Civil War Weather: Maine soldiers Encounter “a raging northeast snow-storm” in Virginia

Clouds darkened and lowered as a strong low-pressure system pushed east across Virginia around dawn on Friday, December 5, 1862. Before the storm passed, even Mainers accustomed to atrocious winter weather could not believe what Virginia had to offer.

A light snow falls on bundled-up Union soldiers returning from picket duty in Green River, Ky. in February 1862. (Library of Congress)

Led by Col. Edward A. Scamman, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment had camped near White Oak Church in Stafford County the previous day. The regiment belonged to the 2nd Brigade commanded by Col. Henry L. Cake, and he reported to the 1st Division’s Brig. Gen. William T. H. Brooks. The 2nd Brigade included the 16th, 27th, and 121st New Yorks and 96th Pennsylvania.

Torrential rain fell by 9 a.m., Friday. Men venturing outside their tents tugged tight their great coats against the chill. The pickets shivered as water dripped from their kepi visors. Then Cake learned his men had camped on the terrain assigned to the “New Jersey brigade” (the 1st Brigade, 1st Division), said 1st Lt. George W. Bicknell, the 5th Maine’s adjutant. Brooks told Cake to vacate the premises.

Packing up and moving in a rainstorm was no pleasant work,” Bicknell admitted. The 2nd Brigade lads dutifully hauled their baggage and tents to Cake’s next chosen camp site.

Shifting into the north, the wind tapped into colder air plunging south from the Great Lakes. As Cake’s men erected their tents and unpacked the baggage wagons, the rain drops coalesced into wet snowflakes as the thermometer plummeted.

Brooks then ordered Cake “to be ready to move again in half an hour,” Bicknell said. “Down came the canvas with such a jerk,” as if the partially raised tents “were to blame,” he muttered, declining to detail the “denunciations” uttered by Cake’s soldiers. They all hit the trail around 1 p.m., as “the rain-storm converted …into a furious snowstorm.

We were having a taste of winter campaigning in reality,” realized Bicknell. Slogging along roads six inches deep in mud as “the wind blew terribly, snow and hail filling the air,” the 2nd Brigade lads marched 4-5 miles to camp at Belle Plain. Wind howled across the “cold, bleak, barren place,” and the “wet to the skin” soldiers found themselves “shivering in the cold,” Bicknell said.

The bone-chilling wind swept Belle Plain “like a hurricane” as “a raging northeast snow-storm” lashed eastern Virginia, he said. Men “stood looking at each other, hardly knowing what to do” as Cake placed three regiments inside nearby woods and ordered the 5th Maine and another regiment to camp in the open.

Scamman gave a few soldiers permission “to go for wood,” Bicknell noticed. Suddenly almost all the 5th Maine lads, “line officers as well as men,” vanished into the sheltering trees — and did not return until dawn on December 6.

Only six officers occupied the regiment’s vacated campsite. Scamman gazed at Maj. Henry Millett, Bicknell, and the other officers and asked them to borrow “an officer’s tent from another regiment.” Scamman “loved his men,” according to Bicknell, so while the missing 5th Maine boys found refuge amidst the trees, the colonel told “his little body of half-frozen companions” that “we must do guard duty.

We need the exercise,” he explained.

Scamman slung a rifled musket over his right shoulder and guarded the stacked arms for the next 2½ hours; other officers shared the following watches. The snowstorm abated around midnight, and Saturday, December 6 dawned to decent weather as the 5th Mainers drifted onto Belle Plain from the adjacent woods.

Scamman said not a word as his men carried their baggage and tents into the woods and established a proper camp. That night “was terrible cold,” and water froze thick in pots and ponds, Bicknell said.

New England weather seemed to have accompanied her sons for a short while, at least, down into the land of Dixie,” he figured.1

1 Rev. George W. Bicknell, History of the 5th Regiment Maine Volunteers (Portland, 1871), 162, 164-166

2 Responses to Civil War Weather: Maine soldiers Encounter “a raging northeast snow-storm” in Virginia

  1. A nice account. And then a week later things had warmed up significantly for the fighting at a place called Fredericksburg.

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