Weather in the Civil War
Drought, flooding, bone-chilling winters, and intense summer heat all had an impact on the civilian and military populations of Arkansas during the Civil War, affecting military campaigns, access to food and supplies, and health conditions throughout the state.
The Civil War was fought just after the end of a meteorological period that climate historians often call the Little Ice Age. This era, lasting roughly from 1300 to 1850, featured frequent climatic shifts, with bitterly cold winters switching to periods of heavy spring flooding, often followed by mild winters and subsequent droughts. While the trend toward cooling that characterized the Little Ice Age had moved toward warming by the 1860s, Civil War Arkansas would be plagued by temperature fluctuations that could strongly affect the actions of the armies in the state. These conditions were chronicled in the letters and diaries of soldiers and civilians and in the reports of the military commanders who faced them.
The first major campaign to take place in Arkansas saw extremes of climatic conditions. As Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest (US) pursued General Sterling Price’s Missouri state troops (CS) through southwestern Missouri, both armies were tormented by severe winter storms that turned the region’s wretched roads into soggy sloughs that froze into jagged paths, destroying the footwear of the soldiers and trapping supply wagons. Despite the conditions, the Federals entered Arkansas on February 17, 1862, and established camps on the Pea Ridge Plateau.
Confederate forces in northwestern Arkansas, led by Major General Ben McCulloch, meanwhile had established winter quarters at Cross Hollows near modern-day Rogers (Benton County), where their snug cabins protected them from the harsh conditions. The troops—many of them from Texas and Louisiana—were actually enjoying the weather, and a particularly heavy snow in late January resulted in a massive snowball fight that featured squadrons of cavalry racing to rescue hapless soldiers and civilians who were being dunked into snowdrifts or pelted by snowballs. Curtis’s Yankees soon flanked McCulloch and Price’s newcomers from Cross Hollows, however, and the Confederates retreated into the inhospitable Boston Mountains.
The Confederates were soon joined by their new commander, Major General Earl Van Dorn, who himself had suffered from icy conditions after falling into the frigid Little Red River on his way to join his army. Van Dorn enthusiastically ordered an attack on Curtis’s army as it consolidated above Little Sugar Creek, but as his men headed north on March 4, a blizzard struck northwestern Arkansas, creating miserable marching conditions and littering the road with stragglers and soldiers who simply collapsed from exhaustion. Losses from the march helped even the odds for the outnumbered Federals, who fought the Confederates to a standstill in the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7, 1862, and, after enduring a bitterly cold night, drove Van Dorn’s troops from the field the next day.
Van Dorn soon took his troops—and most of the military and manufacturing supplies in Arkansas—east of the Mississippi River, leading Curtis to return to Arkansas to occupy Batesville (Independence County) and Searcy (White County), threatening Little Rock (Pulaski County). However, Arkansas suffered from drought conditions in the summer of 1862, making it difficult for Curtis’s troops to forage. An attempt to supply the army via the White River failed as a Union flotilla from Memphis, Tennessee, was turned back by drought-enhanced low water before reaching Clarendon (Monroe County). This led to Curtis making the momentous decision to cut his supply lines and march his men east for the Mississippi River during a brutally hot Arkansas summer, living off the land and the scarce water supplies of eastern Arkansas. He reached Helena (Phillips County) on July 12, 1862, ending the Pea Ridge Campaign and establishing a base that would remain the main Union station in the region for the duration of the war.
Weather also played a role in the Prairie Grove Campaign at the end of 1862. As General Thomas Hindman led his Confederate army into the Boston Mountains from the Arkansas River Valley on December 4, 1862, the men marched into a heavy rainstorm that dropped temperatures and turned Cove Creek, which the troops would have to cross thirty-seven times, into a raging torrent. After camping on December 6–7 during a night one Missourian described as “very dark and wretched cold,” Hindman’s army pitched into battle with General Francis Herron’s Missouri Division of the Union Army of the Frontier, which arrived on the field after a three-day march from Springfield, Missouri, in bitterly cold weather. While the morning of December 7 was cold, the savage fighting at Prairie Grove took place in moderate temperatures—small comfort to the hundreds of wounded in the day’s fighting. The night, however, was again brutally cold, torturing the wounded; some men, seeking warmth, crawled into haystacks that later caught fire.
The winter of 1863–64 saw heavy flooding and sharply varying temperatures that did not directly affect the January 9–11 Battle of Arkansas Post, in which some 30,000 Union soldiers and a fleet of gunboats subdued the approximately 5,000-man Confederate garrison at the former territorial capital, but it did impact its aftermath. The weather was warm as the Federal force approached Arkansas Post, which led many of the Confederate troops to leave their overcoats behind in their winter huts as they manned their fortifications. The weather rapidly changed as they were being transported to northern prisoner-of-war camps after the battle, causing much suffering and illness among the captives. A follow-up raid on the White River by U.S. gunboats and Union infantry was stymied at DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), when Brigadier General Willis A. Gorman reported that his planned advance against Little Rock was stopped “by the sea of mud and water intervening between that place and DeVall’s [sic] Bluff.”
Both high water and heat would bedevil the Confederate attempt to retake Helena six months later. Heavy spring rains flooded the Cache River and other waterways in eastern Arkansas as Confederate soldiers marched toward Helena in June 1863—one Arkansas infantryman wrote that “it was mud & water all the time from ‘knee’ deep up to the arm pits.” As the Rebel troops began their final approaches toward the heavily fortified town, a heavy fog arose, concerning the Union defenders and giving cover to the Confederates. The fog quickly burned off on an extremely hot July 4, and many of the attacking forces collapsed from the effects of the heat before they retreated from their failed assault.
It was the Yankees’ turn to suffer from the heat a few weeks later as they marched from Helena in a bid to capture Little Rock. As they marched through eastern Arkansas, men dropped by the score, overcome by the intense heat, a lack of water, and the region’s malarial conditions. One Minnesota soldier summed it up by writing “the heat and dust added to the debilitated state of the system in this climate is as much as humanity can stand.” By the time the Federal infantry arrived at Clarendon (Monroe County) in late August, at least 1,000 were out of commission, and it would not be until after they captured Little Rock on September 10 that many would begin to regain their strength.
Heavy rains were a major factor in the spring 1864 Camden Expedition, turning the roads Major General Frederick Steele’s Union army used into muddy quagmires, causing delays and increasing use of scarce supplies by a force that began the march on half rations. A Confederate attack on Union troops at Okolona (Clark County) on April 3 was marked by a violent hail storm, but two later battles would more heavily affect the Union army’s fate. A Union wagon train heading to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) for supplies bogged down in the muddy Moro Bottoms, giving Confederate cavalry ample time to arrange its attack at Marks’ Mills on April 25, a battle that cost the Federals some 1,500 of the approximately 1,800 soldiers involved in the fight. This led Steele to abandon his post at Camden (Ouachita County) and retreat toward Little Rock, much of the time in driving rain. Reaching Jenkins’ Ferry, the Federals found the Saline River roaring out of its banks and flooding the adjacent lowlands. As Steele ordered his wagons and artillery across the Saline on pontoon bridges, he established rear guard positions that helped funnel attacking Confederates into muddy low ground that hampered their mobility and provided easy targets for Union marksmen, who inflicted around 400 casualties on the Rebels while suffering around 500. Extremely muddy roads on the far side of the Saline led Steele to burn the majority of his wagons and supplies before his remaining soldiers marched back to the safety of Little Rock’s fortifications.
Muddy conditions turned to the Confederates’ advantage in June 1864, when a Union force disembarked at Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County to stamp out Confederates under Colonel Colton Greene, who had been harassing Union shipping on the Mississippi River. Heavy rains transformed the fields south of Ditch Bayou, where Greene had set up his defenses, into mud pits, causing the attacking Yankees to sink up to their knees while trying to keep their ammunition dry enough to fire at the Confederates. Greene’s men fired until they ran out of artillery ammunition and then retired from the field after causing 131 casualties for the Union troops.
In the waning months of the war, soldiers and civilians alike suffered from the effects of a continuing drought that reduced harvests throughout the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy and made supply to Union posts via river difficult, leading to starvation conditions in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and seizure of Confederate supplies by civilians in southwestern Arkansas. When the war ended in the spring of 1865, much of Arkansas was a wasteland.
For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
———. “‘We Were Badly Whipped’: A Confederate Account of the Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Spring 2010): 44–53.
Christ, Mark K., ed. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300–1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Forsyth, Michael J. The Camden Expedition of 1864 and the Opportunity Lost by the Confederacy to Change the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.
Kerby, Robert L. Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863–1865. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1972.
Noe, Kenneth W. The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021.
Shea, William L. Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Shea, William L., and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Simons, Don R. In Their Words: A Chronology of the Civil War in Chicot County, Arkansas, and Adjacent Waters of the Mississippi River. Sulphur, LA: Wise Publications, 1999.
“Snow Battle in Fayetteville, January 1862.” Flashback 10 (April 1960): 37.
Tunnard, W. H. A Southern Record: The History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
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