Civil War Weather

"The Mud March" by Mort Kunstler

I trust that all of you along the east coast have made the best of this nasty weather and are safe. I am particularly concerned about my small contingent of “fans” in the Virginia Beach – Suffolk area, though I trust that they are also doing just fine. Here in Boston it is raining and a little windy, but so far nothing too serious at all – just a very wet Sunday morning.

With all the talk about the weather over the past few days it occurred to me that perhaps we have much to learn about its influence on campaigns as well as the physical and psychological well-being of the men in the ranks.  Yes, we have plenty of descriptions of various kinds of weather, but it seems to me that the analytical side of our understanding may fall short.  Perhaps I am just ignorant of the literature.

A few studies stand out.  Robert Krick recently published, Civil War Weather in Virginia, which offers a handy chronology of weather information in the Washington D.C. – Richmond corridor.  George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! includes a fine chapter on how the weather influenced the failed Mud March following the battle of Fredericksburg.  More recently, Kathryn S. Meier published, “No Place for the Sick: Nature’s War on Civil War Soldier Mental and Physical Health in the 1862 Peninsula and Shenandoah Valley Campaign” in The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2011).  What else do you recommend?  I am not just thinking about weather, but broader environmental issues as well.

Finally, I recently learned that Ken Noe’s next book will focus on weather related issues.  Perhaps he can give us a sense of what he is up to.

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11 comments… add one
  • Vicki Betts Aug 28, 2011 @ 18:11

    Hey, some say weather helped start the Civil War in Texas during the summer of 1860. See: Texas terror : the slave insurrection panic of 1860 and the secession of the lower South, by Donald E . Reynolds, LSU, 2007.

    With our record breaking heat and drought, I sent these articles to the local newspaper lest they use the word “unprecedented”–

    [MARSHALL] TEXAS REPUBLICAN, July 14, 1860, p. 2, c. 2
    The Drouth.—The drouth still continues. For weeks the thermometer has stood at a hundred and over in the shade. Each day seems to excel its predecessor in intensity of heat and sultriness. On Saturday, the thermometer, we are told, stood in the shade at the railroad office at 113, and on the West side of the square in the interior of brick houses at 111. The air was so hot as if it came from over a furnace. The corn crop is ruined beyond redemption, and we have every reason to fear that the cotton crop will share the same fate. The most of the cotton is scarcely 16 inches high, and the squares are falling off.
    The State Gazette seems to think that the accounts of this drouth are over estimated. This is a sad mistake. The disaster is greater even than men are willing to admit. It will approach, in some portions of the State, nearly, if not quite, to a famine, and we have every reason to believe it will be necessary to call the legislature together to pass laws to postpone the collection of debts until another crop is made. Such is the actual condition of affairs, extending from the Rio Grande to the Ouachita river in Louisiana, and how far Eastward we know not, and from the Gulf to the 33rd parallel of latitude, with perhaps here and there a favored farm or neighborhood. And yet, to read the newspapers, one would suppose that a tolerably fair crop was being made.

    STANDARD [CLARKSVILLE, TX], July 7, 1860, p. 2, c. 2
    The thermometer today, at 1 p.m. in the shade of our sanctum, brick wall, second story, one of the coolest places in town, indicates 106o. At the same time the breeze renders the heat quite endurable; indeed we do not feel it near as much as some days last week, when the mercury was at 94 and 96o.

    [LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, August 11, 1860, p. 3, c. 2
    From the Texas State Gazette Extra.
    Dallas, Texas, July 16th, 1860.
    Major John Marshall—
    Dear Sir: I will give you some of the facts connected with the burning of Dallas, and the deep laid scheme of villainy to devastate the whole of northern Texas. The town of Dallas was fired on Sunday the 8th inst., between one and two o’clock, P.M. The day was very hot, the thermometer standing at 106 F., in the shade and a high south-west wind blowing.

    Vicki Betts
    Please send rain to Texas

    • Ken Noe Aug 29, 2011 @ 5:46

      Thanks Vicki, that would be a great way to start a book!

  • Woodrowfan Aug 28, 2011 @ 17:03

    I’m curious. I was thinking that this would be a great way to use the recollections published in “Confederate Veteran.” But then I wondered, how would you check to see if the veteran writing decades later was correct when he wrote “it was below zero and snowing when we retreated from X.” Other accounts from other veterans would help, but did the military on either side keep track of weather details with any reliability?

  • Ken Noe Aug 28, 2011 @ 8:51

    Kevin, the goal is to provide a comprehensive account of weather’s effect on both the military and home front sides of the war, as well as take a look at how soldiers and civilians coped. I spent a good part of last year building a data base of weather’s effect on battles and campaigns, and am now combing primary sources in hopes of eventually building a day-by-day database. The narrative will be based on that as well as other sources.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2011 @ 10:08

      Thanks for the overview. Will this be the first book-length treatment of the subject?

      • Ken Noe Aug 28, 2011 @ 15:14

        As I envision it, yes.

    • Will Hickox Aug 28, 2011 @ 11:12

      Judging by Prof. Noe’s excellent analysis of later-enlisting soldiers in “Reluctant Rebels,” this will be another one to look out for.

      • Ken Noe Aug 28, 2011 @ 15:14

        Thanks Will, but don’t look for it too soon. I have a long way to go.

  • Will Hickox Aug 28, 2011 @ 7:45

    According to the Kunstler website, this painting does in fact depict the Chamberlain brothers. Now that is funny.

  • Will Hickox Aug 28, 2011 @ 7:01

    Does this mark your first use of a Mort Kunstler painting in a non-ironic capacity? (I’m sure if we looked hard enough we could find Lee, Jackson, or Chamberlain in there somewhere–completely immaculate, of course.)

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