Kenneth Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The Howling Storm?
KN: Growing up in the Virginia mountains, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on our farm. Weather forecasts were vital, as we had to know if it was time to get the animals in the barn before a snow storm, or if we needed to bale newly-mown hay and store it in the loft before rain set in. Once I planted a field of corn only to watch it die in a drought. So I grew up in a household where weather was central. Yet I never really made the connection between weather and the Civil War until years later when I agreed to write a history of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Weather—in this case a devastating late summer drought—soon became as important a character as Braxton Bragg. Soldiers arrived at the field dehydrated and sick from drinking mud and bacterial puddles, and the fighting itself began over possession of a spring. Working on that book left me attuned to other moments in the war that were shaped by weather, such as the flooding that characterized Fort Henry, Shiloh, and the Peninsula Campaign earlier in 1862. More and more I included information about weather when I taught, and I told my students for years that “someone needs to write a book about Civil War weather.” When no one did, I abruptly decided one morning a decade ago to give it a try myself.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Howling Storm?
KN: We will not fully understand the Civil War—on the battlefield or on the home front—until we take the war back outside and immerse it in wartime weather and the physical environment. Those weather conditions generally favored a Union cause more industrially and intellectually able to cope with it while undermining Confederate agriculture and arms.
JF: Why do we need to read The Howling Storm?
KN: I’ve read about the Civil War since I was a boy, and I’ve studied it professionally for thirty-five years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Yet researching and writing this book has forever altered how I understand the war. I never knew that it took place in an unusual weather environment, for one thing, shaped by both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Heavy late winter rains and summer droughts in the Confederacy in 1862 and 1863, as well as in Virginia in 1864, created serious food shortages that forced the government in Richmond to prioritize feeding soldiers or civilians. Civil War historians talk all the time about the internal issues that conceivably doomed the Confederacy without understanding that the foundation of all those divisive policies such as impressment and the tax-in-kind are to be found in bad weather and stunted crops. At the same time, northern agriculture faced problems after 1862 due to early frosts in 1863 and drought that year as well as in 1864. Good or bad weather played major roles in the outcomes of battles and campaigns, more than I ever grasped. Once I added weather to the equation, I began to alter my opinions of the leaders too. Abraham Lincoln was a magisterial president in so many ways, but he also could be the prototype of the worst kind of snarky armchair general, unable or unwilling to grasp what it took to move 100,000 men through muddy red clay. And I also marveled at the suffering that common soldiers endured. We think about them dying in battle or in hospitals, but not regularly alongside roads due to heat exhaustion, drowning in floods, freezing to death on picket, or being struck by lightning. I hope that taking the war back outside into the environment, away from our air conditioners and the tired clichés we grew up with, will have the same effect on readers.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KN: My grandfather was a great storyteller, and history was always my favorite class in school, right through college. And growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the Civil War. When I was five, for example, we all went to the Manassas battlefield and my father illegally hoisted me on top of the Stonewall Jackson statue. To be honest, though, I got pretty tired of the war. I gravitated toward European history in college, and my MA thesis actually is about the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But during the year after I graduated, as I tried to find a job and ended up cutting timber on the farm, I started thinking about the history of our land, and of my home town. Then I ran across a paperback copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, and there I was, intellectually back in Southwest Virginia in the nineteenth century. Eventually that led me back to grad school.
JF: What is your next project?
KN: In the short term, surviving a year of Zoom teaching. After that? Ten years of working on The Howling Storm—which turned into quite a thick book—and I should be done with Civil War weather. Yet I keep musing about issues that I had to leave out due to length, such as the wartime experience in coastal forts, where weather often was the main foe. I’m also an Appalachian scholar, and I also have an unfinished, long-term project on the identity of Appalachian Civil War bushwhackers that a few folks really want to me to finish finally once I can get back to Washington.
JF: Thanks, Kenneth!