Saturday, January 11, 2014

Climate of Independence

Baby It's Cold  (or Hot) Outside

This isn't about global warming (aka climate change). This blog is about weather, an often overlooked factor by some who read military history. But serious students of warfare know that weather can often (and did often) play a vital, if not decisive role in military operations. Examples are rampant: mailed Crusaders stifled by oppressive heat in Palestine, German divisions frozen in the snows outside Moscow and Stalingrad, or Napoleon's invasion turned back by an early winter. The list goes on. Possibly the most decisive and specific case of weather impacting warfare was the typhoon that destroyed the Mongol fleet poised to invade medieval Japan - the Kamikaze that gave its named to Japan's WWII's suicide attacks.

The invading Mongol fleet destroyed by the
"Divine Wind" that saved Japan

Weather's Impact

Like any other war, especially one lasting eight years as the American War for Independence did, weather was bound to influence things. And since our First Patriots and the British did not have a modern weather system, they had to rely on the Almanac, early barometers, or local knowledge of past weather shifts. But mostly, they simply had to react to the weather as it occurred. That could complicate things when strange or unexpected spikes in the climate occurred. Year after year, in all four seasons, rebels and redcoats coped with extremes of rain, snow, heat, and fog - as well as tides, ice formations and winds. Weather was capricious, sometimes helping or hurting one of the armies, and sometimes hindering both. Savvy commanders often tried to use the weather to gain an advantage or mitigate the damage to their armies from its extremes.  The weather sometimes  shaped the Revolutionary War as much as political, economic, or logistical factors.

The Heat of Battle

During the Battle of Long Island in 1776, the hot and oppressively humid weather played a role and likely one of the reasons the long march around the Americans took place at night. When the humidity erupted into violent thunder storms, both armies were slowed by mud and poor visibility, and use of fire-locks was nearly impossible. The combination if stormy weather and the resulting shift in tides prevented the Royal Navy from cutting Washington's forces off on Long Island.  Washington leveraged the weather and escaped during the night of storms. And the resultant early morning fog prevented the British from observing his retrograde until it was too late. Weather (combined with decisive and heroic action) indeed saved the Continental  Army. The Battle of Monmouth was fought in unusually hot and humid weather as well. This slowed the British column and enabled Washington to catch them as they slogged across New Jersey. Washington's surprise attack at Germantown might have checked Howe's capture of Philadelphia but this time the heavy morning fog confused the American attackers and the British were alerted and rallied.  Later in the war, in the southern theater, hot and humid weather was a factor in Cornwallis's decision to shed his dwindling army of baggage and heavy equipment even heavy clothing as he tried desperately to catch the wily Nathaniel Greene in the Carolinas. We know how that ended.

The Continental Army retrograde shielded by a summer storm

General Frost

Much more widely recalled are the cold campaigns:  Nathaniel Greene's men dragging desperately needed cannon through the snowy mountains of New England to help win the siege of Boston. The winter at Valley Forge is iconic. But Washington's Christmas crossing in the face of biting precipitation and gathering ice floes no less so. The weather prevented two of his divisions from crossing but his main column used it as cover to surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton. And the cold winter weather sent the British into "winter quarters" earlier than the successes of the 1776 campaign and an imminent victory portended.

The weather helped with the element (sic) of surprise at Trenton

Less well known is the winter war waged in the Jerseys after Washington retreated to Morristown for his own winter quarters. Instead of a well deserved respite, it was the British who suffered privations as they struggled to forage for supplies.  The militias, and later the Continentals ambushed forage parties, attacked relief columns and bushwhacked couriers.The British commander Lord Howe took casualties he could not easily replace - and for no military advantage.

General Frost affected more than Valley Forge

General Montgomery
Perhaps the campaign most affected by the cold is the least known:  The 1775 invasion (liberation?) of Canada in twin attacks across America's harsh and rugged north land. Colonel Benedict Arnold led several hundred men through the wilds of main while General Richard Montgomery led a column through upper NewYork towards Montreal. The weather turned cold earlier than normal that year. Launching a northward invasion in the fall left the Americans suffering through  rapidly cooling weather that plagued them all the way to Quebec. The weather dogged both expeditions as both columns struggled through a mixture of ice,snow, and rain.  Over six inches of snow deluged Arnold's column  in a single night in late October. The weather alone had seriously beaten down the invasion forces by the time they rendezvoused near Quebec in early December.With more frigid weather on the way, Montgomery decided to assault Quebec, rather than besiege the city. Hoping to take advantage of the weather,the Americans attacked under the cover of a severe snowstorm. But the blinding snow  caused confusion in the attack, which failed with the death of Montgomery and Arnold's wounding. Arguably two of America's best commanders lost to General Frost.

American attack on Quebec

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