Monday, February 3, 2014

The Cold Snap of 1864

Winter in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky
As temperatures have plummeted this winter to near-record lows, with much of the nation in the grip of polar air masses that have brought snow as far as Florida and Alabama, the question emerges - how unusual is this weather, really? Are there any historic parallels? Look no further than the cold snap of 1864 which was very similar to our current weather in many respects.

The Big Sandy River in Eastern Kentucky froze over in December of 1863 and remained so for nearly three months, until late February 1864. Snow covered the ground and the temperatures hovered right at zero degrees or lower. Things turned worse on New Years Eve 1863 and culminated on Friday, January 1, 1864, a day remembered by all who were old enough at that time, as the "The Cold New Year."

The Louisville Weekly Journal reported on December 31, 1863, that the “weather glasses in our city gave unfailing premonitions of the remarkable change in the weather which accompanied the close of the old year and the opening of the new. At noon on Thursday, the barometer indicated 29.62, when it commenced falling rapidly, accompanied by a rain storm, and the wind a little north of west. At four in the afternoon the temperature was forty-seven degrees above zero, when it commenced steadily and rapidly falling.”

At dusk, the rain changed into snow and the winds began blowing violently. Within five hours, the temperatures dropped thirty-five degrees. At nine o’clock P.M., the thermometers registered twelve degrees above zero which dropped to one degree above zero within ninety minutes.

The severe cold weather arrived at Portsmouth, Ohio, several hours later. New Years Eve was a dark drizzling day and it remained quite warm until 9 P.M. At this time, it was still fifty-three degrees and raining. Things started to change quickly at 9:30 P.M. when the wind started blowing hard from the Northeast. By 10:30 P.M., the thermometer showed twenty degrees and kept falling throughout the night.

The weather deteriorated even further on New Years Day. At 7 o’clock A.M., it was eight degrees above zero, at 2 P.M., four degrees above and at 9 P.M., one degree above. It was reported that heavy winds were blowing all day. In comparison, it was clear and cold at Cincinnati at 8 o’clock in the morning and the mercury stood at seven degrees below zero

One journalist noted, “The New Year was ushered in with a wind that blew almost a hurricane, and reminded one of the stormy nights when witches are said in old nursery legends to be abroad in their work of mischief. The cold was intense, penetrating everywhere, freezing every thing, not guarded by artificial heat, that could be frozen, and exceeding in degree the cold on any New Year's Day ever known by 'the oldest inhabitant'."

The severe cold weather extended throughout the West and Northwest. Two break men on the Oil Creek railroad, in Western Pennsylvania, were frozen to death while standing at their posts!
In Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Northern Illinois and Indiana, the cold was still more intense. At Milwaukee, on the 1st and 2nd, the thermometer ranged from thirty to forty degrees below zero, and several persons were frozen to death. At Galena, Ill., thermometer twenty-five to thirty-three below; at Madison, Wis., thirty-four to thirty-nine below; at Dubuque, thirty below; at Oshkosh, Wis., thirty-eight below; at Rockford, Ill., thirty below; Fort Wayne, Ind., twenty-eight below. Between Springfield and Virginia, a stage-driver was frozen to death on his box. The Mississippi River was frozen over at St. Louis, which people crossed on the ice.

Even the Southern States were affected by the “General Freeze Up.” In Richmond, Virginia, the papers reported that, “Matters and things in general concluded to "wait" on Saturday morning, in view of the sudden descent of the temperature below zero. The water froze up in railroad tanks and locomotive boilers, water wheels refused to "circumnavigate", machine shops ceased their clatter, old clocks stopped at "witching hours", hydrants negatived the reservoirs, the town pumps were in demand, the boards of the floors creaked and weather boarding snapped, frosty network frescoed every window pane, and the universal "ugh" that escaped from every mouth went with icy chilliness to the soul of sympathetic nature.”

At Memphis, Tennessee, the thermometer was reported on New Year's Day at ten degrees below zero. Even Georgia was not spared from the cold weather. The Atlanta Intelligencer reported temperatures of twelve degrees at 10 P.M. on January 1st, 1864, and eight degrees the following morning at 7 A.M. “This is the coldest weather we have experienced within forty years, in this country, with a single exception - the cold Saturday (in 1834), when the Mercury fell below zero. It is with difficulty, therefore, that we can write. Not only has our ink frozen, but with the best of fires that we can command, our fingers become numb before a paragraph can be written.”

The severe weather was especially hard on the soldiers. The newspapers reported that, “at Fort Halleck, Columbus, on the Mississippi, above Memphis, on New Year's eve, many of the negro soldiers were badly frozen; and at Island No. 10, ten negroes were frozen to death, and more were expected to die. On the same night, at the same place, eight men of the 52nd Indiana Infantry “were out on a skiff, and being unable to make the shore, were cast on a sand-bar, where three of the party were frozen to death before they could be rescued, two others died the next day, and the others were not expected to live.” The soldiers at Camp Indianapolis also suffered considerably on New Years Eve when a number had their ears and feet frozen.

According to news from Louisville, three Union soldiers were frozen to death at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, on the night of January 2, 1864. At Camp Yates, Springfield, Illinois, several soldiers met the same fate, as well as two soldiers at Camp Chase, Ohio.

Similar hardships were also endured by soldiers who were stationed in Eastern Kentucky where the temperatures dropped well below zero. According to local citizens, the beginning days of January 1864 saw the coldest weather and most abrupt change to be recorded in this section for many years. 

On New Years Day, a soldier from the 5th Independent Battalion OH Cavalry recorded the following from winter quarters at Poplar Plains, “Turned awfully cold last night, a strong wind began blowing from the northwest about nine o'clock and by midnight everything was frozen up. We left our tents and hovered around blazing fires. Our pickets were all brought in except the one that was sheltered towards Poplar Plains. It is reported to-day that seven men of the 40th Kentucky Infantry were found frozen on their posts east of here. Such intense cold I never felt before.” Another member of the unit wrote, “The night of December 31, 1863, we passed through the cold that ushered in "the cold New Years." The thermometer dropped to 25 degrees below zero, and with difficulty the troops were saved from freezing ... Two soldiers on duty were frozen to death at Mount Sterling below us, and all in all the experience was one not soon to be forgotten.”

Snow covered road, Eastern Kentucky
On New Years Day, the 45th Kentucky Mounted Infantry began to arrive at Mt. Sterling from Paris. “Some of these men were badly frosted and had to lie by at farmhouses,” noted an eye witness, “and it was several days before they all got in, and as they were without tents they were quartered where ever shelter could be found for them, till the cold had abated somewhat, and tents could be procured...”

In an effort to stay warm, the 14th Kentucky Infantry, one of the regiments stationed at Louisa, KY, detailed one of the soldiers as coal digger in the quartermaster department during the months of December 1863 and January 1864.

The cold weather continued unabated. A report from St. Louis noted that, “The weather continues very cold here, the mercury ranging from 5 degrees below to 15 degrees above zero. About one foot of snow lies on the ground, and the sleighing is splendid. Heavily laden wagons cross the river on ice, and there are no indications of a speedy break-up. The weather has been intensely cold throughout the State. Many persons and a large amount of stock have been frozen to death.”

On January 8, 1864, Portsmouth recorded ten inches of snow and the thermometer had not risen above twenty degrees. The Ohio River was full of floating ice and finally closed up firmly on Jan. 13, 1864. It remained ice-bound which prevented the steamboats from running thus limiting the delivery of supplies to citizens and soldiers alike. The soldiers' families were impacted as well and those who had not been able to put up enough food for the winter were in dire straits. In order to alleviate some of the suffering, Catlettsburg merchant William H. Geiger donated two steers and one beef to the poor soldiers' wives and families.

The Ohio River at Greenup with floating ice, January 2014
Photograph courtesy of Nancy Wright Bays
As the frozen Big Sandy River prevented steamboats from supplying the Union post at Louisa with stores, the quartermaster department soon was running low on provisions. Therefore, a detachment of the 39th KY Mounted Infantry was ordered to proceed to Catlettsburg on January 9, 1864.  An attack by the enemy was not expected since the weather was extremely cold.  However, as the men were marching along the west bank of the Big Sandy River, they were quietly followed on the other side of the river by a detachment of about 150 men of the 16th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Milton J. Ferguson.

By nightfall, the 39th Kentucky detachment had reached Turman's Ferry at the mouth of Bear Creek, a prominent point on the Big Sandy River about 14 miles above Catlettsburg. Just below, at the present-day site of the Cavanaugh M. E. Church, stood an old log schoolhouse, which the men selected as their sleeping quarters. Still completely unsuspecting of any danger, no pickets were posted, “and the officers were asleep in the neighboring farm houses." 

The 16th Virginia Cavalry, under the cover of night, crossed the Big Sandy River on the ice and quietly approached the quarters of the unsuspecting Union soldiers. The Confederates wasted no time and opened fire on the sleeping men. One of the lieutenants was killed in the fight, nine men taken prisoners, including one lieutenant, and the rest, “were driven out into the snow with weather at about zero or lower." The 16th Virginia Cavalry re-crossed the icy river and vanished as quickly as they had appeared. A Union force from Catlettsburg was later sent out to pursue the Confederates but came back empty handed. Some of the men who had taken to the woods, "became frozen, especially their feet, and suffered greatly." On January 11, 1864, "A part of the wounded left behind arrived at the Ashland Hospital, not only badly wounded, but frostbitten.” The majority of them required amputations. According to Catlettsburg post commander Major Rhys Thomas, twenty men had to be sent to the hospital.  

Snowy  Creek in Eastern Kentucky
In closing, the eloquent remarks of the editor of the Daily Ohio Statesman seem fitting. “The New Year has come in, our brother journalists say, like a Lion - more, we should think, like a Russian or Norwegian Bear. A little snow would have probably moderated the intensity of this Arctic weather; but that was not vouchsafed us. Is this rugged birth of the New Year figurative of the hardships of the mass of people - the laboring poor - will have to endure during its existence, or does it prefigure that, though it freezes us with its cold frowns at its commencement, it will comfort and gladden us with sunny smiles before its close? Let us all hope, and so labor, that we may have cause to remember and bless the year 1864.”

The same thoughts and blessings go out to everyone for the year 2014, as we look outside our windows, shivering from yet another winter storm.

Article researched and written by Marlitta H. Perkins, January/February 2014. Images are the author's property, unless noted otherwise. Unauthorized use and/or duplication, including images, without express written notice by the author is strictly prohibited. © 2014. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Marlitta, this was a fascinating read! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Enjoyed this immensely. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for another entry humanizing the rebellion and the costs paid by real people. Not much glory in freezing to death! And to think, they didn't have central heating and electric blankets on picket duty.

  4. Wonderful storytelling. Have you ever heard of a robbery in Eastern Kentucky in the 1860s involving Spradlin brothers? My relative changed his name to Fitzpatrick and left for Arkansas. Would love to hear the story!

  5. Thank you for writing this! I found a reference in my great-great grandfather's memoirs to this cold spell and went looking online for more descriptions. Yours is the best! Here is what my gg-grandfather wrote:
    "On the afternoon of the last day of December I had gone to the Post Office. Just as I was starting back a sudden atmospheric change was very perceptible. Someone must have left the door of the polar region open—the blast of the northwest wind was so fierce it was hard to make headway against it, and the temperature was falling rapidly. I at once got the stock and most of the chickens under shelter. That night and the day following, 1st January 1864, was the coldest known up to that time through a section of the country five hundred miles wide from Canada to the south Atlantic states." (By John Andrews, 1831-1922; lived then in Rockford, Illinois, but was working on his other farm in Dubois, Illinois. See my blog for more info about him and also about his wife who had grown up to some extent in western Kentucky--