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Civil War weather

civil war weather

Meteorologist Tony Lupo has developed “retrocasts” showing how weather may have influenced Missouri Civil War battles, such as the one pictured here in Lexington. This engraving was originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1861. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Weather has shaped some big battles, says MU meteorologist and war history buff Tony Lupo. In 1815, for instance, soggy conditions at Waterloo forced Napoleon to delay his attack, which led to his defeat, he says. In the early days of June 1944, German forecasters predicted the weather was too bad for the Allies to attack, and they were unprepared during what turned out to be the D-Day invasion. Now, Lupo and meteorology student Mike Madden have contributed to the lore of war weather with a study of conditions during Civil War battles in Missouri.

To produce their “retrocast,” Lupo and Madden employed analog forecasting methods that match existing data to historical weather patterns. “It’s now about one degree warmer in Missouri than it was during the Civil War, but we know that the weather patterns have remained very similar,” Lupo says.

Although meteorologists typically use analog forecasting methods to predict weather at sea beyond the reach of radar, Lupo and Madden adapted it to the Civil War project by combing an array of historical data. For instance, they dug into contemporaneous records from a primitive weather station at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and sorted through ships’ logs, books, letters and newspaper accounts.

The researchers discovered that weather helped save the lives of soldiers in some early Missouri battles. “At Wilson’s Creek, for instance, weather delayed a Confederate attack so that it was less of a surprise. The Union lost that battle, but at least it wasn’t a rout,” Lupo says. The outcome was similar at Lexington, where heavy rains helped Confederate soldiers by soaking hay bales they used as cover. The wet bales mitigated losses by absorbing Union cannon blasts without catching fire.

An army may travel on its stomach, but it can sometimes rise or fall with the barometric pressure.