Thursday, May 6, 2021

Review - "The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War" by Kenneth Noe

[The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War by Kenneth W. Noe (Louisiana State University Press, 2020). Cloth, 13 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,495/685. ISBN:978-0-8071-7320-6. $59.95]

The American Civil War has no grand analog matching the history-altering magnitude of the massive typhoon that wrecked the Mongol fleet during their second invasion of Japan, the providential winds and storms that scattered Phillip II's Spanish Armada and helped save England, or even the brutal winter that finished off Napoleon's army during its retreat from Moscow, but it is undeniable that weather and North American climate patterns impacted the conduct and course of the military conflict between North and South in significant ways. Indeed, weather as a third combatant in numerous campaigns and battles is among the broadest themes addressed in historian Kenneth Noe's impressive new tome The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War.

At its most fundamental level, The Howling Storm is a new military history of the entire 1861-65 land war from Sumter to Appomattox with the focus placed on interpreting how weather impacted campaigns large and small across all three major theaters—East, West, and Trans-Mississippi. In researching and piecing together this splendid, almost 500-page narrative, the author mined archives, newspapers, and a host of other published and unpublished primary and secondary sources to densely fill his narrative with all manner of environmental temperature and weather details. Weather-related observations from soldiers, home front civilians, and dedicated weather watchers (ex. even some Smithsonian-affiliated sources dutifully maintained readings during the war) are quoted throughout. Noe's references to climate and weather terminology are limited to introductory-level remarks, just enough to offer the reader appropriate general background information regarding the modern understanding of weather science. The text appropriately explores the ways in which oceanic-atmospheric oscillations (ex. El Nino and La Nina) and other events disrupt normal North American weather patterns and emphasizes how those extremes affected Civil War armies in their winter encampments, on the march, and during battle.

While it is true that contending armies opposing each other on a given front experience the same local weather, Noe effectively reminds readers in what manner the consequences and ill-effects of that shared weather might not be equally distributed. In the most obvious example, superior Union logistics and supply meant that its better clad and supported troops most often suffered less than their Confederate foes during the winter months. Also, some hours or days during which weather events were most challenging could clearly be more critical to the fortunes of one side, and weather could thus have a more decisive affect. As an example of that, Noe cites key moments, especially during the final week of operations, when the exceptional spring rains of 1862 (argued to have been the wettest of the previous 25 years) helped Stonewall Jackson evade and finally escape converging Union columns during his famous Shenandoah Valley campaign. The point is not that weather was actually deterministic of victory or defeat in many campaigns, but rather weather, especially in its extreme forms, could create a multitude of serious problems that commanders could not entirely overcome. As detailed in the book, such constraints might take the form of delayed offensives (ex. the December 1864 Battle of Nashville), immobilized armies (ex. Burnside's "Mud March"), strong limitations on the scale of victory or defeat (ex. the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign), and much more.

Unequally distributed weather effects occurred on the home front, too. As just one illustration of that phenomenon, too much early rain in 1862 followed by drought in the early summer months caused widespread corn, wheat, and cotton failures across the southern states, while at the same time there were record crop yields across the North. Other war-related home front issues had at their core underappreciated weather underpinnings. A striking example cited by Noe is the infamous Richmond bread riots that have been most commonly attributed to official indifference and predatory pricing. Noe instead argues that supply and transportation woes directly caused by the unusually wet and cold Virginia winter and spring of 1863 led to the bread shortages.

While the United States possessed an enviably modern rail network by the outbreak of the war, its system of interconnecting country roads remained highly primitive by comparison. Few paved thoroughfares designed to hold up to heavy traffic of the kind produced by anything even approaching the size of Civil War armies existed, so almost any rain that fell on those dirt roads proved problematic for military movements, and deep mud became an inevitable and constant source of complaint on both sides. In that vein, a multitude of campaign and battle events most profoundly affected by mud (ex. Burnside's "Mud March," the fighting at Spotsylvania, Rosecrans's flank movement at Tullahoma, Stoneman's Chancellorsville raid, and many more) are examined in the book. Perhaps the book's freshest and most interesting discussion related to this topic is Noe's explanation of how the continent's geographical soil patterns (specifically what quality and depth of mud those different soils produced during rainy periods) variably impacted Civil War army movements and troop morale. In the end, the author persuasively argues that all wet soils were not equal when it came to adversely affecting large-scale military operations.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of rain and mud was drought, and that weather effect produced some of the most significant follow-on effects. For example, the desire to provide a period of recovery for Virginia farmland is commonly cited as one of the most important factors behind the Confederate raid into Pennsylvania in 1863, but Noe argues it was the 1862 drought and subsequent late planting season that primarily created those conditions, not the physical devastation of war. More drought in 1863 meant that even a widespread switch from cotton to food production could not make up enough lost ground to adequately feed the Confederacy's armies and cities while also building up the stockpiles of food and forage necessary to accommodate future gaps in supply. As demonstrated in the book, 1864 drought conditions were largely confined to Virginia, Missouri, and the northern states, and Confederate leaders anticipated that that misfortune would spark further antiwar unrest in the North before and during the critical fall elections. According to Noe, it is a prevailing myth that northern farm production increased during the war due to mechanization. In actuality, total agricultural production peaked in 1862 and weather was a major part of why that was so. Nevertheless, as it turned out, the election year drought that Confederates pinned some of their rapidly dimming hopes of independence upon never caused enough of an overall deficit to greatly diminish northern home front support for the war.

Microclimates, particularly highland ones, also had a direct impact on Civil War armies. For a particularly vivid example, readers might recall A. Wilson Greene's contribution to the anthology Civil War Places (2019). In it, he memorably recounts his own personal encounter with the unpredictable and unseasonable weather extremes atop Allegheny Mountain that made it such a miserable place to fight a war. Noe does not specifically address the microclimate phenomenon in The Howling Storm, but he does so tangentially by covering the extreme case of Sewell Mountain. As Tim McKinney did before him in that author's book-length study of the Sewell Mountain phase of the 1861 West Virginia campaign, Noe presents the unique weather there as so severe a third opponent that it rendered both sides combat ineffective.

Noe admits the temptation among scholars and readers alike of seeing prominent examples of Union success in overcoming environmental obstacles as proof that weather complaints were primarily excuse-making on the part of recalcitrant generals, but his book clearly shows that exceptional weather and its timing could seriously sabotage many a best-laid plan. As the author maintains, however, it should also be equally appreciated that luck imparted by the weather gods could also go the other way, and Noe cites, as one example, the stretch of "perfect" weather during the entire length of Sherman's March to Sea that significantly diminished that daring movement's many inherent risks.

Noe also convincingly credits strong Union leadership as an important factor in dealing with southern weather. The ability of General Sherman's army to quickly traverse roads and swamps thought nearly impassable during the wet winter and spring 1865 Carolinas Campaign sparked despondent awe in his opponents. Perhaps the best example, and also cited in the book, is Joseph Hooker's comprehensive set of celebrated army reforms and morale boosting initiatives (all brilliantly documented in Albert Conner and Chris Mackowski's Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge" and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union) achieved during an extended period of terrible Virginia weather that stretched between the general's appointment to army command all the way to the end of April, during which it incessantly rained more than half those days. On the other hand, that example and others also, according to Noe, highlight an occasional blind spot in Union leadership at the top, one that frequently demonstrated a distinct lack of appreciation for how much weather could impede the movements and plans of armies. Grant was the high-ranking general who most closely and consistently shared Lincoln's views on seeing weather as an always surmountable obstacle, but while that view served Grant very well on many occasions it also made him, like the president, appear out of touch in others.

A great strength of Noe's far-reaching treatment of the topic of Civil War weather is that readers can for the first time in a single volume comprehensively absorb, front and center, how weather affected every campaign. Chronological arrangement of the weather narrative also allows readers to appreciate the many cascading effects of particular events. It might be recalled how well Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver's 2020 book An Environmental History of the Civil War illustrates the ways in which an unforeseen weather pattern that materialized over the first half of 1862 in the form of extraordinary rains and flooding affected Civil War operations and home front agriculture across the continent, but Noe's work does much the same for the entire war.

Mostly when citing exceptional weather patterns but also very effectively overall, Kenneth Noe's The Howling Storm brings weather effects out of the realm of excuse making and into their proper place as a major variable impacting victory and defeat on the Civil War battlefield. Noe's study ends with an interesting capstone conclusion that the Union Army won the weather war as well as the shooting war. His argument developed throughout the book that Union leadership and logistical superiority in providing better transportation, better winter shelter/housing, more reliable food and medical supplies, all-weather clothing, and consistent quantities of replacement footwear all combined to both sustain Union soldier morale amid the most trying environmental circumstances and allow Union armies to deal more effectively than their native-born opponents with the South's infamous weather and climate extremes. While it is obvious that Civil War armies could never entirely overcome the military challenges imposed by climate and weather, the book offers a powerful argument that many of those effects could nevertheless be significantly ameliorated through the combined forces of leadership, resources, experience, and adaptation. As Noe's work illustrates at great length, the complete victory achieved by Union forces clearly demonstrated the falsity of prewar assumptions that northern armies would simply melt away in harsh southern climes.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: An excellent review - and full "agreeance" here regarding this book. The one thing I don't recall getting much coverage was the unusual cold blast that struck the armies at Chickamauga during the battle. I remember reading something by Dave Powell (I think) which got into specifics, including the effects on the harvest in the upper Midwest. But that's a very minor issue.

    Noe is really carving out a niche with this much-needed work. His essay a few years ago on the Peninsula Campaign and the effects of the region's ultisols was an important contribution. It would be nice to see historians take up this subject for other US wars. The AWI would seem to be fertile ground, with the American attack on Quebec City in December 1775; Washington's successful withdrawal from Long Island in August 1776; the December 1775 attack on Trenton and Princeton in January 1777; the "Battle of the Clouds" in September 1777; and the heat wave that blasted New Jersey during the June 1778 Monmouth Campaign, just for some examples.


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