a Shoare on a Island all the Skouting party and we maid us some Bush huts and Camped Down that night." They returned to the vessel the following day; Stewart's narrative contained no other references to brush huts.13
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