Weather in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
Meteorologically, the Civil War took place at the tail end of what is often termed the Little Ice Age, a period of general cooling and unpredictability that most scholars date from roughly 1310 to 1850. Despite what its name suggests, the Little Ice Age actually encompassed dramatic fluctuations in weather, with one year bringing an intensely cold winter and easterly winds, and the next heavy rains and raging heat. On the whole, conditions began to warm after 1850, but during the war Virginia experienced extreme precipitation and alternate periods of blazing heat and bitter cold.
Weather Shaped Campaigns and Battles
Weather considerations influenced strategic planning in the Civil War. Army commands requested weather predictions and some data were collected using the telegraphs, though the resulting forecasts were not very accurate. Perhaps most significant, armies usually did not campaign in the winter months, with a few notable exceptions, and instead established more permanent camps from about December through March. In winter camp, soldiers often constructed log cabins with chimneys and fulfilled trivial obligations, such as picket duty, or engaged in leisure activities. Still, most agreed they were eager to leave behind the tedium and chill of winter for spring. April's fair weather signaled renewed movement, new campaigns, and higher morale.
Throughout the year, poor weather could hinder campaign progress. A well-known example was the Peninsula Campaign (1862), during which Union general George B. McClellan incessantly complained that rainy weather and swollen rivers impeded his advance toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. While the rising rivers did challenge McClellan's engineers, weather in this case proved more of a convenient excuse than an interminable obstruction. United States president Abraham Lincoln became infuriated with McClellan and removed him from command by the end of the summer. In contrast, as an 1865 coda to the famous March to the Sea, Union general William T. Sherman proved that floods were no obstacle for a tenacious commander. Tremendous storms in South Carolina did not prevent him from taking Columbia and Charleston, though major rivers swelled in his army's path.
Rain could make battle an incredibly trying experience for those who fought. When gunpowder and paper cartridges became wet, it was more difficult to fire a weapon accurately. Such was the case in the September 1862 Battle of Chantilly, in which Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Isaac Stevens clashed during a heavy thunderstorm. More than 2,000 men fell in ninety minutes, including Union general Philip Kearney who mistakenly rode behind Confederate lines in the rainy confusion. On May 15, 1864, participants in the Battle of New Market similarly labored through a terrific storm. Confederate soldiers' feet stuck in the mud as they attempted to cross a wheat field, forever dubbed the "field of lost shoes."
While stormy weather tested soldiers in battle, heat was also a worthy opponent. During the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, the unseasonable heat helped fuel the forest fires that consumed dead and wounded men's bodies. Some soldiers, wearied by the fight and weather, collapsed on the subsequent march to Spotsylvania Court House.
Weather could not only hinder battles, but could also grant success to risky maneuvers. Stonewall Jackson's famous flanking attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) was a prime example of weather working in an army's favor. As historian Robert K. Krick has pointed out, the element of surprise, which contributed to Jackson's success, could not have been achieved without the preceding two days of spring showers. The rain had wet the road and prevented a column of dust from giving away the men as they marched on their unsuspecting foes.
Impacts on the Soldier Experience
Weather was one of the most often recorded events by soldiers in their letters and diaries because of its constant influence on their daily experiences in battle, in camp, and on the march. Most Civil War soldiers found themselves transported to a new geographical region, and therefore had to acclimate themselves to different weather patterns. In addition, both Confederate and Union men now had to live almost entirely out-of-doors, sometimes with only a flimsy tent to protect their sleep, other times completely exposed.
Bad weather certainly drew more discussion than fair weather, as soldiers revealed in their letters and diaries that it lowered their spirits and affected their health. Soldiers who spent too many days in drenched tents complained of homesickness, and those who marched in knee-deep mud on the notorious roads of the South felt their morale plummet. Union general Ambrose E. Burnside's "Mud March" in January 1863, following his dreadful defeat at Fredericksburg the previous December, marked a miserable attempt at winter campaigning and introduced his men to some of the worst mud of the war when an unexpected warm spell thawed the frozen roads. Reporter William Swinton of the New York Times, who accompanied the Army of the Potomac on the march declared of the mud, "One might fancy some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world; and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge. An indescribable chaos of pontoons, wagons and artillery encumbered the road down to the river. Horses and mules dropped down dead, exhausted with the effort to move their loads through the hideous medium." Following the debacle, Union spirits sank and some of Burnside's men called for his resignation.
Soldiers also believed that weather could damage physical well-being. Charles Wright Wills, a soldier from Illinois, explained how weather ravaged his regiment's health while they were stationed near Corinth, Mississippi. "Nearly half the bad cases [of illness] are typhoid fever … Our boys are suffering from the change of climate and water, and as much as anything, the sudden change in temperature." Heat could also contribute to debilitating wounds, as one woman pointed out after the Battle of Gaines's Mill (1862): "The weather was excessively hot. It was midsummer, gangrene and erysipelas [a skin infection] attacked the wounded, and those who might have been cured of their wounds were cut down by diseases."
While exposure to the elements wearied almost every soldier at some point in his career, prisoners of war perhaps had it worst. At Andersonville in Georgia and at other prison camps, men erected crude shebangs, or scrap shelters, in an attempt to shield themselves from the rain and heat, yet they found little relief in their exposed pens. Most of the men had but rags to protect their skin from the elements, and many died of diseases related to exposure.
Civilians and Weather Records
Civilians also took an intense interest in recording the daily weather during the Civil War, whether as a farm log or simply as a topic of interest. Certain civilian weather measurements have remained very useful for scholars of the Civil War. Perhaps best known, thanks to Robert K. Krick's book, Civil War Weather in Virginia, are the Reverend C. B. Mckee's (also spelled Mackee) dutiful recordings at Georgetown taken every day of the war, with few exceptions, at seven o'clock in the morning, two o'clock in the afternoon, and nine o'clock at night. Weather records from the war were collected by the Smithsonian Institute and Army Signal Service until the creation of the Weather Bureau in 1891.
Other Notable Weather Incidents
One of the most famous (and comical) weather-related incidents during the Civil War was the Great Snowball Battle on March 22, 1864, in Dalton, Georgia. What began as a snowball fray between lower ranks in the Confederate Army of Tennessee eventually drew in entire regiments, and officers ordered their men into action against their comrades. Though some of the soldiers suffered eye injuries, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston took the "battle" as a sign of high morale in his troops.
Among weather-related naval events, a gale contributed to the loss of USS Monitor off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on December 31, 1862. One survivor, Francis Butts, wrote of the incident, "The weather was heavy with dark, stormy-looking clouds and a westerly wind. We passed out of the Roads and rounded Cape Henry … when the wind shifted to the south-south-west and increased to a gale … The sea rolled over us as if our vessel were a rock in the ocean only a few inches above the water." Though the nearby Rhode Island was able to rescue some of the Monitor's distressed crew, the Monitor eventually sank to the bottom of the sea with some of its men still onboard.
1850 - Many scholars agree that this date marks the end of the meteorological period known as the Little Ice Age; a time of general warming follows.
December 31, 1862 - The USS Monitor sinks off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a monstrous gale.
January 20–22, 1863 - Union general Ambrose E. Burnside leads troops on the "Mud March," a failed winter offensive in Virginia, during torrential rains and heavy mud, lowering Union morale.
May 15, 1864 - At the Battle of New Market, a terrific downpour ensues. While crossing a wheat field, Confederate soldiers' feet get stuck in the mud, earning the field the title the "field of lost shoes."
February 1865 - Union general William T. Sherman and his men successfully march into South Carolina despite massive storms. Sherman proceeds to take Columbia and Charleston.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Meier, K. . Weather During the Civil War. (2013, May 16). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Weather_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Meier, Kathryn Shively. "Weather During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 16 May. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 14, 2010 | Last modified: May 16, 2013
Contributed by Kathryn Shively Meier, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of "'Dante's Inferno': Changing Perceptions of Civil War Combat in the Spotsylvania Wilderness from 1863 to 1864," in Militarized Landscapes: From Gettysburg to Salisbury Plain (2010).