Civil War Winters for the 39th Illinois Infantry
As I write this from my home in northern Virginia, the remnants of a foot of snow a week ago are still on the ground, and the days have seen high temperatures around freezing, and overnight windchills in the single digits. Putting the finishing touches on the post, I see that another 2-4 inches is expected this weekend. As a native of north-central Illinois none of this is new to me, but it is a new experience in my limited time in Virginia. Such a thought got me thinking about some other Illinois boys who spent frigid cold winters in the areas near where I currently live between 1861 and 1865.
The 39th Illinois Volunteer Infantry left Chicago in October of 1861 and after some training, did not arrive in the east until the second week of November. Being a regiment made up almost entirely of men spurred to join following the massive summer failure of the U.S. Army at Bull Run, their initial days of service would be spent in the cold, and getting colder, weather.
They spent the winter of 1861-’62 in and around the Shenandoah Valley, ’62-63 in Suffolk, Virginia, got a brief winter reprieve in ’63-64 spending it in the Carolinas (although a winter furlough in Chicago), and then the final winter of the war in and around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. Their coldest winter was their first, and one where they were not yet fully supplied, experienced in dealing the weather—oh and they had to fight Stonewall Jackson during the worst of it.
On the 15th of December 1861, the 39th Illinois received orders to depart Hancock, Maryland where they had been since arriving in the east. Their assignment was to cross the Potomac River into Alpine Station, VA, and provide security for various areas of railroad and bridge repair being done to enable U.S. operations in and around the Shenandoah Valley. The Valley was an area of immense importance, as it was fertile farmland for crops and animals that would feed the Confederacy, and a ready-made avenue of approach for either side to attack the other’s capital.
Christmas and the New Year passed with the men being more or less comfortable as they often made use of various homes and buildings that had been abandoned by secessionists or were welcomed in by Unionist families. The weather was bitterly cold and getting colder, however, and on January 3 the element of danger was introduced to that.
A Black man who had recently escaped enslavement made his way to 39th headquarters and notified the men that a large force under what he knew to be Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s command was less than five miles away. The intelligence was proven to be true when the regiment deployed men to the main road who were ambushed by Jackson’s troops.
What followed was two days of skirmishing with Jackson’s force of 8,000-9,000 men with the less than 3,000 men of the 39th, a Pennsylvania regiment performing similar duty, and a battery of regular army artillery. The Union men were able to use the artillery, the terrain, and well-spaced concentrations of fire to delay Jackson at various instances, but what really worked in their favor was the weather.
As the light of January 3rd ran out, a heavy snow began to fall. Unsure of the exact position of U.S. forces, knowing they could be assaulted by artillery from elevated terrain, and the difficulty of moving men and supplies in the cold and snow; Jackson held off for the night. He resumed his attack the next day, but Union troops and artillery used their location to their advantage once again.
While the weather very much helped their cause, it also caused their own great distress. As the ability to find delaying actions ran out against a superior force, men were forced to ford a small river in the freezing conditions then unable to start fires for fear of giving away their positions in the dark. The regimental surgeon would later write that "The passage of the river at a temperature considerably below the freezing point was a most trying ordeal and resulted afterwards in much sickness. As the men emerged from the water, the frosty air gave their clothing a most uncomfortable stiffness.” Many men would forever suffer from rheumatism and other ailments as a result.
While Jackson was able to acquire a great deal of supplies, and destroy some Union lines of communication, the 39th’s 48 hours of action in a snowstorm prevented the capture of two Union regiments and artillery. Their reward? Continued movement into hilly terrain in the cold and miserable weather.
The final winter, while maybe the second coldest, was perhaps their most comfortable. After a stretch from May to October campaigning against then besieging Petersburg where the regiment had its worse battle losses of the war, they constructed winter quarters in the vicinity of an area called Chaffin’s Farm, or Bluff. The 39th had spent the early fall part of various operations just south of Richmond attempting to either breakthrough to the rebel capital or, at the very least, keep rebel troops occupied there to draw manpower away from the fights in Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley.
Now they would man the Union lines in that area throughout the winter while training for spring, bringing in new recruits, and ensuring the rebel army had to dedicate men to preventing a breakthrough to Richmond. Regimental commander Homer Plimpton wrote that he and other men had built a “log house” like those we “sometimes see in the clearings of the west.” The men were warm and well fed as rebel desertions picked up due to their lack of such comforts and increased even more when Lincoln won re-election.
While the men had to take rotations on picket duty, or manning the U.S. lines near their quarters, they had a place at least to sleep out of the elements, and even warm up by a fire. They enjoyed wonderfully donated holiday meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but there was no doubt that a “comfortable” Civil War winter was still what most of us would find miserable. Sergeant Anthony Taylor wrote that the new year of 1865 was ushered in by the “coldest day of the winter.” Before spring, and the final offensive, came; the regiment would continue their duties and drilling in a winter of cold and snow before ending in a muddy mess of a freeze-thaw cycle. Their goal for enduring it, however, would be a major role in bringing the war to an end during the first week of April.
In these often-difficult times of pandemic, it has been easy for me to find myself slipping into some despair, that the winter weather seems only to make worse. This past week, however, I got to watch my son get the opportunity to sled for the first time, and his smiles and giggling will keep me warm for the rest of the winter. Sure, we were cold, and sure I had to do some shoveling afterwards, but nobody then asked me to stay out in it to defend against attack or prepare to march on Petersburg. I count my blessings that my ancestors, and other men from the area in which I grew up, made sacrifices that make mine seem simple by comparison.
To learn more about the 39th Illinois battling Stonewall Jackson in the Valley, taking part in the Siege of Petersburg, and the rest of their Civil War Journey, be sure to check out Chicago To Appomattox; available January 25. Pre-order now at Chicago to Appomattox – McFarland (mcfarlandbooks.com) or Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War: Baker, Jason B.: 9781476686202: Amazon.com: Books or Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War by Jason B. Baker, Paperback | Barnes & Noble® (barnesandnoble.com)