“They Call This War a Cloud Over the Land”

Walt Whitman (ca. 1860s)

Politically, one might think that climate and weather have only become a topic of interest lately. After all, 19th-century science was not very reliable, and a person could not control the weather. Everyone knew that. But could a war affect weather? Poet Walt Whitman wondered:

Whether the rains, the heat and cold, and what underlies them all, are affected with what affects man in masses and follow his play of passionate action, strain’d stronger than usual, and on a larger scale than usual–whether this or no, it is certain that there is now and has been for twenty months or more on this American Continent North, many a remarkable, many an unprecedented expression of the subtile world of air above us and around us.[2]

It was noticed by many that, “After every great battle, a great storm.”[3]Many people felt that perhaps God had something to do with this phenomenon, attributing His favor (or lack thereof) to the whims of the Almighty.

On Saturday last, a forenoon like whirling demons, dark, with slanting rain, full of rage; and then the afternoon, so calm, so bathed with flooding splendor from Heaven’s most excellent sun. . .  As the President came out on the Capitol portico, a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appear’d like a hovering bird, right over him.[4]

Behind Grant’s Statue, Washington, D. C.








One thing all could agree upon–there was a change in the weather. Compared to summers and winters of the past, stately in their predictability and forward movement in time, the weather since 1861 had been capricious. “Indeed, the heavens, the elements, all the meteorological influences have run riot for weeks.”[5]Spells of intense heat had sprinkled Civil War summers. Winters had exhibited the death throes of the Little Ice Age.

“Much of the day-time of the past month was sulky with leaden heaviness, fog, interstices of bitter cold, and some insane storms.”[6]The same description might again be used for weather in the northeast. Porches need both heaters and fans, and luckily, both tea and coffee may be served hot and cold. Skies at night receive their due.

Nor Earth, nor sky ever knew spectacles of superber beauty than some of the nights have been lately here. The western star, Venus, in the earlier hours of evening, has never been so large, so clear; it seems as if it told something. . .  Five or six nights since, it hung close by the moon, then a little past its first quarter. The star was wonderful, the moon like a young mother. The sky, dark blue, the transparent night, the planets, the moderate west wind, the elastic temperature, the unsurpassable miracle of that great star, and the young, swelling moon swimming in the west, suffused the soul.[7]

Whitman ends his observances on a bugle note. In one of the nearby Army hospitals, someone is blowing Taps, ending the day for the sick and the injured as well as for the writer. Here in California, the temperatures are in the 100s for much of the state. We are all on fire alert. In Virginia, it is raining. New York City is cold and clear. If human actions during the Civil War caused weather changes, it should come as no surprise that humans are still affecting the heavens. Some vacillate between taking full responsibility for what might merely be a natural climate change and giving up entirely on trying to cut back a carbon atom or two. Others are more sure of their stance, making it a part of a political ideology.

I am not sure where I am, but I am not quite ready to play Taps just yet.

“And all over the sky–the sky! far, far out of reach, studded, breaking, breaking out, the eternal stars.” from Bivouac on a Mountain Side




[1]Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain.

[2]Walt Whitman, Memoranda During the War: Civil War Journals, 1863-1865, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 2010, 57-58.






4 Responses to “They Call This War a Cloud Over the Land”

  1. I had also noticed that a big storm sometimes was coupled with battles. New Market, Fredericksburg, Manassas, etc. I recently did some digging about the aurora borealis in December of 1862 and found out (to make a long story short) it might have had to do with a fluctuation in the earth’s natural geomagnetic field to allow the aurora to show that far south in Virginia. I wish we had better meteorological records from back then to see if there were other factors that might have linked the phenomenon with the war itself. Interesting article! Thanks for sharing!

    1. The aurora borealis might make an interesting post–thanks for the suggestion. There are a couple of books on Civil War Weather out there–one especially good one by Robert K. Krick, although that only concerns Virginia.

  2. The night of April 4th 1862 was overcast, with a squall line that rushed across southern Missouri from the West. It was this night that Flag-officer Foote dispatched Henry Walke and USS Carondelet on the fateful “run through the gauntlet” of sixty guns defending Island No.10, the storm whipping up wind and waves, lightning flashing from every direction, and at least one tornado was reported. An unfortunate ignition of carbon buildup in a smokestack briefly lit up Carondelet like a torch, and Rebel guns let loose, blasting away for over an hour as Carondelet raced through the S- bend… and eventually reached safety at Union-held New Madrid.

  3. Mike!! This is my first post since Mayish–my brain is now fully functional. Abraham is not far behind! Hope all is well with you. With hurricanes to the east and climate change everywhere, I thought this was a good topic. That, and Walt Whitman.

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