We hear endless accounts today concerning the dire effects of global climate change, as well as the horrific devastation caused by the recent hurricanes that have mainly struck the Southern states. However, if one studies the five billion years of Earth’s climatic history, it should soon become evident that climate change has been an ongoing cyclical occurrence during the latter two and a half billion years of our planet’s existence. While not as ancient an item as climate change on nature’s calendar of events, hurricane records dating back to 1850 show that there have been almost three hundred such storms which have impacted wide areas along the coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
After the Earth was formed approximately five billion years ago, our planet remained largely a molten mass until the beginning of the first ice age well over two billion years later, an event which dramatically cooled the Earth’s surface and extinguished virtually all the microbial organisms that had managed to form. Various natural forces during the following billions of years, such as water vapor, ocean currents and increased solar radiation, created periods of global warming interspersed with four additional ice ages, the final and still existing one being what is called the “Quaternary Glaciation” period. This latter period of worldwide cooling began about two and a half million years ago, but it too was interrupted approximately every forty thousand years by periods of warming due primarily to increases in such naturally caused “greenhouse” gasses as carbon dioxide and methane.
The period of cooling in which we now live had its start about twelve thousand years ago, producing vast ice sheets over the northern hemisphere and thousand-foot high icebergs that floated past Florida into the Caribbean Sea. During this time, however, the intervals in which the Earth once more began to become warmer were reduced from millennia to centuries. A relatively recent period of unusual warmth, known as the “Roman Climactic Optimum,” lasted from about 250 BCE until the year 400, but this was again followed by a time of extreme cold until the “Medieval Climate Optimum” which lasted only three hundred years, from about 950 to 1250. During this period of increasing warmth, the southern part of Greenland that was colonized by the Norse Vikings in the Tenth Century was actually green. But another longer cooling cycle was once again to appear over many parts of the world in the form of what has been termed the “Little Ice Age,” the period from 1250 to 1850.
The vast ice sheet that covered North America thousands of years ago only extended as far as some of the highest elevations in the upper South, but the effects of the later “Little Ice Age” had a more direct impact on the entire South in the form of very long and severe winters. During the early colonial period, extremely frigid weather in the South not only caused great misery, but also the freezing of crops which created widespread famine. Settlers in Virginia even reported that some of the rivers were so completely frozen over they could be crossed on foot. The bitterly cold winters continued in the South throughout the Eighteen Century and, of course, to an even greater degree in the northern colonies. An example of the latter was during the winter of 1779 when the the ice that covered all of New York harbor was so thick the British forces in New York could move cavalry and artillery over it from Manhattan to Staten Island and New Jersey.
Several years later, volcanic actions in the Pacific produced even wider worldwide cooling when, in late 1808, a massive eruption took place in the South Pacific somewhere west of the the island of Tonga which blotted out solar radiation over most of the world and reduced global temperatures by several degrees. These conditions were even further exacerbated a few years later by one of the most powerful volcanic actions of the Nineteenth Century, the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on Indonesia in what was then the Dutch East Indies. The explosion and the ensuing earthquakes and tsunamis it produced not only killed tens of thousands of people, but added so much volcanic ash to the Earth’s already clouded atmosphere that in 1816 it ultimately created what has been termed the “Year Without a Summer.“
As to hurricanes, even though the official records only date back to 1850, research has shown that in addition to the three hundred such storms which have occurred in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico regions since that year, there were at least two hundred others in the same regions from 1800 to 1850. Some of these were major hurricanes that killed hundreds and wreaked catastrophic damage in many parts of the South. One of the earliest was called the “Charleston Hurricane of 1804” that left five hundred dead in its wake as it tore through Georgia and the Carolinas. Later that same year a reminder of the “Little Ice Age” hit South Carolina at Georgetown in a hurricane that brought with it heavy hail, sleet and snow. Such a storm did not occur again until hurricane “Ginny” dumped four feet of snow on Maine in 1963 and again in 2012 when three feet fell on West Virginia during “Sandy.” In 1806, the “Great Coastal Hurricane” came ashore in South Carolina between Charleston and Georgetown, causing considerable damage to plantations, as well as to numerous ships in the area, including Emperor Napoleon’s warship “Impètueux.” The schooner “Rose in Bloom,” on its way to New York from Charleston, was capsized with a loss of 21 lives and most of its cargo of cotton. Among the passengers who drowned was Brigadier General John McPherson of Charleston, one of America’s leading horse breeders and a founder of the city’s Washington Race Track.
In 1812, a Louisiana hurricane killed over a hundred people and heavily damaged most of the buildings and levees in New Orleans. Six years later, the “Bay St. Louis Hurricane” struck not only Louisiana, but wide areas in Mississippi and Alabama, taking up to 175 lives. !827 saw an Atlantic hurricane roar over North Carolina’s Outer Banks and destroy a large number of textile mills and other structures in its path. What was called “Racer’s Storm” in 1831 caused extensive damage in eight states from Texas to North Carolina, and took over a hundred lives. A few years later, the “Great Havana Hurricane of 1846” totally destroyed virtually every building on Florida’s Key West, including the island’s lighthouse and Fort Zachary Taylor. The storm also caused much damage in other parts of Florida, as well as in Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland. The last major storm of that decade was a Gulf hurricane in 1848 that leveled almost the entire city of Tampa.
There have been, of course, numerous major hurricanes since 1850, but perhaps one of the most devastating during the antebellum period was the “Last Island Hurricane,” the first hurricane of 1856. This was a truly monster storm that hit the once large and prosperous Last Island south of New Orleans. The island, a barrier that had long protected the low regions between New Orleans and the Gulf , was also a prestigious resort for the rich and famous that boasted one of the largest and finest hotels in Louisiana, the Ocean House, as well as a number of casinos and large estates. The storm created a towering tidal wave that inundated the entire island, killed almost three hundred residents and visitors, including Lieutenant Governor Robert Wickliffe and the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, Antoine Boudousquie, destroyed all the island’s structures and split the island in half. After ravaging Last Island, the storm pushed inland, killing another hundred people and destroying crops and structures as far away as Abbeville a hundred and fifty miles west of New Orleans, where every building in the city was demolished.
At the time of the War Between the States, there were thirty-seven hurricanes of varying intensity but of those, the seven that took place in 1865 all occurred more than a month after the War had ended. A majority of the thirty storms that arose from 1861 to 1864 failed to either make landfall or cause any serious damage in the South, and only one during the first year of the War had any major impact on the conflict itself. This storm has been called the “Expedition Hurricane” due to its devastating effect on the Union fleet in 1861 during the planned amphibious invasion into South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound between Charleston and Savannah. The fleet’s flag officer, Captain Samuel DuPont, and the seventy-seven ships he commanded formed the largest American armada that had ever been assembled. The fleet’s transport vessels carried over twelve thousand Union troops intended for the assault on the two Confederate forts guarding the entrance to the sound, Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillip’s Island. The attack had been planned for November 3, but two days earlier the fleet had been struck by the massive hurricane, the eighth and last of that year. A few ships, including the troop transport “Governor” carrying three hundred Marines, were sunk, others were badly damaged and had to return home and a few warships were forced to throw their cannons overboard to remain afloat. While the storm had caused the initial landing to be aborted and the continuing bad weather further delayed such action, DuPont’s remaining warships managed to overcome the forts and by November 7 the invasion had finally been carried out. The Union Army first occupied Beaufort and later proceeded northward to begin the siege of Charleston, an engagement that would last until the end of the War.
Apart from the hurricanes, other severe weather conditions in the South impacted a number of events during the War, beginning with the long period of torrential rains that nearly washed out President Jefferson Davis’ second inauguration in Richmond on February 22, 1862. President Davis had initially been sworn in as the leader of the Confederacy a year before at the new nation’s first capital in Montgomery. However, after the permanent capital was established in Richmond, it was felt that a more formal inauguration should be held there on Washington’s birthday. In spite of the drenching downpour and the sea of mud in which Richmond was engulfed, President Davis insisted that the event proceed as planned. The following month, the continuing heavy rains in Virginia helped to hinder General McClellan’s advance up the Peninsula towards Richmond, as well as helping in his final defeat by General Lee four months later.
While the bitter winters in many parts of the South generally precluded large-scale engagements, and kept both Confederate and Union forces in their winter quarters, one major exception took place at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. After McClellan’s failure in July, President Lincoln decided to make another attempt that year and appointed General Burnside as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. He ordered Burnside to try and capture Richmond by a different route, but the new commander unwisely aimed his attack at Lee’s strong positions on the hills beyond Fredericksburg, and was utterly crushed with heavy casualties. After the battle, a sudden period of unusually warm weather in early January turned the previously frozen roads over which Burnside’s defeated army had to travel into nothing more than wide troughs of virtually impassable mud. Soldier’s footwear, artillery pieces, supply wagons and even the animals pulling them were all engulfed in the miles of mire which the press dubbed the “ The Mud March of 1863.”
At the same time the Union was suffering its massive defeat at Fredericksburg, it also had to face another major loss in the stormy seas off the coast of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras. Nine months after the Confederate ironclad “CSS Virginia” fought it to a draw in Hampton Roads, the Union’s first ironclad, the “USS Monitor,” was ordered to South Carolina to join the Union fleet in the siege of Charleston. Even though the 1862 hurricane season was over, there were still dangerous storms in the Atlantic and the waves of one of them roared over the “Monitor” on December 30 as she was being towed south by the “USS Rhode Island.” The low-slung “Monitor” was ill-designed to withstand such weather and soon sank, along with sixteen members of its crew.
Later in the War, as General Sherman’s Union army was inexorably inching its way through northern Georgia toward Atlanta, another taste of the “Little Ice Age” fell on the Dalton area in March of 1864. When the men of General Cleburne’s division in the Army of Tennessee awoke on the morning of the 22nd, they found a half foot of snow on the ground. Unable to restrain themselves, some of the troops began tossing snowballs at one another. Before long, the entire camp, even General Cleburne himself, became engaged in the snowball fight which finally evolved into an organized winter campaign pitting one Confederate division against another. The sham battle continued throughout the day, and when even more snow fell on the 23rd, the snowballs continued to fly, with more regiments being drawn into the fray. What became known as the “Great Snowball Battle of 1864” was considered good fun by the men and officers alike . . . with even the Army of Tennessee’s commanding officer, General Joseph Johnston, deeming the frolic a fine tonic for the morale of the troops.