Historic Structure Report
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Chapter II:

Some of what are called military posts,
are mere collection of huts
made of logs, adobes, or mere holes in the ground,
and are about as much forts
as prairie dog villages might be called forts.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Army Construction. Although the term "military" connotes order and discipline, Army structures during the nineteenth century were for the most part haphazard affairs particularly on the western frontier. Despite various Army regulations that governed building construction and even standard plans that appeared in the final quarter of the century, frontier army construction was often rag-tag at best. As one historian pointed out, the only thing uniform about the army in the nineteenth century was its uniform. [1] A brief look at the U.S. Army during this time period aids in understanding its architecture on the western frontier and at Fort Union.

During the 1850s, four-fifths of the U.S. Army was stationed west of the Mississippi. [2] Because of constantly shifting priorities and the relatively transitory nature of the military in the west, western posts were of simple but effective construction. The Army, because of its nature, had temporary and permanent structures. During the early nineteenth century the army most often was housed in temporary barracks of various materials—of wood, but sometimes even stone, brick, or adobe. Dugouts or trenches with log construction above grade or puncheons embedded in the earth were common types of construction. Around the period of the Civil War hewn horizontal log construction and timber frame construction were common. Portable sawmills existed by the 1820s, but they became especially common during the 1850s, so balloon frame construction [3] appeared as a typical building technique at army posts as it had in the private sector—contingent of course on the availability of sawn lumber. On the western frontier, a more mobile army had tents for the summer and tools and limited (usually onsite) materials to build "winter quarters" that might be occupied for many years.

Tents. Many men were housed in tents—the Sibley tent, the wedge tent, and the hospital or wall tent, and the dog (pup) or shelter tent. The creation of the Sibley tent was credited to Henry Sibley who served at Fort Union and left Union forces prior to the Civil War when he led the unsuccessful assault on New Mexico by Texas troops in 1862. [4] The Sibley tent was 12 feet high with a diameter of 18 feet. It was supported by one pole that rested on an iron tripod. The pole was the radius of the tent circle. A hole in the top of the tent at its center was for ventilation or a stovepipe. A cone-shaped stove sat in the middle of the tent. The tents were supposed to hold 12 men. [5] Although they were cumbersome, they remained available in the post-war era, and they were frequently in use on the frontier.

The wedge tent was a simple canvas tent that stretched over a horizontal bar about 6 feet tall. Two upright posts, also about 6 feet long, supported the bar. Usually four men were assigned to one of these tents, but most often six would occupy one. The troops often found ways to improve on their assigned piece of canvas. Frequently the men would make a more comfortable shelter by building a small stockade wall of vertical or horizontal logs and placing the canvas tent on top of the logs for a roof. [6] The log portions of this type of structure might often have walls of two to five feet in height. Sometimes the interiors were excavated so that they would be warmer in cold climates. The troops most often filled in the spaces between the logs with mud, and often had to replace the chinking after severe storms. Chimneys most often appeared at a gable end, but sometimes the soldiers built the chimneys in the middle. Fireplaces were built of available materials (brick, stone, or wood lined with mud). The soldiers did not consider a shelter like this complete until it had a door that closed and a sign over the door. [7]

The hospital or wall tent had four upright sides with an entrance at the gable end. They were made in various sizes. Before the Civil War, the tents were 24 feet by 14-1/2 feet and 11-1/2 feet high. In 1860 the size was reduced to 14 feet by 14-1/2 feet, and 11 feet high. At the edges, the walls were 4-1/2 feet and a fly of 21-1/2 feet by 14 feet could be attached to the tent. The larger ones were used for hospitals and could hold from six to 20 patients double-loaded along the long sides of the tent. The smaller ones were used to house commissioned officers. [8] Sometimes the occupants would cut through the gable end seam and join two or more tents together, as Mrs. Katherine Bowen did at Fort Union.

Standardized Plans. The Army attempted to improve more permanent quarters in 1860 when it officially adopted a series of comprehensive building plans, materials lists, and regulations for the construction of barracks, hospitals, officers' quarters, storehouses, and other buildings. Prepared under the direction of Lieutenant Don Carlos Buell, the plans for some reason went undistributed, and even ten years later when an officer of the Surgeon General tried to find out why the plans never were distributed, he could find no explanation other than the onset of the Civil War.

By 1864, the Quartermaster Department was issuing standardized plans for buildings and their contents. Although the information was supposed to culminate in a handbook, it never was published as a single manual. Also, an order issued on April 29, 1865 stated that construction on all army buildings would cease unless the structure were authorized on special report or unless the building received immediate approval by telegraph.

Further complicating the issue of building construction was the authorization process. Since 1859, any permanent building required a separate authorization and appropriation for its construction. In 1872, Congress allowed the War Department more freedom by letting it build any structure up to $20,000 without separate legislative action. But in 1873, all construction monies dried up, so construction of new buildings and repair of old ones at Army posts virtually stopped.

Another big impact on the architecture of the army was the contribution from the Medical Department after the Civil War. During and shortly after the Civil War, the Army had some of the best physicians and surgeons in the country. These Army doctors began monitoring the way the army housed its men.

In 1870 the surgeon general assigned assistant surgeon John S. Billings to study conditions at military posts from the medical standpoint. Among the studies he produced in the next few years were his "Report on Barracks and Hospitals with Descriptions of Military Posts" (1870) and his "Report on Hygiene of the United States Army with Descriptions of Military Posts" (1875). He compiled information gathered by post surgeons at each military post and made a number of conclusions about building materials, square footage of plans, and building conditions. He concluded that army buildings, especially hospitals and prisons, needed additional air and light. Billings recommended other ways to vent rooms. He stated that the Army had no acceptable living conditions anywhere, and that the regulations did not even require proper conditions for health and sanitation. The Billings report also recommended the construction of a separate bathhouse for each post—separate from the other buildings. The report also criticized the lack of standard plans.

To ameliorate the situation, the Quartermaster drew up and distributed standard plans for temporary barrack and quarters in the west. It abolished the standard double bunks, and began introducing footlockers, chairs and pillows into barracks. This allowed the men both more comfort and privacy in addition to improving sanitary conditions.

After the Civil War, there was a shortage of money, so it took a while to get construction going again in the Army. Even when the money became available, the buildings were not constructed with any kind of quality assurances, so they varied from post to post despite the availability of standard plans. The appropriations for construction and repairs were inconsistent, so building programs might get underway only to be halted after partial completion. In general, however, the troops were less crowded than they had been prior to the war. Also, sanitary conditions improved when the army began using disinfectants.

The size of the army decreased during the 1870s just as conditions in the army were improving. As the overcrowding problems passed, the army had reached a point where it was distributing new standards for buildings at temporary as well as "permanent" army posts. [9] In 1877, the secretary of war ordered the establishment of separate reading rooms, libraries, and schools at temporary posts. [10] Like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the army sought to provide diversions for the troops like chapels, schools, reading rooms, libraries, bowling allies, and billiard tables.

Fort Union. Just as the army concentrated on food and forage subsistence in its early years in the west, it looked toward the land for the natural resources to build. After the fort had been at its first location for a few years, it was obvious that it would be there for some time to come. New, more permanent construction was warranted, and the army assessed native materials in the area that could be used for construction. The assistant quartermaster of Fort Union reported that white sandstone, clay for bricks and adobes, and pine in the mountains supplied sufficient building materials for the fort. The report also stated that all other building materials (glass, hardware, etc.) would have to be shipped from the east. [11]

Fort Union's architecture possessed those characteristics of an overall order, use of available materials, incorporation of local architectural traditions. The resourcefulness of the troops and other fort occupants under the constraints that they had for housing themselves was phenomenal. By interpreting the army regulations and orders, studying what worked for local people, the architecture of Fort Union took shape.

Summary. The army, then, had traditions of architecture that were based on use of available materials—some of which were rationed out and some of which the soldiers and their families improvised upon using available materials to survive. Despite its inflexibility in certain matters, the army did tend to bend to a few local building traditions, such as the stone buildings at Fort Davis, Texas, the balloon frame buildings at Benecia Arsenal, and the adobe buildings at Forts Union, Davis, Lancaster, Quitman, and Miller. Conditions slowly improved after the Civil War when the Surgeon General's office and the Quartermaster's office both worked on housing troops. The Surgeon General's office concentrated on sanitary conditions including sunlight and ventilation in buildings—topics that had direct impacts on architecture. The Ordnance Department had regulations that guided the storage of materials that impacted the architecture of powder magazines and storage facilities. The Quartermaster's office concentrated on producing acceptable housing plans that had the kind of architectural uniformity for which the Army became famous.

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2006