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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 04/11/2011

April 1861: The War Between the States begins— what was the weather like?


On April 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, had been in office only 39 days when, at 4:30 A.M., Confederate cannons opened fire against Ft. Sumter, SC, a small Union garrison in Charleston harbor. The Civil War had begun.

Most historians agree that the weather was a huge issue during the entire conflict but strangely, at the time of the Ft. Sumter bombardment, little was reported about the weather. That day, however, it was rainy and in the 60s in DC, so we can only assume that Charleston weather was at least that warm, if not warmer (about average for Charleston in April)—with no rain at the time of shelling, since battles were generally not initiated in foul weather.


The bombardment of Ft. Sumter in 1861 when there were no reports of foul weather.
April 1861

According to the Rev. C.B. Mackee (one of our best Civil War weather resources, as mentioned in Part I of this series), the remainder of April 1861 in Washington was quite pleasant. Temperatures were mostly in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with the exception of 2 days with “high winds” and one (April 17th) when temperatures at the 3 observation times (7:00 A.M., 2:00 P.M., and 9:00 P.M.) were all the same, at 42 degrees — a very unusual occurrence. April 1861’s mid-Atlantic weather would contrast sharply with that of April 1862, when it was relatively cold and even snowy. And on April 5, 1863, 12 inches of snow fell, although it turned considerably milder thereafter.

(By the way, the “modern” record for April snowfall, at least for Reagan National Airport and its predecessor observing stations dating back to 1888 was the 1924 April Fool’s Day Storm of 5.5 inches, when the station located near Foggy Bottom. Baltimore was hit with 9 inches of snow and sleet.*)

In addition to making weather observations during the Civil War years, Rev. Mackee was also quite attentive with regard to making notes of seasonal changes in flora and fauna. Of particular interest to many of us, especially at this time of year, are Mackee’s comments about the first springtime appearance of cherry tree blossoms in DC. in 1861, ‘62, ‘63, and ’65. From ’61 to ‘63, they apparently bloomed no earlier than April 18 and as late as April 30, although during April 1865, the last year of the war, they bloomed around April 6.

These cherry trees were obviously not of the variety donated to Washington by Japan in 1912 and it’s unclear when they would have blossomed in today’s climate. Nevertheless, by comparison with current average blooming dates of cherry trees in the tidal basin, most of the above dates are quite late in the season—an indication, perhaps, of what’s been called “season creep”--earlier springs and later falls.

May 1861

With the exception of the first few days, the month of May 1861, according to Mackee, turned out to be relatively mild to cool in the Washington area, with only 3 days exceeding 80 degrees and about 9 days of showery or drizzly weather. The lowest recorded temperatures were in the low 40s, the highest in the upper 80s on two different days.

The coolish weather in the mid-Atlantic, however, gave way to downright cold conditions further north in New York State and New England, as reflected in a letter from the diaries of Ralph Leland Goodrich, a Yankee schoolteacher in South Carolina. In May 1861, Goodrich received a letter, one of the last before mail was suspended between the North and the South, from his mother and sister in Oswego, NY, who referred to the “very cold” weather and the “miserable cold weather here all the time and….. the season being so backward that nothing comes forward….the fruit will be scarce this year.”

June 1861

In his diary during the following month, as might be expected in South Carolina in June, Goodrich repeatedly referred to either “the warm, very warm or intensely warm conditions.” (At the time, it was customary to begin the day’s diary entry with a weather comment), Further north, however, the weather wasn’t nearly so benign, as it was reported that a “severe nor’easter” raked the northeast coast during the first week of the month.

Elsewhere, in West Virginia and western Virginia, the month of June, 1861 varied from sultry to rainy. On June 6, a correspondent near Harpers Ferry, WV mentioned that it had been raining for several days, similar to reports across central Virginia all the way to Yorktown. The torrential rains from this system took their toll on a Virginia artillery battery marching from Richmond to West Point, the same battery, according to author Krick in his book, Civil War Weather in Virginia, that would later play a vital role in the June 10 Battle of Big Bethel, in York County, Virginia. In the end, however, the battle was of little consequence to either side even though 84 died (both sides).

In Washington, Rev. Mackee noted that the month opened with a high temperature of about 80 and a low in the upper 60s, while it ended with a high in the low 70s and a low in the middle 60s, contrary to what might have been expected.

Next: July and beyond.

* On March 31, the local weather bureau forecast was calling for “partly cloudy and somewhat colder today; fair tomorrow.” Obviously, forecasters expected the gathering storm in the Southeast to go out to sea. Instead, it made a left turn and eventually played havoc with travel and communications up and down the Eastern Seaboard, burying many areas with the heaviest snowfall of the season. Thundersnow was also noted in many communities.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 04/11/2011

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