Civil War Profiles — When spring arrives, combat is renewed!


Weather conditions played a significant role in the progress and outcome of military operations during the Civil War. This was particularly true in the eastern part of the country, and especially in Virginia, where a number of major battles took place.


It was difficult to move large armies, artillery and miles-long wagon trains carrying supplies over mostly dirt roads that were impassable when the rains came. A classic case was the so-called “Mud March” that Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted along the north bank of the Rappahannock River in December 1862 in an attempt to outflank the Confederate army on the opposite side of the river.

Movement was so difficult over roads that became quagmires that the march had to be canceled. Campaigning did not resume until springtime, when drier weather returned.

In an article for the online Encyclopedia Virginia, Kathryn Shively Meier makes the point that weather was such an important factor during the Civil War that people referred to meteorological events in letters and diaries, knowing how critical they were to the outcome of military engagements. The elements factored into strategic planning, prompting commanders to request weather forecasts, but prognosticating was not very accurate at that time.

Rain made it difficult to fire weapons when gunpowder and paper cartridges became wet. In a battle at New Market, Va., Rebel soldiers’ feet got stuck in the mud crossing a wheat field causing many to lose their shoes — a scarce item in the South.

The armies generally went into winter camp during the cold, wet, damp months of the year. Soldiers often constructed log cabins with chimneys, to keep from freezing.

The troops stayed busy with the ever-present drilling and stood guard on picket duty. They also engaged in leisure activities.

These activities included writing letters, playing cards and attending religious services. Sgt. Henry Orr, 12th Texas Cavalry, wrote, “There is a string band in the regiment, and occasionally they have a serenade around the different companies.”

Dr. W.J. Worsham, 19th Tennessee Regiment, recorded, “Christmas [1863] caught up with us again and came on in full sympathy of the times, boisterous and stormy. It seemed there were more fighting and drinking in camp than usual, gambling was again on the rampage.”

As the war lingered on, winter camps became more difficult for Confederate soldiers because supplies and food had become scarce. Union troops had less of a problem, given the North had better transportation and commissary facilities to sustain the army.

The camps became like small villages, with company streets, churches and suttlers’ shops where a variety of items could be purchased. Managing these makeshift military communities was difficult, however, especially providing clean water and disposing of waste — not to mention the scarcity of food.

However, the long winters in camp became monotonous, and disease was a major factor, causing more men to die from a variety of illnesses than engaging in combat. The leading cause of death was dysentery, followed by typhoid fever, malaria, pneumonia, smallpox and yellow fever. Contributing factors included poor hygiene, spoiled food, impure water and lack of medical knowledge (http://classroom.synonym.com/biggest-causes-death-soldiers-during-civil-...).

In the spring of 1863, when Virginia roads once again could facilitate marching armies, a battle erupted at Chancellorsville in which Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia gained a victory over a Union army twice its size. Lee accomplished this feat primarily because he was able to maneuver in such a way as to mystify his stationary opponent.

Conversely, in May of 1864, after the armies had wintered in encampments, Ulysses S. Grant embarked on the Overland Campaign that led to the siege of Lee’s forces at Petersburg and Richmond. An attempt by Lee to flee farther south to join another Rebel army was unsuccessful, because Grant pursued aggressively, cut off their attempt to escape and forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

The Civil War had lasted four years. Weather conditions were a factor in prolonging the conflict, because combat abated a number of months each year, until spring, when roads could once again be traversed.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, or contact him directly at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.