Housing, Military

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Housing, Military. The U.S. Constitution specifically prohibited the European practice of quartering soldiers in private homes. The Quartermaster Corps, founded June 1775, was responsible for the construction of training cantonments and more permanent structured camps. During the Revolutionary War, tents were issued to soldiers in the campaign season, providing shelter for up to six men. Lack of textiles caused tent shortages—a trend that would continue through American history. For winter quarters, lumber, brick, or stone and related supplies were issued for more substantial structures.

In the War of 1812, the Quartermaster Corps again struggled to provide sufficient quantities of tentage. Afterwards, the War Department decreed that the Army Corps of Engineers would be responsible for constructing barracks; the Quartermaster Corps would focus primarily on field military housing. The role of the Engineers Corps eventually evolved into the construction of more permanent military housing for soldiers and their families.

During the years that preceded the Mexican War of 1846–48, the Quartermaster Corps had difficulty obtaining proper materials for tents. Cotton canvas was procured in lieu of imported hemp canvas, which was more suitable for the hardships of extended military campaigning. Soldiers in the field were dissatisfied with the cotton tents issued to them—when they could get them. Common complaints ranged from tents tearing too easily to inadequate protection against rain.

In the American Civil War, textile shortages again hampered the Quartermaster Department's efforts to procure tentage. The supply of tents was exhausted at the Philadelphia depot as early as 1861. With the exception of field hospitals, large tents were practically nonexistent. To protect troops in the field, the Quartermaster Department obtained tents manufactured on the pattern of the French d’Abri tent; thus the shelter‐half, so familiar to soldiers in the Civil War, was introduced. Field soldiers of this period affectionately referred to their new shelter as a “pup” tent. The term remains a part of military jargon to this day, along with the standard issue shelter‐half tent.

During the Indian campaigns, scattered frontier posts were erected mostly with troop labor, using lumber from nearby forests or transporting it to the Great Plains. The Spanish‐American War of 1898, and burgeoning overseas territories, put further strain on the Quartermaster Department's resources to erect increasing numbers of barracks, hospitals, and post accommodations.

In World War I, larger canvas tents were used to house American Expeditionary Force members in field hospitals. American Red Cross recreation tents in rear areas provided a respite from the harsh trench warfare. The Corps of Engineers built wooden structured training facilities, then called cantonments, throughout the United States.

The interwar period featured a retrenchment in housing construction as the military was reduced in size. During the Great Depression, the army's housing program was supplemented by the Works Progress Administration. With the defense mobilization beginning in 1940, responsibility for military housing was formally transferred to the Corps of Engineers which constructed bases in the United States and abroad. The Quartermaster Corps continued to retain responsibility for tentage. Troops in the field during World War II, again suffered from tent shortages as the textile industry was hardpressed to keep up with demand.

During the Korean War and the Vietnam War, a half‐moon‐shaped structure, constructed with a thin layer of corrugated steel or aluminum—known as the Quonset hut—dotted the landscape. These semipermanent structures offered adequate protection from the elements, and were relatively easy to build and tear down quickly. Soldiers “in the bush” still shared the shelter‐half, as their predecessors had done since the Civil War. The Corps of Engineers built military housing in base camps.

Base family housing construction during the Cold War era increased in the United States and in Western Europe—where large numbers of uniformed service members were stationed. The Army Corps of Engineers built housing (as well as airfields) for the air force after 1947. The U.S. Navy began to provide increased amounts of shore‐based housing for sailors and Marines in the 1950s and thereafter.

When the All‐Volunteer Force was instigated in the 1970s, apartment‐style quarters began to replace the traditional “open bay”–type barracks, which had wide‐open rooms that typically housed up to 100 men on one level, along with a common‐use latrine. Many of the newer barracks featured two‐person rooms equipped with a private bathroom.

In Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War (1991), elaborate portable shelters provided some fortunate service members with a self‐enclosed home that not only housed them but also met their messing, laundry, and bath needs—all under a central air‐conditioned/heated canvas unit. However, as in the past, not enough of these facilities were available to match mission needs. Soldiers in the front lines in the 1990s still shared the warmth of the familiar “pup” tent as soldiers had done long before them.
[See also Bases, Military: Development of; Bases, Military: Life on; Families, Military.]


James A. Huston , The Sinews of War: Army Logistics—1775–1953, 1966.
Erna Risch , Quartermaster Support of the Army—1775–1939, 1989.

Ralph Nichols

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