It’s Warm: The 6th New York Cavalry in their Winter Encampment 155 Years Later

A Union cavalry picket

It’s February in Virginia. This morning I put on shorts after a pot of coffee and a shower. Not just to wear indoors but outside as well! Just a month ago, the nighttime temperatures hovered around zero and it was all we could to do to keep a fire around the clock. To be safe, I turned the heat off inside. But as of noon, as I am drafting the post, the thermostat says it is 72, the exact temperature it is supposed to be outside today. Today’s high is supposed to be 78, according to the prognosticators. Even our two Beagle-mixes aren’t sure what to make of this warm weather. One of them appreciates it and wants to take longer walks. The other doesn’t really seem to mind it, but wants to get back to the house as soon as she can. This weather got me thinking: what was the weather like 155 years ago for the Army of the Potomac, especially the cavalry corps, in their winter encampment in Stafford County, where I reside? In looking through a few of the regimental histories, I came across the following account from the 6th New York Cavalry.

On February 17, 1863, the historian of the 6th New York Cavalry, whose main camp was near Stafford Court House, wrote that at dawn “the men found several inches of snow on their blankets…they realized the stern realities of soldiering; the snow was still falling; the roads were almost impassable; their condition was indescribable; the mud was up to the horses’ bodies’ wagons were stuck and trains separated; it was a day of horrors.” The next day “the snow had changed to rain and was coming down fast and heavy.” Interestingly enough, within the last two weeks, over two inches of rain has fallen around Fredericksburg and Stafford. Washington’s Birthday “was a bitter cold day, and a snowstorm, accompanied by a furious northeaster, swept over the camp. The snow was about eight inches deep…the exposure and inactivity  while on the lonely picket-post, were such that none but an experienced soldier can fully understand.” A day later, snowfall measured around one foot.

Today, and the next few days for that matter, pale in comparison to what these Empire Staters experienced. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Mother Nature might have one more blow to land around Fredericksburg before the winter is over…..