Civil War Soldiers and Weather
Besides commenting on food, perhaps the single most thing mentioned in Civil War soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs is the weather. That is not surprising when one considers how much time soldiers spent out in the elements and how much a particular day’s weather conditions might affect their lives and brighten or dampen their morale.
Fair Skies and Dark Clouds
Other than the December Battle of Fredericksburg, the campaigns fought at Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House all occurred during May, which is typically a mild weather month in central Virginia. However, the stresses of constant maneuvering and enduring combat often elevated the soldiers’ sense perceptions of environmental conditions like temperature. Similarly, in the hustle and bustle of campaigning, soldiers often jettisoned equipment that in normal times helped them endure the elements and stay comfortable, sometimes to their later regret. Additionally, movements of large numbers of troops exacerbated environmental situations creating clouds of dust in dry periods and seas of mud during rainy times. Finally, as visitors to the Old Dominion know, the weather here can change drastically with little warning. All of these things helped leave strong impressions on the soldiers. In this history email we will explore some of the soldiers' observations about weather through their written words.
Battle of Fredericksburg
In the days leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg a significant cold snap came over the area. Cyrus Forwood, serving in the 2nd Delaware Infantry, mentioned in his diary that December 6-7, 1862, was “the coldest I have experienced since I joined the Army. Three men froze to death on Picket.” But soon, temperatures started to climb. J. P. Coburn, 141st Pennsylvania wrote on December 10, “the weather is warm and pleasant today & the snow which has lain for several days is fast disappearing.” Melting snow and thawing earth created seas of mud. Although some histories depict the December 13, 1862 battle as cold and snowy, contemporary, and many recollected accounts disagree. “The weather . . . was much above freezing point . . . . there was no snow on the ground except on the northern exposures and in the woods,” remembered Oregon Foster, 9th Virginia Cavalry. One recording had the high temperature that day as 56 degrees.
Over-exaggerated accounts of wounded soldiers literally freezing on the battlefield are legend, as the temperature that night did not drop below 40 degrees. However, if not properly equipped, conditions proved uncomfortable for soldiers. For example, Sgt. Charles T. Bowen, 12th U.S. Infantry, described December 13, 1862, as arriving “bright and beautiful,” but, he got cold after the sun went down. “When we were relieved we went back into the city nearly starved & frozen for our blankets were in our knapsack & we had no chance to eat while out,” Bowen wrote. Later in the month, back in camp, Bowen penned home, “We do not suffer much from cold now as we have made quite comfortable sleeping places. We dig a hole about three feet deep & bank up the earth around it & then cover it over with our shelter tent & make mud & stick chimbly at one corner & dig a fire place, build a little fire, & feel at home.”
Battle of Chancellorsville
As Gen. Joseph Hooker maneuvered the Army of the Potomac to attack the Army of Northern Virginia, a thunderstorm hit on the night of April 28, 1863. It muddied the roads, which made marching and moving supplies much more difficult. A lightning strike knocked out part of the telegraph line severing communication. The arrival of May 1 brought sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures. John J. Shoemaker of Stuart’s horse artillery referred to it as a “genuine May day.” Capt. Alfred Lee, 82nd Ohio, wrote that on May 2 “the sun dawned clear and beautiful.” For those like Capt. Lee in the Eleventh Corps camps it was a comfortable day. However, for some of Gen. Jackson’s hard marching Confederates, attempting to get into position, “the weather was fine but we suffered for water,” recalled South Carolinian Lt. J. F. J. Caldwell. Detached from the Second Corps, and fighting with Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, Maj. Henry Livermore Abbott, 20th Massachusetts Infantry, wrote about May 3rd, “All day there was skirmishing & the heat was terrible. . . .” May 3 proved to be the hottest day of 1863 to that point, with the temperature rising to 80 degrees. A bright sun and cloudless day added to the miseries of the combatants.
Following the fight at Chancellorsville, Taliaferro N. Simpson, 3rd South Carolina, wrote to his father, “My shoes are out, and my feet are so sore that I can scarcely walk. We have no tents, and the weather is as cold and rainy as any in winter time.” William White of the Richmond Howitzers concurred in his diary entry for May 5. White wrote: “This afternoon the rain fell in torrents and soon our trenches were filled with water. Having no tents we were entirely unprotected, and the cold rain perfectly benumbed us.” Mississippian Lt. William C. Nelson, wrote his mother several days after the Chancellorsville fight that, “The weather is beautiful now, warm and clear, it seems like summer, although it is only within the last week that the trees have assumed their summer dress, the woods do not yet look green.”
After spending the winter and first part of the spring of 1864 in winter quarters in Culpeper County and Orange County, Union and Confederate soldiers began preparations for a new phase of the war. April ended with beautiful weather. Walter Lee, 4th North Carolina Inf., wrote to his sister on April 21, “Only one day and night of rain, the rest of the time the most delightful kind of weather.” On May 2, cannoneer William White noted, “in the afternoon the skies were overspread with clouds and angry west winds came sweeping from the mountains with a hurricane-like sound . . . then came the rain and hail, driving full in our faces.” Lt. N. D. Peterson, 10th New York Cavalry, also commented on the May 2 wind and its results: “It was a cloud of dust—Virginia real estate on the rampage.” The day before going into the battle of the Wilderness, Lt. William C. Nelson, commented in a letter to his mother: “The weather had been extremely fine for the past two or three weeks. Day before yesterday we had quite a storm, and on the mountains snow was visible yesterday, but the weather today is quite warm and summer-like.”
Sgt. Charles T. Bowen, 12th U.S. Infantry, wrote in his diary, “The march on the 5th [May 1864] was very hot and we all had to throw away part of our kit. I left my overcoat on the roadside.” The temperature rose to the mid-70s on the first day of the battle. However, few breezes made it into the think underbrush of the Wilderness causing soldiers to believe it was much warmer. Joseph Graves, Bedford (Virginia) Light Artillery, wrote that day that, “It was very warm and dusty.” Thick smoke from thousands of rifles and wildfires in the dense underbrush only added to the uncomfortable conditions. On May 6, temperatures rose to the low 90s. Fierce fighting created more ground fires. So much movement by the forces also created vast clouds of dust. A soldier in the 37th Massachusetts remembered “the many wheels and feet of horses and men pounded the dry soil into impalpable dust, which rose hundreds of feet in the air.” But, there was no time to recover physically or mentally as Gen. U. S. Grant moved toward Spotsylvania Court House.
Spotsylvania Court House
Since the ongoing fighting at Spotsylvania spanned almost two weeks, there was greater opportunity for variety in the weather. Sgt. Bowen wrote about May 8,1864, noting, “We made a forced march & the day was terrible warm & dusty.” Nearby recordings put the high at 95 degrees. May 10 continued hot with the mercury reaching 93 degrees. That evening, Col. Emory Upton’s sweaty 12-regiment assault force punched a hole in part of the Confederate line, but rebel counterattacks reclaimed it.
On May 11, a light drizzle turned heavier late in the day as temperatures rose. Soldiers found it difficult to find their way while positioning for an attack early on May 12. John Haley, 17th Maine, commented “rain fell steadily, and the night so dark men has to almost feel their way.” Once in line and ready, the assault unfolded in the unrelenting rain. The prevailing opinion among soldiers was that the rain on May 12 made one of the war’s worst days of combat even worse. A Union soldier wrote poetically, “it seems as if Heaven has to weep over the scene.” Sgt. Bowen described the conditions: “On the 12th we were ordered out in a tremendious rain & advanced through a ploughed field under a heavy fire within a short distance of the rebel works. Here we were ordered to lay down in the mud & the rain poured on us in torrents.” David Holt, 16th Mississippi, remembered, “All the time a drizzling rain was falling. The blood shed by the dead and wounded in the trench mixed with the mud and water.” Rain continued at Spotsylvania through May 17, turning fields and roads into oceans of mud. The fighting went into May 18 and 19, both remarkably beautiful days, however, tempered by additional bloodshed. On May 20-21, Gen. Grant left Spotsylvania moving south around Gen. Lee’s right flank, to continue more punishing marches and combat through all types of weather on other fields of fury.
Sources & Recommended Reading
Krick, Robert K. Civil War Weather in Virginia. University of Alabama Press, 2007. Noe, Kenneth. The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War. Louisiana State University Press, 2020.
“The smoke was so think and dense sometimes during the day [May 6, 1864] that it was impossible to discern anything fifty paces away, and at midday the smoke was so thick overhead that I could just make out to see the sun, and it looked like a vast ball of red fire hanging in a smoke-veiled sky.” Corp. George M. Neese, Chew's (Virginia) Horse Artillery on the Battle of the Wilderness.
(Photo by Tim Talbott, 2022)
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.