With the terrible winter of 2013-14 going on, it occurred to me that it must have been terrible to fight during such a winter as the one we are having just now. The American Civil War took place at the very tail end of what is called the Little Ice Age. This climate change lasted from the 1300s to the mid 1800s, and was responsible for Europe and North America having to endure much colder winters than those of the 20th century. Annual fluctuations in weather were both terrible and constant.
By the time the Civil War began, the Little Ice Age was coming to an end. Although records indicate a warming trend of 2-4ºF, this did not mean it was anywhere near actual warm. Virginia experienced alternating extreme precipitation, scorching heat, and bitter cold.
With accurate weather instruments available commercially, many Civil War era men and women recorded daily weather-related information in diaries and letters. Luckily for those of us who read about the Civil War, Robert Krick’s book Civil War Weather in Virginia is available. It is a compilation of the work of the Reverend C. B. McKee’s meticulous recordings of temperature, taken in Georgetown, at 7:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 9:00 PM, almost every day of the war. These are supplemented with other observations from newspapers, personal, and military correspondence. Robert Krick is rumored to find it humorous that, after a lifetime of Civil War studies, his “best seller” is a book about weather. No argument here–I use it regularly!
Weather was one of the biggest factors of the American Civil War, but it is often overlooked. Both strategy and tactics were affected, as generals, privates, and presidents gazed at the skies, trying to decide when to begin campaigns (or end them), guessing at river floodings and the accumulation of mud. It was not only General Burnside who had difficulties with Confederate mud. During the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864, the rains were so unrelenting that Confederate troops, crossing a wheat field, lost so many pieces of footwear that the field became known as the “field of lost shoes.”
Soldiers on both sides wrote about the weather constantly, and complained just about as often. Winters were bitter and boring, and there was little to do. On both sides, most soldiers slept the ground, or in flimsy tents. Union soldiers are often depicted in winter quarters of log cabins with chimneys, but they were not known for being exactly warm and snug. As winter wore on, spirits drooped, health was affected, and home-centered holidays like Christmas and New Years were missed. Homesickness was reported to company surgeons as a cause for ill health.
Exposure was awful for the troops, but it was even worse for prisoners of war. At Andersonville and other prison camps, the miserable little shanties and other thrown-together shelters were no help at all for exposed, starving men. Many died of diseases related to exposure, and others simply froze to death.
Not everything was 100% bleak, however. The Great Snowball Battle of Rappahannock Academy was one of winter’s high points in 1863. Three days of snow in mid-February left at least seventeen inches of snow on the ground of the Confederate Army camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia. General Robert F. Hoke, himself only twenty-six years old, took one look at all that snow and saw . . . victory!
He formed his men into an attack force of snowballers, led by officers and using cavalry, skirmishers and infantry maneuvers to take the camp of Colonel William Stiles’ Georgia Brigade. The “severe pelting” began, with men from other units quickly joining in on both sides. At first, Hoke men invaded the Georgian camp, but were soon repelled by Stiles warlike organization of his men into columns of companies, each man ready to “fire” the snowball held in his hand.
Stiles found out, however, that his “enemy” had fortified their camp, and haversacks were loaded to the brim with ammunition. With no need to reload, Hoke’s North Carolinians won the day, “whitewashing” the enemy with lose snow as a punishment before demanding a parole promise. Over 10,000 Confederates participated in this impromptu, but epic, snowball fight. One soldier wrote that it was, “one of the most memorable combats of the war.”
So, while many of us are digging out from under the snows of 2014, how about a tip of the kepi to those who came before? They battled lousy weather, fighting heat and cold as well as each other. Much snow was stained with their collective blood.
That ought to help put things in perspective.
Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, by Kathryn Shively Meier
Civil War Weather in Virginia, by Robert Krick