It rained all day today. A steady, cold, drenching rain. In my twenty-first century, suburban existence, this tormenting downpour has meant nothing but frustration as I ran from my watertight car to my watertight house and back again. But in the middle of the nineteenth century in the middle of America’s heartland, rain could wreak all sorts of havoc.
Almost immediately after enlistment, the soldiers of the 36th Indiana found themselves far from home with little in the way of protection from the weather. The several weeks they spent at Camp Wickliffe and New Haven, Kentucky in the winter of 1861 and ’62 were memorable for disease, downpour and diarrhea.
On Thursday, October 17th–even while still in Indianapolis–Robert Best from Company H of the 36th Indiana wrote in his diary, “In camp all day, rained all day so that we could not drill.”
Robert didn’t mention much about the weather for the first several days they were in Kentucky, except for occasionally saying it was pleasant. But then on Friday, November 22nd, he reports, “weather wet, raining like the d—l all day.” The next day, he drops his self-censorship: “cold as the devil.”
From Robert’s diary, it looks like the end of November was more rainy than not. Then on December 2nd, it “snowed steadily all day.”
Through most of December, Robert characterized the weather as generally “pleasant” or “fine.” But after the first few days of January, almost every single day’s entry includes the word “wet.”
William H. Thornburg, one of the boys of Company F, remembered his time at Camp Wickliffe as nothing but “wet and bad and muddy.”
William summarized his experience of Camp Wickliffe by saying, “There was much sickness and I had diarrhea there and got to suffering from rheumatism owing to the rainy wet bad disagreeable weather and the exposure there.” But unlike Robert’s contemporaneous diary, this memory was recalled 34 years later in a pension application.
There’s no doubt that there was much sickness and at least some of it was related to bad weather. And there’s no doubt that these boys from the farms of Indiana had a love-hate relationship with rain. When you’re raising crops to support a family, rain is coveted. But when you’re marching off to war–sleeping in fields with thousands of your closest friends–rain is the work of the devil.
Blessing or curse, rain was a reality for the boys of the 36th.