Civil War Weather—“Such an hour I have never witnessed:” Severe Weather Strikes the Army of the Potomac in 1864
ECW welcomes back guest author Mike Block
May 2, 1864, was a day of transition and anticipation in the Army of the Potomac. The army’s winter encampment and a period of relative, restful quiet was coming to an ending. Active campaigning for the army, now under the watchful eye of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was literally hours away. Throughout the army, wooden shelters and huts built the previous November and December were being razed, in most cases burned, along with their contents – handmade tables, chairs and beds – which had provided comfort to the soldier. They couldn’t carry the items with them, and they did not want to leave the valuable material for the citizens of Culpeper, so much was destroyed.
Private John W. Haley of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment summed up the confidence of the men for the upcoming campaign, calling “the suspense so great that it would have been a relief to go. By no means unconscious of the importance of the work to be done, we have no doubt that Grant will give them as hot a fight as they have ever engaged in. We are ready and willing to enter into an earnest contest to bring about result at once good for the country in general and ourselves in particular.”
Haley, as with most soldiers in blue, knew what lay before them and wanted to finish the task began in 1861. Many had re-enlisted the previous winter for that purpose.
Both the army’s V and VI Corps were on the march on this day with portions crossing the Rappahannock and Hazel Rivers respectively, moving to their new camps closer to the Rapidan and Lee’s army. “[W]e demolished our winter quarters and put up our shelter tents on the same ground,” penned a soldier in the II Corps’ 148th Pennsylvania Infantry. He continued: “When this was done, with three days’ full rations in our haversacks, six days’ small rations in knapsacks and fifty rounds of ammunition we were ready for final orders for the initial march of the summer’s campaign.”
While all these preparations were taking place, the fickle Virginia May weather made its appearance; it wasn’t just going to impact MG George G. Meade’s army, but the whole region. Out of the west, a possible derecho swept across Virginia.
A derecho (pronounced similar to “deh-REY-cho”) is a widespread, long-lived wind storm. Derechos are associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines or quasi-linear convective systems. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of a tornado, the damage typically occurs in one direction along a relatively straight path. As a result, the term “straight-line wind damage” is sometimes used to describe derecho damage. By National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) definition, if the swath of wind damage extends at least 400 miles (about 650 kilometers), is at least 60 miles (about 100 km) wide, includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph (93 km/h) along most of its length, and also includes several, well-separated 75 mph (121 km/h) or greater gusts, the event may be classified as a derecho.
South of the Rapidan river, in Orange County, Virginia, William White of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Richmond Howitzers, camped in Orange County remembered the event 19 years afterwards. “[I]n the afternoon the skies were overspread with clouds and angry west winds came sweeping from the mountains with a hurricane-like sound, whirling our camp furniture through the giddy mazes of a tempest dance; our tent-flies flew away on the bosom of the breeze and the tree-tops came crashing to the earth; then came the rain and hail, driving full in our faces, and then the cry of FIRE! What an indescribable turmoil now! Fence-rails, tree-tops, skillets, tin-pans, tents and tarpaulins whirling around in a dance of maudlin merriment, and the fierce red flames licking out their forky tongues in spiteful glee.”
The storm had such an impact that it was recalled in the regimental history of the 83rd Pennsylvania: “There was a terrific sand storm, the first we had ever beheld, equal almost to anything of the kind that ever happened in the Great Sahara. On the afternoon of the 2d, just as the brigade had got into line, for a general dress parade, and the troops was beating off, the storm commenced. At first a dense black cloud, darkening the horizon and apparently rushing down from the peaks of the Blue Ridge, was seen in the distance. It approached with the most wonderful velocity, for in a moment more the winds arose and the air was filled with dense clouds of fine, whirling sand, filling the eyes and nostrils of the men so as to almost drive them to blindness and suffocation. Without awaiting the word of command, each regiment broke for camp on a double quick and in the best order it could. Then came the rain, and for several hours it poured down in torrents, and the men, not well provided with shelter, passed an unpleasant night.”
A Massachusetts lieutenant commented in his diary, “This P.M. we were visited by a terrible whirlwind. For a long time the air was so full of dust that we could not keep our eyes open, and was compelled to go into our tents. After the whirlwind we had a heavy Thunder Shower.”
Along the Hazel River, Color-Corporal William Morse recalled, “we had a hurricane towards night with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. The tents were blown down with general confusion.” Morse’s 5th Maine Infantry had left their cabins early that morning and had just established camp on the south side of the Hazel, joining the balance of the corps.
Louis Beaudry, Chaplain of the 5th New York Cavalry, perhaps gives the most descriptive personal account. “About 5 P. M., I observed a terrible commotion in the elements in the west and soon heavy clouds of dark arose from the hills about Culpeper and it was evident that a fearful storm of wind, dust, and rain was approaching. I hurriedly put up stationary, books, letters, etc., but ere I had completed the work, the wind struck us. I never had witnessed such a fearful tornado which continues, I should think, about 15 minutes. Dr. Armstrong’s tent tumbled over at once. Mine soon followed and for a few minutes, tents, shelters, articles of clothing, paper, etc., were flying upon the wings of the wind. At times the dust suffocated and blinded us. Horses broke loose and ran in every direction in wild dismay. Men laughed at each other’s calamities or ran to each others relief. Such an hour I have never witnessed and hope never I will again. Soon the rain began to fall and the wind though less furious became exceedingly cold. Woe to the men who were without ponchos or rubber coats.”
The storm extended up and down the region. In Richmond, clerk John B. Jones lamented damage to his garden fence. “About 5 o’clock this afternoon we had a tornado from the southwest which I fear has done mischief in the country. It blew off half a dozen planks from my garden fence, and I had difficulty nailing them on again with such rusty nails as I could find. Nails are worth about their weight in silver.”
That evening, the storm passed through Washington. The National Republican reported the event on May 3, 1864, presenting the rain with a positive spin. “The citizens of Washington and vicinity were favored last evening with a deluging rain-storm, proceeded by a squall of wind. We say favored because there are many things connected with the sanitary condition of our streets, vacant lots, lane and alleys, that are not the most promising character, and the rain has seemed to allay, if not extinguish, much that might be the cause of a pestilence or epidemic.”
I have likewise experienced being caught outdoors when a derecho struck. On June 29, 2012, I happened to be at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D. C. The evening performance had just concluded when the PA system advised we take shelter immediately. Wolf Trap is an outdoor venue and there is little shelter and not enough for a packed house. My wife and I witnessed the awesome display of Mother Nature from the ‘safety’ of a roof overhang. There were no injuries, just hundreds of people soaked to the skin.
The following day, over a million outages in Virginia made it the largest, non-hurricane power outage in the state’s history, while 1.6 million Maryland residents woke up in the dark. The event caused over 3 billion dollars in damage across a 800 mile swath.
The men who experienced the weather event didn’t know the word derecho. They expressed their experience in word and phrases they understood. Whether described as a tornado, sand storm, hurricane or whirlwind, on May 2, 1864, over 100,000 soldiers were caught out in the open and unprepared for nature’s onslaught.
Silliker, Ruth L., ed. The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, Down East Books, Camden, ME, 1985, 141.
 Muffy, Joseph W., ed. The Story of our Regiment: The 148th Pennsylvania Infantry, Kenyon Printing and mfg. Company, Des Moines, IA, 1904, p 114
 The word “derecho” was first used in 1888 by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, a professor of physics at the University of Iowa. Hinrichs used the term in a paper published by the American Meteorological Journal to distinguish thunderstorm-induced straight-line winds from the damaging, rotary winds of tornadoes. “Derecho” is a Spanish word meaning “right,” “direct,” or “straight ahead.” https://www.spc.noaa.gov/misc/AbtDerechos/derechofacts.htm
 White, William S., Contributions To A History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion: Pamphlet No. 2.: A Diary of War or What I Saw Of It, Richmond, VA, Carlton McCarthy & Co., 1883, 240
Judson, Amos M., History of the Eighty-Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Reprint, Stonewall House, Alexandria VA, 1985. (Original work published in 1881), 93
 Turino, Kenneth, The Civil War Diary of Lt. J. E. Hodgkins: 1862-1865, Picton Press, Rockport Maine, 1994, 82
 Craynor, William L. Sr., ed., Without a Scratch: Diary of Corporal William Holmes Morse, Color Bearer of the 5th Maine Infantry, Wilmington, NC, Broadfoot Publishing, 2007, 214-215.
 Beaudry, Richard E., ed. War Journal of Louis N. Beaudry, Fifth New York Cavalry, McFarland and Company, Jefferson, NC, 1996, 111
 Miers, Earl Schneck, ed., A Rebel War Clerk’s Dairy, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 1993, 366.
 Washington National Republican, May 3, 1864.