The Sibley Tent

In one of those ironies of the Civil War, thousands of Union soldiers including Oliver Case were much more comfortable in their camps thanks to an invention by a Confederate general.

Oliver’s letter of May 8, 1862 includes this paragraph:

We received our new Sibley tents yesterday and are much pleased with them. They are perfectly round with a center pole about twelve feet high and a ventilator at the top. The diameter of the tents at the bottom is about twelve feet and they accommodate only twelve.

As the soldiers of Burnside’s Expedition including the 8th Connecticut moved into more permanent camp operations near Newbern, North Carolina, they were excited over receiving new Sibley tents for lodging. These tents offered numerous advantages for camp life including, as mentioned by Oliver, lowering the ratio of soldiers per tent.

Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley inventor of the Sibley tent

A former U.S. Army officer and Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley invented the Sibley tent in the 1850s obtaining a patent in 1856. While other conical-style tents existed during the Civil War, Sibley’s design was the first to use a central pole support system that was telescopic with a tripod at the base. This design feature allowed for building a fire-pit inside the tripod that could be used for both cooking and as a heat source. Additionally, as Oliver states in his letter, the tent was equipped with a ventilator at the top providing an escape for the smoke and making it more comfortable for the soldiers. Another innovative feature of the tent was that it did not require the use of guide ropes relying on 24 pegs around its base.

Interestingly, Henry Sibley was obviously a better inventor than military commander. In operations in the New Mexico and Arizona area, Sibley struggled to find success in battle and would eventually be reassigned to serve out the balance of the war in minor positions. Still worse, Sibley would never know financial success from his tent and other associated inventions dying penniless in Fredericksburg, VA in 1886.

The 1856 patent drawing for the Sibley tent

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