The Winter Storm of 1863 and 1864
By Kevin Ladd
The arrival of the winter season puts our minds to thinking about wintry storms of years gone by. The winter storm of January 1886, for instance, was one of the worst of all times. Boats in Galveston Bay were frozen over and locked in place by a solid sheet of ice. Two boat captains from Wallisville, James Mixon and Thomas Jefferson, died when their boats capsized in Galveston Bay. Captain Jefferson, a young man, was found frozen solid inside his vessel. A record snowfall came in February 1895 when at least two feet of the white stuff descended across Southeast Texas. Here in Liberty, folks measured 26 inches of snow.
The winter of 1863 - 1864, however, should rank right up in there with these. Historical records suggest this extended spell of hard winter weather lasted around twenty-one days, possibly more. Although it is difficult to determine just how low the thermometer dropped, there are several primary sources that can tell us a great deal about the conditions that winter.
The Duncan Diary
Capt. William B. Duncan of Liberty was very familiar with the fierce winter of that year. As the commanding officer of Company F of Spaight's Battalion, Duncan, his men, and most of the officers and soldiers of that fighting force were in South Central Louisiana. Spaight's Battalion was sent to Louisiana in May 1863 and spent the rest of that year defending the Pelican State from a Union invasion.
Duncan's diaries are housed today at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty. Although they date back to the 1840s, the diaries for the war years deal almost wholly with the comings and goings of Duncan's company, which was known locally as "The Moss Bluff Rebels."
December of 1863 found Duncan and his men camped rather uncomfortably in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. They had clashed several times that fall with Union forces under the command of General Nathaniel Banks. Spaight's Battalion had taken part in the brilliant Confederate victory at Mansfield, where the boys in gray had been commanded by General Richard "Dick" Taylor.
The weather was warm and cloudy when Duncan received word on Tuesday, December 15 that the men were to break camp and march for Texas on Thursday. This would be the last day of warm weather for some time.
On Wednesday, the weather made a drastic change. A cold, wet norther came tearing in upon the encampment. Duncan was up at 3 o'clock on Thursday morning and found it "very cold & every thing wet. Got ready, ate & started little after sun rise, off for Texas. Found the prairie almost entirely covered with water. So cold that I thought I would freeze. Stopped and put on another pair of flannel drawers, & another pair of socks, which helped."
The journey across Louisiana was slow. Wagons bogged down on the muddy roads. Mud froze quickly On December 19, a Saturday, the men awoke to find it even colder. Duncan noted that the ice was a quarter of an inch thick. The ground was still frozen hard on Sunday, and they traveled fast to Bayou Nezpique only to learn that the stream was flooded out of its banks. The men did not effect a crossing until Monday, finishing only after 10 p.m. Duncan noted in his diary that it rained during the night, making things even more miserable.
The troops set out for Lake Charles on Tuesday, December 22, and it only continued to rain throughout most of the day. They came into Lake Charles on Wednesday, fording the Calcasieu River before sunset 'Horses starving & nothing to eat," he wrote. '1 in same condition, & everything wet."
The diary account for Christmas Day, 1863 is quite detailed: "Up before day. Ate a few mouthfuls and started." The men ate breakfast at a tavern on the Louisiana side of the Sabine. Duncan bought two bottles of whiskey for what was then a princely sum of sixty dollars. He intended to share the liquor with his men that night.
"Ordered to put all heavy things In Boat and send one man from each company with them and take the wagons through. Got over Sabine before night land camped. The Major and several other officers got tight, and a good many men also. Gave my co. [company] a drink round for their Christmas. I ate some of the little cakes I brought from home and gave some of the men a taste. That was our Christmas."
Next month we will take a look at two other first hand accounts of this fierce winter storm.