Winter weather could be as wild in Virginia as in Maine

A dog follows its Union master as he waves through the snow drifts covering a Federal camp at Stoneman's Switch in January 1863. Located north of Fredericksburg, the "switch" was a railroad junction surrounded by Union camps during the long, cold winter of 1863. (Art by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

A dog follows its Union master as he waves through the snow drifts covering a Federal camp at Stoneman’s Switch in January 1863. Located north of Fredericksburg, the “switch” was a railroad junction surrounded by Union camps during the long, cold winter of 1863. (Art by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

Accustomed to New England’s frigid winters, many Maine soldiers noticed how cold and wet that Virginia winters could be. John H. Stevens, a first lieutenant with Co. D, 5th Maine Infantry, hailed from Acton in York County. Nestled in the foothills of the White Mountains, Acton saw its share of bitter cold, but growing up there did not prepare Stevens for the reality of a Tidewater winter.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 5th Maine camped near White Oak Church, a simple country church located east of the Rappahannock River in Stafford County. By the end of January 1863, the 5th Maine boys had discovered that “camp life in winter is at best rather a tedious and monotonous affairs,” Stevens noted.

Perhaps writing the weather helped relieve his monotony; his February diary entries often led off with a meteorological report.

Rain fell after sunset on Sunday, Feb. 1, which had been “quite pleasant all day,” Stevens observed. Monday was “quite pleasant,” too, but Tuesday brought a “morning cold as Greenland” and squalls that cleared off by noon; “but, oh dear, as cold and stinging [a temperature] as I ever knew.”

Not until evening did Stevens venture outdoors due to the cold, which continued unabated on Feb. 4; making the rounds “as officer of the guard,” he dealt with the bitter cold that “makes one’s nose and ears tingle some if not more.”

Thursday, Feb. 5 dawned “very cold,” but the temperature rose as an approaching cold front combined Gulf Coast moisture with cold air from a nearby high-pressure system and dropped snow on eastern Virginia all day. As a 21st-century weather forecaster would describe the scenario on a Bangor or Portland TV station, the storm ultimately tracked north and west of Fredericksburg, allowing rain to supplant the snow along the coast and some distance inland.

The storm hung around. “Rained incessantly all night and about all forenoon,” Stevens reported on Friday, Feb. 6. He had participated in Ambrose Burnside’s rain-stalled “Mud March” in January; to a young man familiar with deep snow in midwinter, the concept of heavy rain instead of heavy snow was unfamiliar.

Virginia's vagarious weather varied from sunshine to rain to snow during winter 1863. After Ambrose Burnside started the Army of the Potomac on a maneuver to outflank Confederate troops dug in at Fredericksburg, torrential rains transformed the central Virginia roads to deep mud. Artillery and wagons bogged down, and infantrymen tramped through mud almost knee deep at times. Combat artist Alfred Waud eloquently captured the misery of the "Mud March" on Jan. 21, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Virginia’s vagarious weather varied from sunshine to rain to snow during winter 1863. After Ambrose Burnside started the Army of the Potomac on a maneuver to outflank Confederate troops dug in at Fredericksburg, torrential rains transformed the central Virginia roads to deep mud. Artillery and wagons bogged down, and infantrymen tramped through mud almost knee deep at times. Combat artist Alfred Waud eloquently captured the misery of the “Mud March” on Jan. 21, 1863. (Library of Congress)

The sky cleared late Friday, and the ground froze overnight. Saturday brought warmer air that left “the top of the ground thawed, very muddy.” The weather repeated itself on Sunday, Feb. 9, and the weather on Monday was “unusually pleasant.”

That’s all John Stevens wrote about what was apparently a picture-perfect winter’s day.

Rainstorms and sunshine affected the 5th Maine boys over the next few days as regiment went “on picket” and “tramped around considerable on Friday, Feb. 13, which was “very pleasant indeed all day.”

Valentine’s Day was a repeat, weather-wise, but on Sunday, Feb. 15, Stevens “awoke this morning and found the clouds pouring down the rain copiously.” Relieved on the picket line by the 32nd New York Infantry, the worn-out Maine boys returned to camp.

Snow fell early on Tuesday, Feb. 17 “and snowed all day fast. Quite a lot of snow fell,” Stevens noted. Then the rising thermometer started melting the snow and sending water running everywhere. The 5th Maine boys had learned the previous winter to dig shallow ditches around their winter cabins (most with tent roofs) to drain runoff away from them.

Rain fell almost all day on Wednesday before ending in late afternoon on Thursday, Feb. 19. Friday was “fair and pleasant all day,” wrote the bored Stevens, who would “rather be engaged on an active campaign in good weather rather than lay around in a winter camp in bad weather.”

One senses a touch of cabin fever in that particular comment.

After enjoying a “quite pleasant” Saturday, Feb. 21, Stevens was quite surprised when Sunday “was ushered in by a violent snowstorm. Snowed all day like fury, a regular “down easter.” Despite the blizzard, a Union battery fired a salute in honor of Washington’s birthday.

A distant Confederate battery returned the honor.

His face covered with a scarf, a lonely Union pickets stands watch as winter twilight settles over a snowy Virginia landscape. (Art by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

His face covered with a scarf, a lonely Union pickets stands watch as winter twilight settles over a snowy Virginia landscape. (Art by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

Sunday’s storm left “quite a large body of snow on the ground” for Monday, Feb. 23, and Tuesday turned “quite pleasant” — and ditto for Wednesday. Virginia’s wintry weather pattern resumed with the rain “falling in torrents” on Thursday, Feb. 26, “rather a dreary dismal day,” wrote Stevens, who could be describing a typical Maine winter-weather pattern of two days of sunshine for every five days of cloudy, inclement weather.

February 1863 passed into history with “rather more pleasant” weather on Friday, Feb. 27 and nice sunshine followed by “cloudy and raw” afternoon conditions that gave a “strong indication of storm,” Stevens noted.

“Today ushers in the Spring of 1863,” he claimed on Sunday, March 1.

If that day’s weather was a harbinger of what 1863 would bring on the battlefield, then the Union troops were in for one heck of an experience. The morning rain ended “after a few hours,” and “the clouds dispersed, the sun broke out, and all nature looked gay and smiling,” Stevens observed.

Then the March wind came roaring through the Tidewater like a lion and “blew down chimneys, made others smoke and raised Cain generally. Then dried up” and stopped, Stevens noted.

Welcome to early spring in Virginia.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.