Civil War Weather in Virginia
by Robert K. Krick, University of Alabama Press , 2007, $39.95
Weather is one of the most important and least appreciated factors in warfare.Accurate knowledge of conditions has often been the difference between victory and disaster and provides some of the most tantalizing “what ifs” of history. For example, would Stonewall Jackson have launched his fateful Romney Campaign on January 1, 1862, if he’d had the weather report from Cumberland, Maryland?
Robert K. Krick begins the introduction of his new book, Civil War Weather in Virginia, by recalling an appeal by the famed Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman for a “meteorological register of the War Between the States.”Although Krick does not claim to have achieved that in his new book, it goes a long way towards filling that gap,at least in the East. Krick is eminently qualified to make this contribution to Civil War scholarship, having a wide range of knowledge of the Civil War’s Eastern theater. His specialty is the Army of Northern Virginia, and he is not only the author of numerous books and articles on the army but served as historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. Over the years, Krick has become one of the most sought-after battlefield guides and has worked vigorously on battlefield preservation for several decades.
Although this book is not a book for casual readers of Civil War literature, it will be quite useful for researchers and historians.It provides a combination of charts from data acquired by local observers of daily weather and commentary from primary sources such as diaries and letters.These sources provide supplementary information on weather conditions at a variety of places in the Eastern theater.The book has a chapter for each year of the war,and they are divided by months,beginning with October 1860 and ending in June 1865.A chart is provided for each month, listing the time of sunrise and sunset in Richmond and the temperature in Washington,D.C.,at 7 a.m.,2 p.m. and 9 p.m.The Washington data is provided by the Reverend C. B. Mackee of Georgetown.
The most reliable source for Richmond weather comes from the ledger of Charles J. Meriwether. Unfortunately, Meriwether’s records stop in February 1862. The most interesting part of the book, however,is not the charts but the anecdotal accounts from letters,diaries and newspapers that accompany each monthly section.Only a historian of Krick’s depth and experience could provide such a wide array of items, ranging from the most famous weather-related events of the war to the most mundane.Krick’s firstperson entries provide the reader with accounts of such memorable events as the “Mud” March of the Army of the Potomac, the “Great Snowball Fight” of 1863 among soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia and the accidental death of Union General Philip Kearny, who rode into Confederate lines during the Battle of Chantilly because of a violent thunderstorm.It also gives the reader an accurate account of the weather in Richmond on the day that Major John Pelham’s body arrived after his mortal wounding at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, the weather at Confederate President Jefferson Davis’first inauguration and the real cause of a tragic train wreck that cost the lives of several members of the First Texas Infantry on their way to the Manassas battlefield in July 1861.
These are only a few examples of the hundreds of weather-related stories in the book.It even has some valuable information that could have been of great help to Stonewall Jackson before he departed Winchester,Va., on that crucial first day of 1862. Krick chronicles the weather report from Cumberland that describes a dramatic 28-degree drop in temperature.Had Jackson known that,he could have avoided getting caught in a severe ice storm that demoralized his men and cut short his expedition.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.