Groundhog Day – Civil War Style

Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, 2019. (Photo by Keith Srakocic | AP file photo)

Well, it’s official. Earlier today in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Groundhog Phil made his famous appearance and attempt to predict the coming weather. This year he didn’t see his shadow which gives hope that spring will come early in 2019. We’ll have to wait and see if the rodent’s prediction proves true!

Although the ceremony in Punxsutawney dates back to 1887, the idea and belief of Groundhog Day pre-dates the Civil War. Also, did you know a Union regiment call itself “The Groundhogs”? And groundhogs occasionally appear in primary sources or cause destruction in cemeteries?

In honor of the folkloric day, here are a few fun facts about the day and the animal’s connection to Civil War history…

February 2nd falls halfway between the winter and spring equinoxes. Since the Middle Ages and possibly earlier eras, folks who desperately wanted winter to end have adopted different forms of predicting if the cold storms will end early or last weeks longer. At first, they just looked at the sky: sunny equaled a long winter while cloudy meant shedding the overcoats sooner. Then the Catholic Church introduced a holy day called Candlemas and a variety of folkloric and regional traditions were eventually added to that celebration.

Research suggests that the idea of using a rodent to predict the weather came from Germany and originally it was probably a badger that emerged (or was pulled) from hibernation. Other countries used other animals, including snakes, birds, hedgehogs, or bears.

In the United States, the tradition arrived with German immigrants. The first known record of “Groundhog Day” in American documents appeared around 1840 and was mentioned in connection with a community of Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans). Thus, it’s possible that certain Civil War soldiers might have gone looking for a groundhog on February 2nd to continue their cultural tradition.

We know for certain that one Union regiment nicknamed themselves “The Groundhogs.” The 26th Ohio Infantry Regiment formed at the beginning of the war, trained at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, and then mustered into service on July 24, 1861. They first saw service in West Virginia, then attached to the Union Army of the Ohio in 1862; in 1863 they transferred to the Army of the Cumberland and finished their renewed enlistments in 1865 in the Department of Texas. The 26th fought at Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville.

So why “The Groundhog Regiment”? In a list of unit nicknames like Iron Brigade and Stonewall Brigade, the Ohioans chosen name seems odd. Digging farther into their reasoning, though, reveals the symbolism. Reflecting on the animal’s determination and swiftness, the soldier boys felt it symbolized their own courage, commitment, and rush to defend the Union. (One has to wonder if they actually had a groundhog for their regimental pet and perhaps a little more reading will reveal some new details!)

What it a groundhog like this that the boys bothered?

Groundhogs occasionally appear in primary sources. For example, Virginia Military Institute Cadet “Jack” Stanard wrote home to mother on April 14, 1863: “Myself and some other cadets went fishing saturday. Caught a few fish and a live ground hog which we had a good deal of fun over.” Clearly, some Lexingtonian ground hog’s spring ramble got disrupted by some mischievous boys!

Finally, the rodents caused trouble at the graves of Civil War soldiers in 2012. That year the disappearance of U.S. Flags from the historic Cedar Park Cemetery in New York puzzled and distressed the folks who had spent time placing the flags for Fourth of July. After several incidents, the local police set up surveillance cameras and caught the culprit. A groundhog stealthily ambled around in the dark, chomping on the wooden sticks supporting the flags and dragging away the banners. The city decided to use plastic supports for the flags in the future, hoping the groundhog would desist from his unpatriotic endeavors.

Groundhogs – part of folklore and tradition. The inspiring animal for a Civil War regiment. The source of amusement for bored schoolboys. And the disruptive thief at a cemetery. Who knew that rodents could make and inspire so much history?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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