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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/ 8/2011

Weather leading up to the Civil War

By Don Lipman

Civil War weather: The good, the bad, and the ugly

In conjunction with the Post's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, we are doing a series of stories describing the difficult weather conditions often encountered in both the North and the South. This first installment broadly outlines the winter weather prior to the outbreak of war in April 1861.

Although in his monograph, Early American Winters II, 1821-1870, David Ludlum carefully outlined winter weather events during the Civil War years, his coverage of the winter prior to the war (1860-61), known as the Great Secession Winter, is scanty, at least for the East.

This is partly because after Lincoln's election on November 6, the pre-war network of 500 volunteer weather observers* was interrupted by the increasing turmoil and secession talk, which of course, soon led to the first state to actually secede from the union: South Carolina on December 20. (1)

Nevertheless, based on various news reports of the day, I will try to paint a picture of what weather conditions were like as war clouds gathered during that fateful period in American history.


It appears that at the beginning of November, 1860, a storm system moving northeastward from Dixie toward the eastern Lakes or New England was responsible for a variety of weather types. With cold air to the west of the system, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported on November 5 that four days earlier on Thursday, November 1, "A snow-storm visited Fayetteville, Arkansas covering the ground with snow. It commenced about noon and was still falling at night, with every prospect of its continuance." (2)

However, the same day The New York Times reported that on the previous Saturday (November 3), a storm ended "the prolonged and unusually mild weather of the past week....which was regarded as the Indian Summer." (3) Presumably, this was the same system that affected Arkansas, except that the East was definitely on the warm side.

Although the storm was a prolific rain and wind-producer throughout the Northeast, it was particularly severe along the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, where many bridges and roads were damaged or washed out, as reflected in a November 6 Times' story (relayed from the Baltimore American) entitled:

"THE LATE STORM: Great Freshet in the Alleghany Mountains Church Steeple Blown Over in New-Haven Damage on Long Island......" (4)

The "freshet" above, an archaic term today, usually referred to a river overflow from a spring thaw accompanied by heavy rains, although, as in this case, it was sometimes used to refer to flood conditions at any time of year. Since there were no reports of frozen precipitation anywhere in the Northeast, it would seem that this storm took a track far inland and it wasn't until the storm's cold front swept eastward that temperatures began to tumble.

Based on the foregoing, it's apparent that the eastern third of the country experienced relatively mild conditions, as might be expected, into early November 1860 and then a turn to colder. Weather records are meager from that point until late November, when, around November 23-24, there was a severe nor'easter--again with rain--that raked the East Coast. This storm apparently took a more easterly track and played havoc with shipping lanes:

The accounts received from vessels arriving at this port [NYC]], as well as dispatches from the East, represent the easterly gale of Friday night as very severe along our whole coast, and it is very probable that we shall yet hear of serious disasters to vessels which were exposed to its fury. (5)

After passing through, much colder air invaded the East and, with westerly gales buffeting the Great Lakes, lake-effect blizzard conditions ensued:

The storm upon the lakes has been the most severe yet experienced. Some vessels went ashore and were wrecked near Cleveland, and others which were overtaken by the storm were compelled to heave overboard portions of their cargo. At Buffalo the gale began from the west at 1 o'clock Saturday morning, accompanied with rain, which changed to snow. It raged fearfully for several hours, and is reported to have been very disastrous to shipping on Lake Erie. (7)


The colder pattern seemed to continue at least into mid-December, which is verified by: (a) reports in mid-December of heavy river ice on the Hudson and "very good sleighing at Poughkeepsie and above for nearly two weeks" and (b) a Times' story that "if there should be no unfavorable change in the weather, the skating season on the Central Park will commence to-day [December 15]. The area of ice is somewhat larger than last year...." (8)

Two days later, on December 17, the Times reported that a snowstorm had hit the mid-Atlantic, much like the storm of February 5-6, 2010 which missed New York. But in this case, the storm even skirted Washington to the south and east, as no snow was reported in DC:

Snow Storm in Virginia. RICHMOND, Saturday, Dec. 15. [1860] "The snow here is quite deep, and no trains have arrived this evening." (9)


As the New Year unfolded and the political environment worsened, weather reporting became even more scanty than before. But a Presbyterian preacher by the name of C. B. Mackee, a dedicated and committed amateur meteorologist, saw to it that, at least in the D.C. area, there would be an enduring weather record throughout the war years. (The late David Ludlum, one of America's premier weather historians, compiled a detailed weather record for winters of the Civil War throughout the East and mid-West.)

Rev. Mackee's records** survived and, in the 1950s, were entered into the national meteorological archives by the then U.S. Weather Bureau. In 2007, Robert K. Krick, in his book, Civil War Weather in Virginia, includes most of Mackee's records, which I will summarize for the first few months of 1861.

After what was referred to as a "17- inch blizzard" struck the upper Shenandoah Valley at the end of December 1860, the weather continued quite cold into January in the mid-Atlantic states, although there were 9 or 10 days in the D.C. area when it never went below freezing. There were only an estimated two days with sub-freezing temps (all day) or, as they were called, "ice days." Mackee recorded the biggest snowfall of the month (7 inches) on the 26th, the coldest about 6 degrees F above zero on the 14th. The warmest appears to have been in the low 50s on the 7th.

Not surprisingly, January temperatures were considerably colder in the Northeast, with reports10 indicating sub-zero readings at mid-month throughout the region.


Apparently, Rev. Mackee's thermometer broke on February 7 but, diligent as he was, continued to enter Richmond readings provided by a family member into the DC record and identified the readings appropriately. He obvious believed that Richmond readings were better than none at all. With a new thermometer, Mackee resumed his D.C. observations on February 28 and continued making them throughout the war..

Although Mackee's February temperature record was somewhat milder than if all readings were taken in D.C., the fact is that February 1861 probably was quite mild throughout the mid-Atlantic, especially after the 10th. On February 8, however, during a brief intrusion from an Arctic air mass, it is safe to assume that D.C. temps fell to the single digits, as the Richmond record reflected a low of about 12 degrees and a high in the upper 20s. But by the 28th, the mercury soared to 70 degrees.

MARCH 1861

March 1861, the last month prior to the attack on Ft. Sumter and the beginning of hostilities, came in springlike in the D.C. area, with temperatures hovering in the low 80s during the first few days. Between then and the month's last ten days, however, the tables turned, as they often do in March. On the 14th, the 18th, and again on the 21st, a total of almost 7 inches of snow fell, with the most wintry conditions occurring on the 18th, when almost 4 inches fell with temps in the 20's throughout.

Hundreds of miles to the south, at Ft. Sumter, SC, work proceeded to shore up Union defenses for whatever lay ahead. Between March 8-11, there was a series of communiqu├ęs from the fort's Union commanders to Washington which revealed that, for the most part, there was nothing more unusual about the weather there than there was in D.C. One exception: the "prevalence of a high and cold wind" on March 11 which temporarily slowed things down. Ft. Sumter weather records for the remainder of the month were quite spotty but presumably, the last third of the month was even more pleasant than it was in Washington.

NEXT: April 1861 and beyond.


*After the invention of the telegraph and until 1849, observations were telegraphically transmitted to the Smithsonian Institution, which prepared the weather maps. But by 1860, observations were being transmitted to the Washington Evening Star, presumably for the same purpose.
**It was customary at the time to make observations only in the early morning, early afternoon, and early to mid-evening. Mackee chose to make them at 7:00 A.M., 2:00 P.M., and 9:00 P.M. Therefore, minimum and maximum temperatures are only approximations.
(1) NOAA's National Weather Service Public Affairs Office, 17 March 2010
(2) Richmond Times Dispatch, November 5, 1860
(3) New York Times, November 5, 1860
(4) New York Times, November 6, 1860
(5) New York Times, November 26, 1860
(6) New York Times, November 26, 1860
(7) New York Times, November 26, 1860
(8) New York Times, December 15, 1860
(9) New York Times, December 17 1860
(10) N.Y. Times, January 14, 1861

By Don Lipman  | March 8, 2011; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  History, Latest, Lipman  
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Great stuff here. This type of historical recap is a fantastic addition to this site.

Posted by: ThinkSpring | March 8, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Lovign all the historical coverage of the Civil War...this is a nice add!

Kim in manassas (where we will soon be marking the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas)

Posted by: ksrgatorfn1 | March 8, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

The big "weather" event leading up to the Civil War was a space weather event--a HUGE solar coronal mass ejection late in 1859 or thereabouts directed straight at Earth.

A similar CME today would probably "fry" all our electric power systems and electronic equipment. It might take two years or more to replace the burned-out extra high voltage transformers in our power grid. As it happened in 1859, this burst of radiation knocked out telegraph equipment, and auroras were observed as far south as the Tropic of Cancer.

People used to regard visible comets as harbingers of war and bad times. There seems to have been a "great" comet which became readily visible across the nation in 1858.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 8, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Nice! As a history teacher and Civil War reenactor, I'm loving it!

Posted by: PoorTeacher | March 8, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Walter will like those late March snow mentions.

Posted by: rwalker66 | March 8, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

hahaha! yes, when in march, i love march snows. 4" on the 18th - i wonder what jason had the SPI at before that storm....

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 8, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

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