Hey, Virginia? You think you have it bad with all that snow? Consider what happened to Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and 9,000 of his men when they set off from Winchester, Va., on Jan. 1, 1862, to raid Romney, Va. (now West Virginia), a Union stronghold.
The day was in the mid-50s when they departed. Newly recruited soldiers, some on their first march, shed their coats and blankets, stowing them on the wagon train that would follow behind. By nightfall, the wind had come up and the temperature dropped to below freezing. The precious wagon train never made it to the first night’s encampment at Pughtown (now Gainsboro) — a community of just a handful of houses that offered little shelter. There was no food for the soldiers, who had to bed down on the frozen ground.
Snow began to fall the next day, and the temperature dropped to the mid-20s. Each day after that offered more of the same. The rutted mountainous roads turned to ice, adding to the soldiers’ misery. The weather did not deter Jackson, who seemed impervious to the cold, from sticking to his ambitious and secret plan, which included a lengthy detour to attack the Union camp at Bath (now Berkley Springs). It would add days and miles to the expedition.
Although Bath had been abandoned when Jackson arrived, his troops came under fire from Federals camped at Hancock across the Potomac River. The snow in Bath was deep enough that a Confederate officer wrote that the Union artillery “snowballed us, for the missiles from their guns scattered the hard snow and hurled the fragments upon us, almost as uncomfortable to us as the splinters from their shells.”
On Jan. 7, as the troops returned to the main road they would now follow to Romney, a major snowstorm set in, with high winds that made the mid-20s temperature feel more like zero. The icy roads began to claim its victims: Soldiers fell often, sometimes breaking arms or legs; artillery slipped off the road and was damaged beyond repair; and wagons could not move forward because the horses lacked winter shoes and easily lost their footing.
The weather next brought a sleet storm that, according to one soldier’s letter home, left “men encased in ice & icicles hanging from the visors of their hats.”
Jackson’s entry into Romney on Jan. 14 was not the victorious moment he had expected. The Federals had already abandoned the town. Leaving several brigades to defend the town, Jackson reversed course and began the long march back to Winchester, arriving on the 24th.
Although Jackson had accomplished his goal of seizing Romney and disbursing Union troops, the expedition is better remembered for the weather. It is often referred to as the “Frozen Campaign.”