Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Army Surgeon's Tent

     People often ask me what the most unique artifact in the museum is.  I have to admit that it is difficult to name just one item!  One that always makes it on my list seems to surprise people at first though.  It’s a tent.  A tent just doesn’t seem very unique…. until you learn its story.

This wall tent is the only known surviving example of a Civil War Surgeon’s tent. It is made of army duck and measures 13 ft. high, 9 ft. wide, and 13 ft. long.

     Not only is this the only known Civil War surgeon's tent, it is identified to the specific surgeon!  The tent in the photo above belonged to Surgeon John Wiley of the 6th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.  The 6th took part in many major battles including the Peninsula Campaign, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  More information on the 6th Regiment can be found here.

Here's a photo of Dr. Wiley in his uniform.

     Surgeon Wiley used this tent from 1862 to 1864.  After his discharge, he took it home with him to Cape May, NJ, where it stayed in his family for many years.  It was acquired by a collector in 1988.  After he had displayed it at various Civil War events, he loaned it and other artifacts of Wiley’s to the NMCWM.  They are currently on display in the Camp Life gallery.

The additional artifacts which belonged to Surgeon Wiley were placed in a separate display. Seen here are a mahogany writing box containing pens, a pen case, and an ink well; images of Surgeon Wiley in his uniform, and of his wife and daughter; a Geo. Tiemann & Co. leather pocket surgical kit, a book titled Handbook of Surgical Operations which is signed by Wiley; and my favorite, a tintype of Surgeon Wiley’s horse. I imagine it must have been an exceptional horse to have its own picture!

     Displaying an artifact of this size can be a bit of a challenge.  The tent is displayed in one of the museum’s immersion exhibits, so it is not enclosed in a display case.  Instead, it is placed behind physical barriers to keep visitors more than an arm’s length away from it.  Further protection is provided by a motion sensor, a video camera, and the museum’s alarm system.   The tent is also supported on a wooden frame covered in unbleached muslin cloth, which helps to distribute the weight of the tent more evenly.  Of course, the gallery is climate controlled, the light levels are controlled, and I monitor carefully for other potential hazards.

Here you can see the frame which supports the tent.

These are the original poles for the tent. We do not use these in the display, because they would stretch the tent too tightly and cause the fabric to distort or tear. Even though the tent pole in the display is a reproduction, I think we’ve made a wise compromise in order to best protect the tent while it is on display.

     Dr. Wiley’s tent may not be as unique as some of the surgical instruments in the museum, but given its history it certainly deserves its place on my list.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Wiley artifacts are from the collection of Gordon Dammann, D.D.S.


  1. Thank you, This is my Great-Great Grandfather's tent and history. My father is now 90 and will be thrilled to see these Photos. My great grandfather married John Wiley's daughter.

    1. Did your father like that tent ? it is really a great tent updated by Lori Eggleston. Glad !!

  2. I'm so glad to hear from someone with a connection to the tent! It's a very special artifact, and we are glad to be giving it a good "home." If you're ever in the area, please come by to see it!