Civil War Inclement Weather

by D.L. Mercer

(Adapted from some e-mails on the cw-reenactor Internet list I used to maintain)

There are numerous accounts of inclement weather causing destruction and even death during the Civil War. Two particularly come to mind, the first being an account from a pard of Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee, who was killed when a midnight thunderstorm dropped a branch on his head. Unfortunately, my copy of Company Aytch is on loan, so I cannot cite the date and location.

Another account I happen to have in my files is as follows, from Captain Edward Porter Thompson's History of the Orphan Brigade.

A Camp Struck by a Southern Hurricane at Night

A Storm, which had occurred on the night of 14th March, just before the brigade reached Decatur, somewhat varied the monotony of the wearisome days, and afforded much matter for laughter and fun, though it was of itself a serious thing. The infantry had encamped in a pasture, to the right of the road, and along a skirt of inclosed woodland. The Companies had each been supplied with about seven Sibley tents, and these were pitched in order, as the clouded atmosphere betokened rain. A short time after the evening meal had been dispatched, and all who had concluded to spend the night "at home" were sitting around, passing their time in the various ways of which soldiers can conceive, when a low sound at first as of falling rain, then of approaching wind, arrested attention. It grew more furious every second, until it struck the encampments with a mighty blow, and created such a stir that no one present can ever forget.

Officers and men sprang up and seized the center poles of their Sibleys, in the vain hopes of holding them to the ground, but the wind was so violent that they were bounced up and down like puppets on a string, and quicker then it can be told, almost every tent in the brigade was torn up and blown away or sprawled over, and some thousands of men were uncovered to the fury of a Southern Hurricane.

In some cases, where less care had been taken to secure the tents, they were blown loose from cords and pins and flew about to the danger and discomfiture of all who chanced to stand in their course. Blankets, hats and clothing darted suddenly from their rightful owners - tin cups, spoons, crockery, sheet-iron vessels, rattled their accompaniment to the din as they were blown or kicked about. Everything was jumbled up in a disorderly mass.

I would like to note, the Confederate 'Orphan Brigade' story above is from 1862, in February of 1863 Henry Phillips, the brigade quartermaster, records. ". . . among these, the tents of the brigade, much tattered, torn and scorched, were also turned in, and the boys slept beneath the stars during the remainder of our campaigns..."

I have another case on file from June 1865, when a federal regiment was on its way back to Louisville, Ky., to be disbanded after serving for three years with the Army of the Cumberland. A thunderstorm struck, again at night, and in the confusion of attempting to retrieve their arms, which had been stacked, one man was shot three times through the body by a collapsing stack. Happily, the unfortunate Yank lived. (Why would they leave their guns loaded after the war was over?)