Did the Civil War popularize the Adirondack lean-to?

Luck seems to have played its part in Murray’s success. Soldiers’ letters and diaries, official reports and many thousands of images preserved in the Library of Congress show surprising similarities between Civil War encampments and camping out in the Adirondacks. Wartime experiences, both direct and vicarious, may have prepared the ground, creating an appetite for campground camaraderie, for sleeping under the stars and cooking over open fires. As memories of the harshness of war began to fade and nostalgia took their place, what came to be called “the Murray Rush” exploded.

Winslow Homer, one of the greatest 19th-century American artists, chronicled both the Civil War and the Adirondack experience. On assignment with Harper’s Weekly, Homer followed the 61st New York Volunteers during the spring of 1862 as the unit participated in the Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. Facing stubborn resistance at Yorktown, the campaign stalled for two months, then collapsed. In his time with the 61st, Homer witnessed few battles; his notebooks and paintings from the period almost exclusively depict troops in camp.

In Front of Yorktown, a painting in the Yale University Art Gallery, shows four soldiers of the 61st Volunteers sitting on logs around a campfire, while two of their fellows lie inside what appears to be an Adirondack-style lean-to. If the regiment had been recruited from Essex or Franklin Counties, we could assume that the men had simply brought their campcraft with them, but the 61st enlistment rolls (available online) reveal that the unit was made up of volunteers from New York City with a single company recruited in Albany and another made up of undergrads from what is now Colgate University. When Homer visited, this lean-to was undoubtedly sheltering city men with no prior wilderness experience.

With a simple change of costume, Winslow Homer’s painting could be transformed into a typical 19th-century Adirondack scene. The improvised lean-tos are much the same in each picture—the fire in the foreground, even the rifles leaning against the shelter.

Historians rightly portray the Civil War as a brutal national bloodbath noble in its outcomes and precociously modern in its conduct. But despite its national significance and its many modern characteristics, the Civil War unfolded at a slow pace and with a regular winter suspension of fighting that George Washington or even Julius Caesar would have found familiar. Most Civil War soldiers had only fleeting contact with the enemy. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, more often in action than most, recalled late in life how he had shocked his friends back home in 1862 when he described the war as “an organized bore.”

Experts calculate that Civil War soldiers spent well over 90 percent of their two- or three-year enlistments waiting around in camps. Camp was where most of the boredom happened; where it was confronted, and where with luck and imagination it might be overcome. There were daily duties and frequent drills intended, as the Army manual shows, to counteract inactivity. There were games of skill and chance, clever or stupid pranks, frequent band concerts, impromptu theatricals, choral sings and constant camaraderie. This pattern of life undoubtedly produced in many soldiers what writer A. J. Leibling, speaking of his World War II experience, called “a deplorable nostalgia.” In his diary, Rice C. Bull, a sergeant in the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, described a confused rush of feeling as camp broke for the last time in the spring of 1865:

“Surely we all rejoiced that the end had come, that victory was ours and that home was near. But there was after all a sadness deep down in our hearts in this parting hour. We boys had been together for three years; we had formed close friendships; we had slept under the same blanket; we had faced the enemy shoulder to shoulder … thus a comradeship had grown that only such conditions could form.”

Given the strong feelings many soldiers harbored for their shared wartime experience, it is little wonder that Murray’s celebration of camping out in the Adirondacks struck such a chord. Murray himself had not served in the war; his passion for camping, hunting and fishing grew from his rural childhood. He may never have realized that in his lectures and books he was marketing a recreational version of something that many in his audience had come to know during their Civil War service.

Much of the adventure Murray celebrated centered around the lean-tos and other temporary shelters that guides erected for their parties. According to regulations, Union Army camps were to be laid out to cookie-cutter standards. Units were equipped with three types of tents: round tipi-like canvas structures called Sibley tents, rectangular tents with sloping roofs and low side walls, and pup tents. The layout of camps was also prescribed in the manuals. Parallel lines of tents were fronted by a perpendicular row of officer housing. Wagon lots and picket lines for horses and mules were set to the side; cook-tents, hospital and sanitary structures stood in the distance.

But tent cities of this standard type were far from universal. Overnight camps, called bivouacs, were considerably less organized. On hilly, wooded or broken terrain, even long-term camps became irregular in outline. And wherever soldiers spent months instead of days in camp, especially in winter, shelters were enhanced with all kinds of improvements. This gave to many shelters, in the words of a Connecticut volunteer, “an amount of comfort wholly inconceivable to those who know nothing of the numerous contrivances a soldier’s ingenuity can suggest.” The many sketches and photographs of encampments in the Library of Congress collections show that even in well-ordered tent camps, there were recurrent innovations that added to soldiers’ comforts and gave each camp an individual character.

In the early days of his enlistment, then–Private Bull was assigned to sentry duty at an outpost near Aquia Creek, in Virginia.

“At the post quite a large shed had been built, using fence rails. On top of the roof were pine boughs, which kept out some of the wind and rain in bad weather. The front of the shed was open so a large fire built outside made the shed warm and comfortable. The officer in charge … told me to go to the shed, spread out my blanket and lie down where it was warm. I was weak and sick, but the fire made it warm and comfortable. I had a real rest. I was surprised to find that ten inches of snow had fallen.”

Not every soldier would have known the comfort and security this makeshift structure offered Private Bull. Still, for many veterans, Adirondack shelters may have captured the physical sensation of being in wartime camps. For women and those who had missed out on Civil War camp life, Murray’s Adirondacks offered a chance to share in some of what the veterans in their family had known firsthand.

Murray was indeed lucky that the wartime experiences his audience shared predisposed them to embrace the outdoor life that he cherished himself for very different reasons. Today we continue to share in Murray’s luck and so does the Adirondacks. In 1864, Man and Nature, a groundbreaking book by Vermonter George Perkins Marsh, argued that deforestation had caused the decline of the Roman Empire, and that unchecked destruction of America’s great forests threatened its nascent empire as well. The Murray Rush made the Adirondacks known and loved by ordinary men and women whose will to preserve the forest gave substance and political clout to Marsh’s erudite theory. Through a peculiar chain of circumstances, one deep and strong root of American environmentalism began in the pine-bough shelters and roaring campfires of our tragic Civil War.


James H. S. McGregor is professor of comparative literature emeritus at the University of Georgia. He is the author of 
Back to the Garden (Yale University Press), Venice from the Ground Up and Rome from the Ground Up (Harvard University Press).


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