Monday, October 29, 2012
Weather that Changed American History
As the monster hurricane that has been dubbed "Frankenstorm" makes landfall on the eastern seaboard, it already seems clear this will be a historic weather event. In that spirit, the Prolix Patriot has compiled a list of ten major events in which weather affected the course of American History, presented in chronological order.
1. The Mayflower
In October of 1620, the Pilgrims encountered fierce winter gales in the North Atlantic. At several points during the voyage, the Mayflower's master, Christopher Jones, even considered returning to England and only continued on after realizing that the deteriorating weather might be even worse if he turned back. After making landfall at Cape Cod the Pilgrims attempted to sail south to their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River, but continued stormy weather made this impossible and after spending the winter aboard the ship they ultimately ended up settling what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the spring of the following year.
2. Cornwallis' Surrender at Yorktown
As the combined Continental and French forces under the command of General Washington and Comte de Rochambeau overran the last ring of British defenses during the Siege of Yorktown in October of 1781, Lord Cornwallis attempted a desperate evacuation of his army across the James River at Gloucester Point, but was blocked by a sudden freak squall after only getting one group of boats across. The following morning he met with his officers and all agreed that their situation was now hopeless and they began to draw up the articles of capitulation which would bring the Revolutionary War to an end.
3. The Burning of Washington
In August of 1812, British Royal Marines under the command of Admiral George Cockburn landed in Maryland for an assault on the young nation's capital. After routing the American defenders at Bladensburg, the British sacked Washington and began setting public buildings on fire. Fortunately, a hurricane arrived the very next day and the heavy rains extinguished the conflagration which preserved the exterior structure of the Capitol and the White House, prevented the fire from spreading to civilian structures, and also forced the British to return to their ships and depart from the city.
4. Burnside's "Mud March"
Despite his own incompetence and his inability to control the insubordination of his officers, President Lincoln decided to give General Ambrose Burnside one more chance to prove himself with an ill-fated winter offensive in January of 1863. However, the muddy conditions caused by unseasonably mild weather slowed his progress to a standstill and forced him to abort the mission. In the end, this probably saved the Army of the Potomac from complete destruction or capture at the hands of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, because the early snowmelt was causing the Rappahannock River to rapidly flood, which would have cut off Burnside's only line of retreat. As a result of the fiasco, the bungling General Burnside was finally relieved of command which probably saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of his men.
5. The Great Johnstown Flood
In May of 1889, a massive rainstorm passed over the steep river valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania dumping an estimated 6-10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. The extremely heavy rainfall caused the Conemaugh River to flood and crest the South Fork Dam, which soon collapsed, releasing a torrent of 20 million tons of water over the course of 40 minutes--an amount equal to the flow rate of the mighty Mississippi River. The aftermath of the flood was the first time the American Red Cross responded to a natural disaster and the unsuccessful attempts by the victims to obtain compensation from the dam's owners had lasting consequences in tort law.
6. The Dust Bowl
Throughout the 1930's, severe droughts killed off the fragile crops that were never meant for the semi-arid conditions of the Great Plains. Without plant roots to hold the fine soil together, strong winds tore up the dry soil and blew millions of tons of dust clouds across the empty prairie. With the economy already in ruins from the Great Crash of 1929, the persistent agricultural failure and ecological devastation of the Dust Bowl caused untold hardships, illness, starvation, and displacement for prairie farmers and worsened the economic calamity of the Great Depression.
7. The Battle of the Bulge
During the winter of 1944, Allied forces under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower had slowed their advance through the thick forests of the Ardennes. Under heavy cloud cover, the Germans launched a last-ditch winter offensive on December 16 which might have succeeded if the weather had not cleared just in time for Allied air power to finally relieve battered ground forces tenaciously holding out at key crossroads blocking the Germans' access to crucial resupply. Also, due to the extremely cold temperatures tanks and trucks had to keep their engines running to prevent the diesel fuel from gelling which may have contributed to the German defeat by forcing them to expend their limited fuel reserves more quickly.
8. Typhoon Cobra
On the same day the Germans launched their attack, but on the other side of the world, Admiral Halsey was trying to resupply his forces that were launching attacks against Japanese airfields in the Philippines. On December 17, as the weather rapidly worsened, Halsey received incorrect weather reports and unwittingly sailed his entire fleet directly into a massive typhoon instead of away from it. The violent winds in excess of 100 m.p.h. caused damage and losses comparable to a defeat in a major fleet engagement. The disaster likely delayed the American recapture of the Philippines and caused Halsey to be temporarily relieved of command although he was later reinstated.
9. The Challenger Disaster
The Space Shuttle Challenger was originally scheduled to launch on January 22, 1986, but delays eventually pushed the launch back to January 28. During that time, south Florida experienced unusually cold temperatures which plummeted well below freezing on launch day itself. This combined with a design flaw in the infamous O-ring seals to cause a catastrophic failure of the Challenger and the death of all aboard--including the first civilian astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. The disaster was a major setback to the space program and delayed the next attempt to send a civilian into space by many years.
10. Hurricane Katrina
After causing destruction across the Bahamas and south Florida, Hurricane Katrina made its third landfall on August 29, 2005 near Biloxi, Mississippi. As the storm flattened towns on the Gulf Coast, tidal surge and heavy rains combined to overflow the levee system around New Orleans causing more than 1,800 deaths and more than $100 billion in damage. The perceived inability of the George W. Bush Administration to respond effectively in aftermath of Katrina was greatly exaggerated at the time, but nevertheless caused a shift in public opinion from which he never recovered and resulted in huge losses for his party in the 2006 election.