If you’ve ever wondered what the weather was like during the War Between the States, it’s pretty easy to sum up – it was bad.

The war took place at the end of the “Little Ice Age,” a period of general cooling and unpredictability that scholars date from 1310 to 1850. Despite what its name suggests, the Little Ice Age actually encompassed intense fluctuations in weather, with one year bringing an intensely cold winter and easterly winds, and the next heavy rains and raging heat.

On the whole, conditions began to warm after 1850, but during the war, Virginia experienced extreme precipitation and alternate periods of blazing heat and bitter cold.

Predictably, the bad weather affected morale. Soldiers who spent too many days in drenched tents complained of homesickness, as did those who marched in knee-deep mud on the notorious southern roads. Union general Ambrose E. Burnside’s “Mud March” in January 1863 marked a miserable attempt at winter campaigning and introduced his men to some of the worst mud of the war.

William Swinton of the New York Times, who accompanied the Army of the Potomac on the march, wrote of “indescribable chaos,” adding, “One might fancy some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world; and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge.”

Excerpted from Virginia Vignettes

Written by Kathryn Shively Meier, an ABD Ph.D. candidate in American history at the University of Virginia.


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