The Winter Storm of 1863 and 1864
By Kevin Ladd
Last month's article focused on an intense fierce winter storm that struck Southeast Texas during the final days of December 1863 and extended into the first few days of January 1864. 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.
We provided journal entries from Captain William Berry Duncan of Liberty, who commanded Company F of Spaight's Battalion. He and his men were stationed in Southwest Louisiana and were attempting to return to Southeast Texas during the worst of the storm. Duncan was a stickler for recording weather information. We turn now to another diary from another Confederate officer.
The H.N. Connor Diary
Another excellent source of information on the winter cold spell was the diary maintained by a young Confederate officer by the name of First Sergeant H. N. Connor of Company A, Spaight's Battalion. No one in his family has ever figured out what the initials stood for, but they can document the fact that he was born at Galveston on July 1, 1841, a son of Captain Hiram L. Dalton and his wife Julia Elizabeth Dalton. The war found him working at Sabine Pass.
Only a few days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Connor joined up with one Rebel company for a period of three months and afterward re-upped in another battalion commanded by James B. Liken, a local attorney. This command eventually fell upon Ashley W. Spaight of Liberty County. The young man was assigned to Company A, in which unit he was elected as second sergeant in June 1862. Connor began his diary in December 1861 and maintained it throughout the duration of the war. Although he missed a few days along the way, his entries are more detailed than Duncan's.
Sgt. Connor, like the other men of Spaight's Battalion, spent most of the summer and fall in some corner of Louisiana, engaged in spirited warfare. In November, however, he had been dispatched over to Houston to accompany a clothing wagon. He was on his way back to rejoin his command when the weather turned cold and rainy on December 16.
Connor added some more detailed information in a section of notes at the end of the diary: "On the 16th day of December, 1863, a heavy rain fell and there commenced a freeze. It was too cold to remain on horseback, and too much ice and water to walk well, but many did it and suffered severely. Many were frostbitten. Many of those whose shoes were worn out were bleeding at the feet. The horses' legs were cut and blood was streaming down them, mixed with water and little cakes of ice. This weather lasted without cessation until the 6th of January, 1864.
"At Nezpique Bayou, the stream was swollen far out of its banks, and water came rushing down, mixed with logs, trees, and pieces of ice. We had but one little flat boat to cross several hundred wagons, 8,000 animals, and some 3,000 men, and every now and then it would sink. Most of the animals were swum across, and many of them were lost. I was in the flat boat when it was once sinking about midway of the stream, but got out safe with an extra wetting.
"From there on to Niblett's Bluff, we all but swam our way through from Niblett's Bluff (north of Orange) to Houston, we crawled, swam and slid on ice. And when we had made the trip, the division men and horses were completely broken down. Many died from the exposure of that trip, especially from Col. Major's brigade. At Houston all the bakery and whiskey shops were soon sold out."
Connor's diary gives interesting facts as the New Year dawned cold and icy: "Jan. 1, 1864: Reached Liberty, frozen stiff. Yesterday it was so cold we could not travel. Horses, saddles, blankets, clothes all frozen stiff. One man frozen to death. Today the ice on the prairie held the weight of the horses, causing them to slide and fall, injuring them severely."
The soldiers forded the Trinity later on the first, the water coming up all the way to the saddle of Connor's horse.
Other diary entries bear terrible evidence of the hardships endured by these soldiers:
"Jan. 3, 1864: Rain all day. Swam the San Jacinto River, bringing wagons over until the current became too strong and unsafe to cross anymore. Our squadron wagons did not get across; neither did the county train. So here we are tonight in a bottom 4 inches under water, heavy wet wood to burn, raining and nothing to eat and no shelter.
"Jan. 4, 1864: Rain day and night, freezing also. Nothing to eat today, no houses along the road.
"Jan. 5, 1864: Reached Houston, wet, cold, and hungry. All made a rush to the bakeries and whiskey shops. Encamped near the Texas and N. O. railroad depot, and so for the present, end our journey. For 21 days we have been wet and frozen. The hardest winter Texas has known for many years. For 200 miles we have traveled through water from 6 inches to 4 feet deep on the prairies and in the bottoms. The greater portion of the time, it has been a constant freeze. We have ferried 3 rivers, swam 2, besides 10 or 12 large bayous. At Bayou Nezpique, one of the forks of the Mermentau River, our entire division crossed on a flat (boat ferry), that could carry but one wagon without the mules, working day and night, swimming mules and horses. The flat sank several times, I being on it at one time, but being already wet, it made but little difference. Twice on the trip at night, we were flooded out by the rain and quick rise of the little streams. At one time came near losing some men, some horses were drowned, and saddles swept away. We have had no tents since May, 1863, so have had no protection against the weather. A number of men have been so frozen that they will never get clear of it entirely. I have been dry but once on this trip, and that for a day and a half."
The James Madison Hall Journal
James Madison Hall, a native of Baltimore, was born in 1819 but spent much of his life on the banks of the Trinity River at a place called Hall's Bluff in Houston County. Through an unusual set of circumstances, however, Hall made his way to Liberty soon after the Confederate States of America arose. By the summer of 1862, this newcomer had become the mayor of Liberty. Although he held the job briefly, he was elected again in 1865 and served until his death in 1867.
Hall also maintained a daily journal, most of which revolved around his circle of friends and acquaintances in Crockett and Hall's Bluff. The final years, however, present a fair depiction of life in Liberty during the war years.
Hall's entries for December 1863 and January 1864 give the best picture of weather conditions in Liberty during the winter storm. His entries for Wednesday December 16 noted that the weather was "cloudy, disagreeable & very cold, with a hard frost and freeze at night, the ice forming in all the vessels that had water in them ½ inch thick."
The entries for the next several days varied little, with Hall comment-ing on operations at his grist mill and the occasional hog killings. Each entry ends the same way, with the weather remaining "clear and cold, with a hard freeze and frost at night." By Monday, December 21, however, Hall noted that the weather was "changeable and cold, with indication of rain." Over the next three nights, heavy rains began to fall.
Freezing precipitation continued from Christmas Day until December 30. Hall recorded the following information on the night of the 30th: "Weather cloudy and rainy until night when it turned bitter cold, a hail and snow storm passed over, leaving the ground covered with a coat of snow two inches deep, the surface of which was hardly frozen over." On New Year's Eve, Hall bid farewell to a host of relatives who were bound for Houston County. Throughout the day, he noted in his journal, the millpond was frozen over with an inch-thick covering of ice. As he sat by the fireplace that night, Hall made the following notes in his journal: "At night it froze all the little woman's eggs in my room, although I kept large fire in it, throughout the night. It is decidedly the coldest spell of weather that I have ever experienced in the State of Texas, after a residence of 38 years."
Over the next nine days, Hall recorded a continued spell of bad weather. The millpond, his preferred guide for the severity of the winter, remained frozen each day. By January 10, Hall recorded that the weather was moderating.
All in all, these three journals provide an interesting picture of life in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana during one of the worst winters ever. None of these firsthand accounts record thea ctual temperatures. Wind chill factors were probably not even imagined. All we know for sure, however, is that it was really, really cold.