The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Weather in 1861

While doing research for the year-end summary of notable (and easily discoverable) Civil War events 150 years ago, I came across news of how great an effect weather may have had on the events of the Civil War.


On the face of it, California wouldn’t seem to have had much to do with the events of the war back East, although it did play  a significant military role in the Southwest.

However, California had been a rallying point for various interest groups during what James McPherson describes in Battle Cry of Freedom (page 47), as the “tale of sectional conflict [the Mexican war, or “Mr. Polk’s War”] that erupted into civil war a decade and a half later.”   After the war with Mexico, its admission as a free state into the Union  was one of the central controversies that might have led to civil war earlier, if not for the Compromise of 1850.  Its gold, of course, was a major factor in the United States economy during the 1850s.  Its politicians tended to support Southern issues politically, and in early 1860, California’s delegates to the Charleston Convention supported a slave code plank similar to that proposed by Jefferson Davis.  Lincoln won the state in the election that fall, but only because the Democrat party was badly split there.

Early in 1861, as Southern states seceded, pro-Southern Democrats called for California’s secession and the formation of a Pacific Republic that would also include Oregon and Washington, and perhaps New Mexico and Utah as well.  Some 15,000 pro-Union Democrats demonstrated against secession in San Francisco.  Passions ran high, especially after the Pony Express brought news of South Carolina’s firing on Fort Sumter.  The regular army was called East and the thousands of volunteers for the Union forces from California were used mainly in the West.  However,  as Herbert Hart, executive director of the Council on America’s Military Past, writes on this website,

The war in the West was fought undercover.  Aside from a single engagement in Arizona and several in New Mexico, uniformed troops of the Blue and the Gray did not meet on the battlefield.  But there was a war all the same, a war of rumor and rallies, politics and pettiness.

I wonder if that war would have turned hot had it not begun to rain heavily in the region, starting in November 1861.  This was the start of the Great Flood of 1862 that among other things destroyed Fort Ter-Waw in Klamath in December 1861 and ultimately washed away a quarter of the taxable property in California, bankrupting the state.  Californians stayed in the field as Union troops throughout the Southwest during the Civil War, but the troubles at home eliminated any potential for improvement in the political fortunes of pro-Southern groups there.

What if the flood hadn’t  happened?  Would the secessionists have gained political control, becoming more friendly toward the Confederacy, withdrawing Union troops from the Southwest and perhaps even supporting economically when tough times came?

What if the South had had access to Californian gold during the Civil War?

Other weather effects

Weather played a role in the outcome of the brief battle for Fort Sumter in April 1861, per James McPherson:

The Confederates knew that help was about to arrive [Anderson did not], so they opened fire on April 12, at 4:30 a.m. [Gustavus V.] Fox’s fleet, scattered by a gale and prevented by high seas from launching…supply boats, was helpless to intervene.

What if the nearby US fleet, under orders not to fire unless the South fired first, had intervened after those first, fateful South Carolinian shots?

Weather in 1861

It’s too late now to research and write up a basic rundown of weather in 1861 during battles and elsewhere that had an effect on the events in America 150 years ago today.  You are cordially invited to add any information on 1861 weather as a comment here, and in January 1862, I’ll start a running blog post on the weather for that year as it affected the war, and comments there will be very welcome.

Edit: Here is an overview of weather along part of the Eastern seaboard from April to June 1861 . I didn’t see the promised summary of the rest of the year on his blog, but did find this discussion of the weather at the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas in July.

Possible Atlantic tropical cyclones in 1861

NCDC estimate of possible Atlantic tropical cyclones in 1861

I am not sure about the accuracy of the weather reported on the day Fort Sumter was fired on, as it is reported in Battle Cry of Freedom that US naval ships were nearby to deliver supply, and with orders only to fire if the South Carolinians fired first, but gales and high waves prevented their coming to the fort’s aid. Also, per the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) historic storm tracking page, tropical cyclones visited the East Coast during the 1861 Atlantic season, although April would have been rather early for one, especially that far north.

Categories: American Civil War

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