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.


6 thoughts on “Earthquakes and Hurricanes! Natural Disasters and the Civil War

  1. Nice post! And I had no idea that NOAA maintained such data.

    On the earthquake of Aug 31, 1861–I wonder if any of the soldiers engaged in the skirmishes around Mason’s Hill and Bailey’s Crossroads that day thought that the earthquake was nothing more than enemy artillery shaking the ground! (I assume that the earthquake, if similar to the one the other day, would have been experienced in the NOVA region.)

  2. Very interesting post. Albert Myer, the father of the Signal Corps, realized the value of using telegraphic reports from nationwide to form a near real-time picture of weather patterns in the years just before and after the Civil War. According to the NOAA website: “In 1848, Joseph Henry, Secretary of the new Smithsonian Institution, suggested a system of weather observers across the continent, who would use the newly operational telegraph to “forecast” storms. By 1860, 500 stations, manned by volunteers, furnished daily telegraphic weather reports.”

    In 1870, the task for national weather tracking was assigned to Myer’s Army Signal Corps. If this capability could have been harnessed a few years earlier, Union generals might have been able to have done a better job at factoring weather considerations (i.e. not making the Mud March) into their campaign planning. Alas, it really would not be until WWII that modern meteorological science played a key role in military planning.

  3. I think we’re going to see a repeat of severe weather events and earthquakes because the development of California has been where most weather on earth originates. Gold taken 1849,1850,little ice age ends with the cutting down vast areas of redwoods, thus beginning of global warming. 1862,12years after state of California had worst flooding as well in other parts of USA, LA had 66inches of rain. Interesting that a person started planting fast growing Eucalyptus trees, as they help dry the lands swamps, that attracted mosquitoes. So now developers have been undoing the balance, I really feel for the future generations as we didn’t learn to leave California as natural as possible, instead doing the opposite, creating disasters on earth as well in Universe. Hmmmm……

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