Civil War Weather: Does It Ever Get Dry In This Country?

ECW welcomes back Jim Morgan

In researching the 1862 Battle of Secessionville, I have become convinced that the primary reason for the failure of the Union campaign on James Island was, quite simply, rain.  

I will let the soldiers on both sides speak for themselves.  A New Yorker described “the wind blowing a gale and the rain coming down in torrents.”

Secessionville battlefield…ironically, a sunny day photograph was in the ECW archives! (Image courtesy Mark Maloy)

Commodore Samuel F. DuPont, commanding the Union naval force, wrote to his wife that ships often dragged their anchors and “for June, it seemed quite a violent gale.”

A Connecticut soldier wrote three days after the battle, “I have not had a d____d rag of dry clothing on me for the last two weeks.” One South Carolina boy, who we might think should have been used to it, described the rain as “a perfect deluge of water” and said that “the roads are terribly boggy and muddy, and the earth like so much slush.”

A Union artilleryman wrote of the soggy campsites saying, “We lay nights between the cotton rows, sometimes only our heads out of water.” And one of the 79th New York Highlanders wrote, “Whew! How sour and mouldy everything about our tents smelled.”

A very soggy New Hampshire infantryman wrote, “The rains descended, and the floods came, and it really seemed as if it had never rained before … No one except the initiated can understand how fast the rain falls at the South in a violent storm.”

The march across Johns Island which Union troops were to do in a single day took nearly five days to complete, mostly because the roads had turned into smelly, gluey pluff mud.  At the same time, the Confederates were unable to launch a serious attack on these strung out, bogged down Yankees because neither horses nor men could effectively move.

In short, the first ten days of the campaign served as a kind of precursor to Burnside’s “Mud March” a few months later and utterly prevented either a coherent Federal advance or a Confederate counterattack.

But perhaps it was all best summed up by Colonel Johnson Hagood of the First South Carolina infantry when he reported that one of his pickets was asked by “a half-drowned Yankee” picket, “I say, does it ever get dry in this country?”

1 Response to Civil War Weather: Does It Ever Get Dry In This Country?

  1. Along the East Coast during the late May through mid-June 1862 time period, had been very wet impeding any form of movement. McClellan’s advance through the Peninsula was similarly affected by rain. After the June 1 conclusion of the battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), The Army of the Potomac was bogged down in mud through mid-June. McClellan wrote to his wife on June 10, “It is again raining hard … It is certain that there has not been for years and years such a season; it does not come by chance. I am quite checked by it.”
    For all the rain along the east in 1862, Kentucky experienced a crippling drought, which affected military operations there and eventually at Perryville in October.

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