Book Review: The Howling Storm

The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War
By Kenneth W. Noe
Louisiana State University Press, 2020, $59.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Meg Groeling

I rarely make statements like this, but Kenneth W. Noe’s book The Howling Storm is an exception: If you write about the military side of the American Civil War, you must own this book. Of course, I am a “weather geek” as well as a Civil War historian, so maybe I am biased. Nevertheless, Noe’s book, published in 2020, has done nothing but gain readers and reputation ever since.

The book’s organization is simple and easy to use: it follows the entire war from beginning to end, detailing the weather and its impact on camps, battles, plans, civilian crops, and soldier health. Not only is it chronological, but it is also geographical. It begins in April 1861 and ends in May 1865. No theater of the Civil War is ignored. This book is so well-grounded in what we already understand about the war that any place where Noe adds in a weather component appears seamless. Here is an excerpt:

While modern historians generally know nothing about it, the Confederate drought of 1862 was one of the major events of the Civil War. Left with too little food, the Davis administration and Congress faced hard choices about whether to prioritize feeding  civilians or soldiers. In choosing the latter, Richmond enacted policies that alienated the Confederacy’s common citizenry. Historians have long recognized the role that taxation in kind, impressment, and inflation played in creating the notion of a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” but their discussions almost always fail to recognize the weather-borne origins of those policies. (p. 166).

When considered later in the book (p. 265), the Richmond Bread Riots and their relation to the 1862 drought pick up now-familiar threads and continue Noe’s analysis, even adding a snowstorm at that point.

The chapter on Grant’s Vicksburg campaign is covered in detail, as the almost-constant rain and its effect on the area’s streams, rivers, and bayous drove every decision made during the campaign. Noe also gives an entire chapter to Gettysburg, clearly explaining the role played by weather in those pivotal operations. Often the weather in one area is a direct result of earlier weather occurring in another place. Again, Noe makes it easy for readers to follow a weather front from south to north or west to east.

“Nature Conspired Against Us: Chancellorsville, January-May 1863” is one of the most complex chapters in The Howling Storm. From politics in the Army of the Potomac to Jackson’s wounding, every salient point of the campaign is mentioned, as is Hooker’s use of cavalry. Then Noe adds weather. His literary layering is impeccable, and every facet of Chancellorsville takes on a new meaning as the reader realizes that mud is everywhere. “We have snow and rain here about every other day,” wrote Captain Robert McAlister in late March. (p. 263). Only ten of February’s twenty-eight days were dry. “The combination of frequent precipitation and inconstant temperatures produced cycles of deep mud and frozen earth.”(p. 264). All this moisture in the earth produced blinding fog on the days of the battle, but there was hope that the good weather in the afternoons would hold. It didn’t. On May 4, there was more blinding fog and then high temperatures of 76 degrees. By the afternoon, the weather turned. First, it was thunderstorms. These were followed by pounding rain and then a tornado. A retreat was the only thing that made sense.

This ability to weave movements of the boots on the ground with the devastating effect of every sort of weather imaginable makes the reader begin to wonder how anyone fought, much less won the war at all. Bad weather caused issues with food, clothing, and housing. It made horses and mules sick and unable to pull wagons and artillery. Movement was always impeded and often impossible. Crossing a streambed eaten up by rain and snow–freezing and unfreezing—may have been acceptable for the first twenty or so men but became progressively worse for the rest.

Author Noe personifies “Weather” as one of the main combatants of the war. Initially, this was jarring, but as the book develops, several letters from enlisted men also personify weather. For example, Rice Bull, a Confederate prisoner at the time, wrote, “… it seemed that all nature had conspired against us.” (p. 274). Entering Knoxville after defeating Longstreet, he remarked that his men had defeated both the Confederates and the East Tennessee mud. (p. 350).

At the end of the book, and it is a long book, Noe discusses the nineteenth century’s perceived relationship between weather and God. Some went so far as to blame God and His weather for favoring the side of the United States. Noe brings readers quickly back to the present:

Today, of course, we are much more likely to ascribe weather like that of the Peninsula Campaign to science: to climate, warm and cold fronts, the jet stream, tropical depressions, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, and the murky workings of the North Atlantic Oscillation. (pp. 492-493).

Even this reviewer, reading and writing in late January-early February 2022, recognized what happens when the warmer Gulf Stream head north and run into frigid air–and yes, there was a bomb cyclone/Nor’easter or two during the war as well as during the winter of 2022. The results were the same–cold men and frozen transportation.

The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War is a big, expensive book, but it is an invaluable resource for students of the American Civil War. Never again should a battle, campaign, or event be studied without Kenneth Noe’s offering close at hand. Because it considers every aspect of the war along with the weather, The Howling Storm is a vital source for research. It takes the place of any other book about Civil War weather to date.

9 Responses to Book Review: The Howling Storm

  1. Great review, Meg. I wonder how many of us will purchase a $60 book? Although one major retailer has dramatically discounted the book (to about $33), it makes you wonder about the future of academic presses.

  2. I am currently reading this book. I am thoroughly enjoying it. The reviewer makes several great points about the content. It does make you wonder how the war was ever fought.

  3. I fully concur with this thorough review. The author is carving out a real niche in this area. In addition to the book, I recommend his essay on weather and the Peninsula Campaign in Upon the Fields of Battle.

  4. I heard the author’s very interesting and engaging presentation during a Chambersburg history night. I recall that his approach offers a rather unique prism to view the events during the war. I recall that Eric Wittenberg’s book on the retreat from Gettysburg painted memorable pictures of the weather’s effect on the action between July 4 and July 14.

  5. I’m about finishing “Fire in the Cane Field” by Donald Frazier which covers the war in Louisiana and the Texas Gulf from the start of the war to Jan. 1, 1863 and the Battle of Galveston. According to Frazier, in the south Louisiana cane fields there was the fruition of a record breaking sugar crop in 1862, but because of the vagaries of war and not the weather a potential yield of 300,000 hogsheads of sugar produced only 80,000 hogsheads. Perhaps the drought that affected the upper South didn’t affect some parts of the deep South that year, which would make some sense.

    Congrats to Ken Noe and his very useful book.

  6. Meg, this was not a “kind” review, it was a seriously great review of an outstanding book. My kids got it for me at Christmas, 2020, and I got to Chancellorsville before I got pulled away to other things. I need to pick it up again, soon. My one criticism is peculiar to me—I have issues with my hands, and this is a beast of a book to handle! But I love what I get for the effort.

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