Civil War: The Miserable winter

February 1863 found both armies licking their wounds and making plans for spring and summer. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, newly led by Union Gen. Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker, faced each other near Fredericksburg, unmoving but ever-present, in a showdown that would culminate once the weather […]

February 1863 found both armies licking their wounds and making plans for spring and summer. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, newly led by Union Gen. Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker, faced each other near Fredericksburg, unmoving but ever-present, in a showdown that would culminate once the weather improved. After the disaster of January’s “Mud March”, the Union would wait for weather and road conditions to improve before making any other attempts against their rebel foes. The failed attempt in January had cost Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside his job as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In the midst of the “Mud March”, Hooker was quoted as saying, “Nothing would go right until we had a dictator, and the sooner the better.” When Lincoln appointed Hooker as the new commander, he included a little jab in his letter:

I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.

Having received clear direction, Hooker was determined not to let Lincoln down.

A little further south, Lee and his army were making plans for the spring thaw as well. However, the current winter conditions in February brought much misery to leadership and common soldiers alike as they waited. On February 6th, Lee wrote a disheartening letter to his daughter Agnes:

…I read yesterday, my precious daughter, your letter, and grieved very much when last in Richmond at not seeing you. My movements are so uncertain that I cannot be relied on for anything. The only place I am to be found is in camp, and I am so cross now that I am not worth seeing anywhere. Here you will have to take me with the three stools– the snow, the rain, and the mud. The storm of the last twenty-four hours has added to our stock of all, and we are now in a floating condition. But the sun and the wind will carry all off in time, and then we shall appreciate our relief. Our horses and mules suffer the most. They have to bear the cold and rain, tug through the mud, and suffer all the time with hunger. The roads are wretched, almost impassable. (2/6/1863)

The rain and mud turned out to be only a precursor to the main event, which would come later in the month. Later in February, heavy snowfall blanketed much of Virginia, making life in both encampments much more difficult. In another of Lee’s letters dated February 23rd, he described the situation:

The weather is now very hard upon our poor bushmen. This morning the whole country is covered with a mantle of snow fully a foot deep. It was nearly up to my knees as I stepped out this morning, and our poor horses were enveloped. We have dug them out and opened our avenues a little, but it will be terrible and the roads impassable. No cars from Richmond yesterday. I fear our short rations for man and horse will have to be curtailed. Our enemies have their troubles too. They are very strong immediately in front, but have withdrawn their troops above and below us back toward Acquia Creek. I owe Mr. F. J. Hooker no thanks for keeping me here. He ought to have made up his mind long ago about what to do–24th. The cars have arrived and brought me a young French officer, full of vivacity, and ardent for service with me. I think the appearance of things will cool him. If they do not, the night will, for he brought no blankets.

Confederate Gen. George Pickett (famously remembered for “Pickett’s Charge” which hadn’t yet occurred) marched his troops through Richmond in February and remarked on both the determination of his troops and the kindness of the citizens who poured out into the streets with kind words, warm beverages, and food for the ragged soldiers. In a letter to his wife, he wrote:

Why, my darling, during these continuous ten days march, the ground snowy and sleety, the feet of many of these soldiers covered only with improvised moccasins of raw beef hide, and hundreds of them without shoes or blankets or overcoats, they have not uttered one word of complaint, nor one murmuring tone; but cheerily, singing or telling stories, they have tramped tramped tramped. To crown it all, after having marched sixty miles over half frozen, slushy roads they passed to day through Richmond, the home of many of them, without a halt, with not a straggler greeted and cheered by sweethearts, wives, mothers and friends. “God bless you, my darling,” “God bless you, my son,” “Hello, old man,” “Howdy, Charley,” rang all along the line. Lunches, slices of bread and meat, bottles of milk or hot coffee were thrust into grateful hands by the dear people of Richmond, who thus brought comfort and cheer to many a hungry one besides their very own, as the men hurriedly returned the greetings and marched on. You would hardly recognize these ragged, barefoot soldiers as the trim, tidy boys of two years ago in their handsome gray uniforms, with shining equipment and full haversacks and knapsacks.

The lull in fighting would continue until late April, but the cold would continue to make life difficult for the soldiers as they waited for winter to end.

Photo by: fauxto_digit

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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