The Civil War took place at a time of bitterly cold winters and intense summer heat. Soldiers had to live mostly out-of-doors, with just the stars overhead to guard their sleep, or a tent to protect them from buzzing insects or soaking rain. In winter, most of the fighting ceased, and soldiers would construct log cabins to fight the elements. The milder weather of April would signal the start of new campaigns.
Soldier’s letters and diaries along with the newspapers of the day made it clear that weather was a constant concern. These brave souls were seasoned by the elements nearly as much as combat.
Understandably, Army commands requested current weather conditions and forecast. With the widespread adoption of the telegraph in the mid-1800s, weather observations from distant locations could be quickly collected and plotted. Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., envisioned that storms could be predicted by simply telegraphing ahead what was on the way. During the Civil War, Army Signal Service, along with Smithsonian Institution, would gather weather observations and provide forecasts.
One of the more significant weather observations occurred 150 years ago for the Sixth Army Corps of the Union Army. Not surprisingly for July 1, 1863, intense afternoon heat was reported. On that day, Major General John “Uncle John” Sedgwick, commander of the Sixth Corps, received orders to march to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania where a battle that would change world history raged.
The Sixth Corps consisted of nearly 16,000 men that were camped in northern Maryland. To reach the battle, they would have to march an estimated 37 miles in just 17 hours in the oppressive heat, wearing dark woolen uniforms and carrying rifles and packs. To get an idea what it was like, J.S. Anderson wrote, “The road was covered with dust three or four inches deep, which rose in great clouds and nearly, stifled us. There was no music and no singing now, we were fast reaching the limit of human endurance. Men reeled and staggered along as if they were drunken. Ever and anon a rifle or musket would fall clattering on the stony pike, as the man who carried it collapsed and sank in a quivering heap in the midst of the roadway.”
As soon as they arrived in Gettysburg on July 2, there was no time for rest and they immediately engaged in battle. The battle was huge — 160,000 men from the North and South fought. Over just three days, 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Many historians will say that the Sixth Corps’ arrival facilitated the Union’s victory. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. The carnage was so overwhelming that word quickly spread for help. The Sisters and Daughters of Charity from St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., which Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton founded, traveled northward and nursed many of the dying and wounded.
At the end of the day, Col. Chamberlain’s speech to a group of deserters from his home state of Maine before the battle said it best: “We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, not divided by a line between slave states and free — all the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. What we are fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.”