Museum Spotlight: “Relics of Barbarism”: The Army’s Original Enlisted Bunks

By Ephriam D. Dickson III, National Museum of the United States Army Project Office

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Interior view of the barracks at Fort Larned, Kan., reconstructed by the National Park Service as it might have appeared in the 1860s.

Every Soldier today owes a small debt of gratitude to the efforts of Capt. John S. Billings, an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army’s Medical Department. During the 1870s, Capt. Billings successfully campaigned for better living conditions in all enlisted barracks, in particular arguing against the two-tier double bunks – these “relics of barbarism” as he called them – that provided the standard sleeping accommodations for most Soldiers. A rare example of one of these original double bunks is preserved today in the Army’s historical collection at the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

During the first decades after the Army’s establishment, enlisted Soldiers were provided with straw and a blanket. Cloth bedsacks for a simple mattress were added by 1817, while bunks were first codified into Army regulations in 1821. During this period, Soldiers slept together in pairs as “bunkies,” sharing a double bedsack and their wool blankets.

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Surgeon John S. Billings, as a major. Courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine.

As early as 1844, the Secretary of War called for the replacement of these double bunks with single bedsteads made of iron, arguing that this “would add to the comfort, health, and cleanliness of the Soldier.” But the Army’s restricted funding resulted in only a few being purchased over the next decade. The wood bunks remained the standard in nearly all Army barracks until after the Civil War.

Discovered at Fort Mifflin, Pa., this example of a double bunk was typical of what most Soldiers would have used during the mid-nineteenth century. It has a simple four-post design, with sideboards connected by a mortise and tenon joint. Boards would have run the length of the bed to hold a double bedsack on each tier. Measuring 5 feet 10 inches in length and just 4 feet in width, each level, or “crib” as it was called, was intended to accommodate two Soldiers positioned with their head next to the feet of the bunkmate. Some bunks were constructed three tiers high and a few are known to have been wide enough to accommodate three men on each level.

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Two-tier double bunk from Fort Mifflin, Pa., circa. 1860. The bunk was designed to be easily disassembled for cleaning every Saturday, as directed by Army regulations. Photo by Pablo Jimenez, CMH Museum Support Center.

In 1870, Capt. Billings compiled a detailed study of living conditions at Army posts across the country. Focusing on hygiene, he successfully argued that traditional wood bunks promoted overcrowding and affected Soldiers’ health and readiness. Congress soon funded a new design for single iron bunks for all enlisted Soldiers. By 1875 when Capt. Billings published a follow-up report, he proudly wrote, “I am very glad to say that the double and two-story wooden bunks are now very nearly abolished.” In the decade that followed, sheets and pillows were also added to the authorized allowance and straw-filled bedsacks were soon replaced by spring mattresses.

This change in design of the Army bunk reflects the larger trend occurring within the service to improve the overall quality of the enlisted experience. The addition of furniture, lighting, and running water, along with recreational amenities such as pool tables and reading rooms, fundamentally changed the enlisted life in the barracks. This was part of a larger effort to attract a better quality recruit and to retain qualified personnel, an important trend in the continued professionalization of the U.S. Army.