Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Day Two at the CW Navy Conference: Priceless Artifacts

I am just about to head out for the second day of the Civil War Navy Conference and am looking forward to even more great presentations on steel ships, steam engines, muzzle-loading cannons, and iron men.  So while the posting is light, I’ll stream Twitter updates when possible.

But I will leave you Twitter-averse types a thought of the day:

To paraphrase Dr. Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark – Look at these otherwise ordinary objects.  Yet you leave them under the sea for 135 years and they become priceless historic artifacts, provided every care possible for restoration.

Those are throttle pipes that fit onto the USS Monitor’s engine.

Earthquakes and Hurricanes! Natural Disasters and the Civil War

I’m sure someone has considered the impact of natural disasters on the Civil War, but apparently nobody has put forward a book length study of the subject.  Perhaps that’s because there just isn’t anything to write about!

And that is not to say there is insufficient data.  The US Geological Survey (USGS), Department of the Interior, National Weather Service (NWS), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all retain mountains of historical data about these topics.  The information is there, but perhaps there just isn’t much of a story to tell.

The USGS offers some of its earthquake data directly through their website.  A list of magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes within the US shows none occurred during the Civil War. Indeed a search of the USGS earthquake database shows 143 entries for the years 1860-1865 for quakes outside California in the continental United States.  None of those have a registered magnitude.  A history of earthquakes in Virginia does note a significant August 31, 1861 shake centered in southwest Virginia / northwest North Carolina which damaged chimneys.  (And the USGS offers an interesting map to support the history of Virginia earthquakes.)

Trees near Reelfoot Lake show effects of Great New Madrid Quake

The Great New Madrid Earthquakes, which actually shaped several Civil War battlefields, occurred decades before in 1811-12.  On the other end of the time line, the Charleston, South Carolina suffered more damage during the 1886 earthquake than to combat during the Civil War.

How about Hurricanes?  Unisys’ weather division offers a rather nice interface for NOAA historical data.  From that, one can step through each hurricane season in sequence.  Here’s the track map for 1861:

Only four storms to worry about for coastal dwellers in 1861.  In mid August a category 1 storm ran the Florida Straits.  On September 27-28 another category 1 storm tracked up the North Carolina coast to the New England states (not dissimilar to what is predicted for Hurricane Irene today).  A small storm sputtered out on the North Carolina outer banks in early October.  The last storm of the season was a category 1 that moved up from Florida to Maine in the first days of November:

This hurricane was perhaps the most significant in Civil War events, as it disrupted the federal fleet then moving to attack Port Royal, South Carolina.  The storm is known as the “Expedition Hurricane” because of this.

If the Weather Channel was broadcasting during the Civil War, 1862 would have been a boring year.  In August and September, storms skirted the Atlantic Coast, perhaps disrupting the blockade for a few days.

And while the war reached a critical stage in 1863….

… hurricanes made landfall in the combat zones and skirted the coast but with little impact.  Two category 2 hurricanes came close to the Outer Banks in successive weeks in August that year.  On September 16-19 a tropical storm passed from Florida up to New York, but too far east to impact northern Georgia and things happening along Chickamauga Creek.  Another tropical storm rained on the coasts of Texas and Louisiana at the close of September.

Another off-year for storm chasers in 1864:

Storms of the 1865 season only made landfall after the formal surrenders of Confederate forces.  A category 2 made landfall along near the mouth of the Sabine River in mid-September.  Another category 2 crossed the Florida Keys and Miami in October.

So during the Civil War, only a handful of tropical storms made landfall.  While Americans fought each other in the nation’s deadliest war, nature gave us a break, waiting until 1871 t0 resume throwing the big storms inland.

Not listed in the data sets are any nor’easters that hit the East Coast during the war years.  Several sources indicate the terrible weather experienced during the January 1863 “Mud March” was due to a nor’easter.  But from the narrative of campaigns, it seems the “winter hurricanes” also abated during the Civil War.

Looking at the data, the United States had a break from major natural disasters while the Civil War raged.  I’d say the “man caused” catastrophes were enough during those years.

Charting a More Perfect Union

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now offers many Civil War era maps, charts, and notes on-line as part of an exhibit titled “Charting a More Perfect Union.”  For those studying coastal and ravine operations in the war, these resources are a gold mine.

Established in 1807, US Coastal Survey, one of NOAA’s predecessors, had the responsibility of charting navigation routes and defining boundaries along the nation’s coast.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the knowledge of the coastal waterways became an important planning factor for military operations – be they blockading or offensive landings.  NOAA’s Civil War site offers many primary documents to illustrate the Coastal Survey’s work during the war years.  Informational pages further interpret the the sources, including a short biography of Alexander Dallas Bache, superintendent of the Coastal Survey during the war years.

With this collection, NOAA offers both an organizational history with the valuable primary resources.  Not are the maps and charts presented for reference, but also the story behind the Survey’s operation and to some extent how the maps and charts were created.  Bache’s annual summary reports detail the Survey’s operations and activities.  This is an important angle to consider.  Often researchers will view a period map and assume the survey team derived the depiction after standing on or viewing the ground.  That is not always the case.  While “authentic” not all period maps are “accurate.” In the case of the Survey’s work, Bache explains where and when teams checked bouys, made soundings, and charted channels.

One fine point of order here, however.  Maps are not charts and charts are not maps.  Sort of look the same, both being depictions of the earth’s surface features.  NOAA has a very good explanation of the two tools.

NOAA’s search system is intuitive for anyone familiar with web-based search tools and well tagged.  Returns appear in easy to read arrays.  But pay attention to the “Year” column, as the returns do not automatically filter to just “Civil War” collections.  You may be looking at a more recent survey map than expected.

NOAA offers the historical maps within a Flash based viewer.   For download artifacts are in SID or JPG format.   I found the maps in the Flash viewer easy to navigate.  But the jump screen is in the way of those looking to use portions of the map as illustrations (like here on the blog).  The SID format offers the highest quality, but requires a browser plug-in (see LizardTech’s site).  The JPG format is easy for most to download and view, but of less quality.

Another consideration, while JPGs may be directly imbedded in most html based editors, SIDs cannot.  But the raw JPGs require additional editing and handling before really useful to illustrate a point (such as indicating where the wartime waterways ran in a particular area).

Savannah River Entrance 1851

Yes, in the “overview” this appears more a set of “dots” on the wall.  If you click on the image, depending on the zoom tools in your browser, the fine details appear.   On the lower left and right are navigation notes.   Lots of rich, fine details that I like to wade through!