Did Weather Affect the Civil War?

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By Erica Campbell on June 12, 2013, 2:35pm Last modified: June 13, 2013, 9:14am

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The American Civil War 1861 - 1865:  Arguably one of the most tragic events in the history of the United States.  Over 600,000 Americans were killed…more than any other war combined to this date.  The Civil War tore the country apart and forced friends and in many cases family, to fight against each other.   Surprisingly, the weather shaped the Civil War and in so many cases, was the reason either the North (Union) or South (Confederacy) won or lost individual battles.

The period directly before the Civil War, was known as the Little Ice Age.  By the time the Civil War began, the Earth was coming out of this ice age and into a warming trend. However, this did not mean it was warm.  The winters in Virginia and other areas of the south were extremely cold and snowy during the Civil War period. One of the most famous weather-related incidents during the Civil War was the Great Snowball Battle on March 22, 1864, in Dalton, Georgia. What began as a snowball fight between lower ranks in the Confederate Army of Tennessee eventually drew in entire regiments. 

The weather during the Civil War helped determine overall strategy as well as tactics on the battlefield. Generals would watch the skies to decide when to begin spring campaigns, dealt with flooded rivers which sometimes stopped progress of entire regiments, and made their men endure the extremes of the Southern climate (where almost all of the fighting took place). While exposure to the elements affected every soldier at some point during the Civil War, the prisoners of war perhaps had it worst. At Andersonville in Georgia, one of the most notorious and awful Confederate prisons and at other prison camps, men built simple shelters, in an attempt to shield themselves from the elements, yet they found little relief in their exposed cells. Most of the men had only rags to protect their skin and feet, and thousands died of diseases related to exposure and starvation.

Weather during the Civil War was one of the most often recorded events by soldiers and civilians, who would write about it in their letters and diaries. Most Civil War soldiers found themselves in new surroundings and therefore experienced different weather then what they were used too. In addition, both Confederate and Union men spent most of their time outdoors, with very little shelter and therefore weather had a great influence on their health and well being.  With no relief from extreme hot or cold, many soldiers would die from heat exhaustion or freeze to death while marching from place to place.

Many battles during the Civil War were impacted by the weather.  During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Union General George McClellan blamed the weather in Virginia for his inability to attack the Confederate defenses.  Eventually, his infectiveness and indecisiveness causes President Abraham Lincoln to relieve him of his command.

September 1862 brings the sinking of the Union USS Monitor, after its battle (known as the Battle of the Ironclads) with the Confederate ship CSS Virginia (formally known as the Merrimac). The Monitor sinks off the coast of North Carolina, after an enormous storm, taking many trapped men with it to the bottom of the sea. One survivor, Francis Butts, wrote, "The weather was heavy with dark, stormy-looking clouds and a westerly wind. We passed out of the Roads and rounded Cape Henry … when the wind shifted to the south-south-west and increased to a gale … The sea rolled over us as if our vessel were a rock in the ocean only a few inches above the water” (Quoted from Encyclopedia Virginia).

Rain made the battles an incredibly difficult experience. When gunpowder and paper cartridges became wet, it was more difficult to fire a weapon accurately.  Many times, the guns did not work at all.  Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson faced the rain during both the Battle of Chantilly and the Battle of Chancellorsville (among other battles).  During the Battle of Chancellorsville, rain showers moistened a dirt road, on which Jackson and his army had to travel.  The rain stopped dust from being kicked up, concealing his position to the Union forces.  During the Battle of Chantilly, Jackson and his army were caught under a heavy thunderstorm.  More than 2,000 men fell in approximately ninety minutes, including Union General Philip Kearney who, confused by the rain, mistakenly rode behind Confederate lines.

On May 15, 1864, during the Battle of New Market, soldiers had to fight through a heavy storm. With the amount of rain that fell, Confederate soldiers' feet stuck in the mud as they attempted to cross a wheat field.  This field would forever be dubbed the "field of lost shoes."

Finally, Union General William Sherman’s infamous 1865 “March to the Sea” occurred during torrential rain storms and soldiers were forced to march through knee deep mud.  As they marched, Confederate forces were unable to stop them…the weather listed as one of the reasons (although at this time, the Confederate Army was all but defeated).  Sherman moved almost untouched, destroying everything in his path, from Georgia through South Carolina.

The Civil War forever changed America.  It was a time in our history that was filled with tragedy, but also planted seeds of hope.  Those seeds were watered by the weather, which impacted and perhaps changed the outcome of many battles…maybe even the Civil War itself.

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Erica Campbell

Town: North Haven, CT  

Reporting for WXedge since March 2012.

Articles: 30

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