On 15 May 1864 Captain John C. Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry penned a lengthy letter home in which he described the horrific fighting that had taken place in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House. In the seven pages, which included vivid descriptions of the battlefield and the constant movement of troops, Winsmith made only one brief reference to the weather. He reported that on 12 May he spent the night “in a heavy rain.” Winsmith’s failure or lack of interest in reporting the weather reflects our own tendency to overlook the physical conditions in which battles were fought. We know that the summers were oppressive in those uniforms and that they suffered on the march and in winter camp, but beyond that we can’t say much. We are dependent on individual historians reminding us, but here again the subject is covered in varying degrees and typically hinges on the thoroughness of the individual researcher.
Thanks to Robert K. Krick we no longer have to wonder about the weather along the Washington D.C. – Richmond corridor. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia (University of Alabama Press, 2007) brings together the records of C. B. Mackee of Georgetown D.C., who faithfully recorded temperature and precipitation three times a day between 1 October 1860 30 June 1865. Krick organizes Mackee’s readings into fifty-seven tables, which also include sunrise and sunset for Richmond along with the dates of solstice and equinox. The tables make it possible to draw conclusions about the weather over time. For instance, although historians have written about the summer heat in the most colorful terms, a brief survey of the summer of 1864 shows a wide range of afternoon temperatures. We now can be much more precise. Brief reports from other regions can be found in the section that follows each table, which also includes references to the weather by the men in the ranks as well as civilians.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive weather survey for all of Virginia. The focus on the Washington–Richmond corridor reflects Krick’s own interest in the region where the Army of Northern Virginia spent much of its time and won some of its most impressive victories. Readers looking for analysis on the affects of weather on various campaigns will be sorely disappointed as Krick’s agenda is to provide a useful reference source rather than interpretation. That said, given Krick’s knowledge of the war in Virginia it would have been useful to include additional commentary on the ways in which a more complete understanding of weather conditions affects and challenges certain well-engrained assumptions about various battles and campaigns. For instance, Krick admits in the introduction that “traditional lore about weather during some Civil War episodes has been exaggerated, even fabricated” and refers to popular descriptions of the battle of Fredericksburg and its “frigid” conditions (p. 6). In fact, the readings indicate rather mild temperatures with afternoon highs between 56 and 68 during the period 12–15 December 1862.
It will take others to bring to bear the information that Krick has provided to the various battles and campaigns that transpired on the fields of eastern Virginia. Perhaps Krick’s brief reference to Fredericksburg will lead to other revisions. This project may also inspire others to do the same for other regions of the nation that witnessed heavy fighting. One final note: Although Winsmith recorded “heavy rain” for the night of 12 May 1864, table number 44 shows that he may also have experienced hail.