The “Mud March” Nor’easter of 1863

Posted in Weather History at 8:00 am by Rebekah

The Mud March was the ill-fated attempt by Union Army Major General Ambrose Burnside to defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Civil War near the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The Mud March. From “Washington Weather


In December 1862, Burnside led a frontal attack on Lee’s army near Fredericksburg. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia soundly beat the Union Army of the Potomac, however, and the Battle of Fredericksburg came to be known as one of the most one-sided battles of the Civil War.

The Plan

In January 1863, Burnside, desperate to restore his reputation and the morale of his army, planned another surprise attack on Lee’s army just south of Fredericksburg. His army would cross the Rappahannock River to flank the Confederates, while the Union cavalry would cross the river 20 miles to the north and then come in from the rear.

President Abraham Lincoln found out about the plan and believed it was too risky, but Burnside only changed the point of his river crossing, by moving further upstream.

The Mud March

On January 20, 1863, the anticipated day of attack, a strong extratropical cyclone began to move up the East Coast. The nor’easter brought heavy rainfall to the coast and snowfall further inland. The rain continued for two days (Washington, DC reported 3.2 inches of rain), saturating the ground and turning the dirt roads into thick mud. Gale-force winds also blew and temperatures near Fredericksburg were in the upper 30s.

Burnside tried to keep going, but after the troops struggled to move in knee-deep mud, the wagons got buried up to their wheel hubs, the artillery got stuck, and teams of horses and mules became exhausted and died, he finally listened to the complaints of his army and decided to head back to camp. Reportedly, a team of a dozen horses and 150 men could not pull even one cannon out of the mud. Eventually, after placing logs on the mud, the army was able to make it out of the mess and get back to camp. The soldiers derisively called the trek the “Mud March”.

After Effects

On January 26, President Lincoln replaced Burnside with Major General Joseph Hooker. The Mud March was the last attempted major winter offensive during the Civil War.

Side note: Burnside had at the time what was considered rather unusual facial hair. The strips of hair down the sides of his face came to be called “burnsides“, and later what today we call sideburns.


Sources: Washington Weather and Wikipedia

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The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

Posted in Weather History, Winter Weather at 8:00 am by Rebekah

On January 12, 1888, an arctic cold front swept through the Great Plains, bringing temperature drops from the upper 30s to minus 20 °F (minus 40 °F in the Northern Plains), strong winds, and heavy snow.

Thousands of people were caught out in the cold and snow, as the blizzard was very sudden, it struck during work and school hours, and many people were outside as the temperatures leading up to the passage of the front were fairly mild. At least 235 people died in the storm, many of them children in the Dakotas and Nebraska, walking home in the blizzard and/or freezing in the arctic temperatures (hence the name “Schoolhouse Blizzard” or “Children’s Blizzard”).

Map of temperatures and pressure on the morning after the blizzard. Click to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia

My grandmother’s grandparents, father, and aunts and uncles got to experience this blizzard from southwest Iowa. Here is the story as she heard it from her father (Julius), some 70 years ago.

Written by Izetta (Kiersch) LaBar:



The day dawned slightly cloudy, uneventful, and just like all the other January days had been. A foot of snow lay on level places, and the temperature was warm enough to make good snowballs. Frank, Dora, and Charley were through school and at home; also at home, because they were too young to attend school, were John, Agnes, and Harry. Those who attended school that day were Julius and Bertha. At that time the teacher was boarding with the Kierschs.

The day went as usual, with the dismissal at 4 and the sky still somewhat cloudy. The two children and the teacher started home across the field, following an old oxen trail which was already rutted too deep to use in four trails, though a fifth trail was still being used. They dallied along, snowballing as they went, until at about 4:30 the perfect calm of the day was suddenly broken. Without any warning a blizzard was upon them, and they were only halfway home. The gale was so strong they could hardly stand; yet they had to go on. They must keep moving. The teacher kept her head and marched straight west to a fence that they knew very well – it must be there to guide them if they could find it. Straight, straight west, and they reached the fence at last. Now the problem was to follow it south to another fence, which would lead them home. How could they keep their sense of direction so well, did they worry for fear they might be going the wrong way? Who knew what their thoughts were? The snow was soon two feet deeper, but follow the fence they must to the south end of it. At last here was the east and west fence along the familiar county line road; now to follow it west for home. Being worn into a depression the road was already drifted full.

They floundered through the deep snow step by step, and were unable to take one more step when at last they reached the door. There they found mother and Dora in tears, worrying and wailing about the fate that must have overtaken the two children. Such a relief! There was a bustle of removing thoroughly soaked clothing, warming the three up, and finding dry clothing for them. In the midst of the flurry, father stomped in covered from head to foot with blizzard snow. He had survived the two-mile fight along the railroad track from Bill Boehm’s, where he had gone earlier in the day to make a cutter with his neighbor’s help. Even a man of his strength had had his worries too, fighting the icy blasts. His first words, after barely having entered the door were: “Sind die Kinder Heim?” (Are the children home?)

The blizzard blew for three days, making drifts up to the eaves of the house on the south side. The cattle sheds were covered with snow, and the inside was full too, except for in a small spot where the cattle had milled around, and now were standing with their heads and hair all full of snow and ice. Drifts of snow all over the place were so solid, the cattle could walk right over all of the fences.

The trains didn’t come through for a week, but when the snowplow finally showed up it had three locomotives. They got stuck in the cut west of the house, and had to shovel to get backward to make a long run for this six or eight foot drift. Julius, Frank, and August Fieselman were standing above on the bank watching. When they finally got themselves shook off, dug out, and eyes wiped the engines were two miles up the track!


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The Chicken Disaster of 1988

Posted in Weather History, Winter Weather at 8:00 am by Rebekah

From January 5 – 8, 1988, a winter storm dumped over a foot of snow and sleet across the southern United States. Over 3 million chickens were killed in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, following the collapse of dozens of poultry houses due to the weight of snow and ice.

Snowfall totals from the Rockies to the mid-Atlantic coast. Most states affected received at least 8 inches of snow. Far northwestern South Carolina reported an unofficial snowfall total of 27 inches. Courtesy of NCDC/Storm Data. Click to enlarge.


  • Monday, January 4th: A cold front associated with a deep trough over the central and eastern U.S. brought well-below-average, sub-freezing temperatures deep into the Southeast
  • Wednesday, January 6th: A new shortwave trough developed and tracked over the Southern Plains, inducing the formation of a weak surface low just off the Texas Coast…snow was already falling in Oklahoma, and began to fall in far northern Mississippi and Alabama and southern Tennessee
  • Thursday, January 7th: The surface low set up near Mobile, Alabama, allowing slightly warmer air to advance northward…this resulted in precipitation changing to sleet and freezing rain…later in the evening, much of the precipitation turned back to snow
  • Friday, January 8th: Snow tapered off in the Southeast, although strong winds continued to cause significant snow drifts…meanwhile, the surface low strengthened along the East Coast and brought snow to the mid-Atlantic states and New England


Sub-freezing temperatures continued even after the storm had passed, allowing snow and ice to remain on the ground for several days.

Many schools were closed for the week and roads were closed for days throughout much of the Tennessee River Valley. Many flights in the areas affected were delayed or canceled during the storm. Some power outages lasted for several days in the southern states more affected by the ice.

About 60 people died as a result of the snow and cold this week.

Governor Guy Hunt declared a state of emergency for northern Alabama, after about 2 million chickens were killed due to the collapse of their shelters, resulting in over $15 million of damage. Over half a million chickens also perished in eastern Texas, and another half a million died in northern Georgia.

Sources: NWS Huntsville January 1988 Winter Storm; Winter storm across the nation (Ocala Star-Banner); Dead chickens called public health threat (The Tuscaloosa News); Storm may boost poultry prices (The Dallas Morning News).

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Armistice Day Blizzard

Posted in Weather History, Winter Weather at 5:01 pm by Rebekah

Armistice Day Blizzard, Minneapolis. From the Minnesota Historical Society. Click to enlarge.

70 years ago today, biting cold winds and blowing snow unexpectedly struck the Midwest. On November 11, 1940, the Armistice Day Blizzard brought snowfall totals of up to 27 inches, winds of 50 to 80 mph, 20-foot snow drifts, and temperature drops of up to 50 °F (30 °C) to parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

The day started off unseasonably warm, prompting many hunters to go out looking for ducks. However, the National Weather Bureau/Service did a poor job of forecasting a strong low-pressure system that would come up from the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles.

The lowest recorded pressure in the center of the cyclone was 971 mb in Duluth, Minnesota. Between the strong pressure gradient and a strong temperature gradient, temperatures plummeted and a blizzard wreaked havoc and sadly caused around 150 people to lose their lives (many were on ships on Lake Michigan, while many others included the unprepared duck hunters).

NOAA National Weather Bureau/Service surface map, showing the track of the cyclone, pressure, winds, and temperature lines. From Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

Track of the low. From NWS La Crosse.
Time Temperature
430 am 52
635 am 49
735 am 39
835 am 30
935 am 25
1035 am 21
325 pm 14
La Crosse, WI temperatures (F) for November 11, 1940.

(Table from NWS La Crosse.)

Following the blizzard, the National Weather Service expanded forecast duties to 24 hours and expanded the number of forecast offices.

For more information, see the NWS La Crosse, Wikipedia, the Minnesota Historical Society (photos), and The 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard (on the Alabama Weather blog).

Armistice Day Blizzard, Minneapolis. From the Minnesota Historical Society. Click to enlarge.

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Post 100: 12 Years Ago Today…

Posted in Weather History at 6:52 pm by Rebekah

A special note: this is the 100th post on this blog!

12 years ago today, on 3 July 1998, I saw my first tornado, in Ellensburg, Washington.  Here’s a (slightly edited) selection of what I wrote about the event in my journal, about a month later.  I was 12 years old.


“July 3rd we planned to go to Grandma Izetta’s for her birthday on the 4th, and watch the parade and fireworks. But that afternoon Caitlin [my sister] was out mowing the lawn and Dad was out in the field fixing the fence. Mom and I (inside) saw lightning and heard thunder so Mom sent me to tell Caitlin to come inside. But just then (at about 2:20 pm) Caitlin came screaming and tearing to the house.

I thought maybe there was a fire somewhere or Caitlin got hit by lightning. Finally we heard her shout: Funnel Cloud! Funnel Cloud! Mom thought she [Caitlin] saw something that looked like a funnel cloud. So we stepped out onto the porch and I gasped. A tornado that was extremely tall was heading straight for our farm. [Note: it was actually moving from the west to the east, so it tracked past our farm but did not hit us.]

When I first saw it, all gray with dust, it looked the scariest. I started shaking. I thought we didn’t have anywhere to go. Mom said if it got closer or worse we would go for the pumphouse basement. That’s right, I thought.

We found out that the tornado was very weak because in Steve’s hay field [our neighbor] it whipped some hay up and gently twirled it. I just kept thinking I wanted to run for the basement. But then I kept reminding myself God is in control. God is in control.

Finally it dissipated. We were all relieved but Mom still watched for something inside. [She sat inside by an east-facing window, watching the area  in which we had last seen the tornado.]”


This was one of the scariest moments of my life; I was so scared at seeing a tornado, albeit a very weak one, my knees were shaking and I literally could not move.  I wanted desperately to get a photo of the tornado, but I could not run inside to get my camera, as I could not bring myself to take my eyes off of the tornado.

One of our neighbors down the road took some photos of it, but he said they were pretty low contrast and did not turn out.

I have never seen any photos of this storm, and it is probable that none exist, as it was a weak, short-lived tornado that tracked through rural farmland.  The track length was probably at least one mile, as our neighbors a mile down the road saw it move past their house as well. {Update: A year after this post I did get ahold of a photo; see Full Circle…The Lost Photo Of My First Tornado}

The tornado was never reported, so if you look up records for July 3, 1998, you’ll only find information on the heavy rain event.  We didn’t know anything about reporting tornadoes at the time.

The storm that produced this tornado was part of a thunderstorm cluster that was also responsible for bringing 3.2 inches of rain in an hour, causing landslides along the nearby Yakima River that left jetties that can still be seen today.  A weather station in an orchard in the hills between us and the river reported small hail up to 5 inches deep.

For a bit more information on this storm (minus the tornado!), see the National Weather Service Pendleton office’s Top 10 Weather Events in the History of the NWS Pendleton Forecast Office website.  I’d love to see some radar images of the storms, and to know if they were warned at all…but it’s hard to find archived weather info from before about the early 2000s.

After I saw this tornado, I was driven all the more to watch documentaries on tornadoes and hurricanes, and learn as much as I could about severe weather.  And to think that now I actually seek these storms out….!

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