Establishing the Weather for Harper’s Donelson Part II

Last week, I described the unsuccessful methods I used at the start of my search to determine what the weather was like during the period of Harper’s Donelson.  This week, I describe how persistence resulted in the ability to add the authentic weather to the story.

I needed to see a  locally-published newspaper .  But not knowing the names of the newspapers, I was stuck.  That is, until I came across the website:  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, available from the Library of Congress,  . This was the final stop in the search.

Memphis Daily Appeal Feb 18 1862The newspapers are catalogued by state and by date.  My first search was disappointing.  Unfortunately, the collection does not include any publications from Kentucky for the period January-March 1862.  I searched those states neighboring Kentucky. For Illinois, I found papers from Joliette and Ottawa.  For Indiana, there were papers from Jasper and Plymouth.  But a search in Tennessee yielded the best results, providing papers from Athens, Fayetteville, Memphis, Nashville, Clarksville, with the Memphis Daily Appeal being a daily.

I looked for papers from cities inside the geographic area of Harper’s Donelson:  Nashville, Clarksville.  Unfortunately the Nashville Union and American and the Nashville Patriot are available for only one date and the Clarksville Chronicle appears to have been a weekly.  But, knowing that weather in the U.S. tends to move generally west-to-east, I did a keyword search within the catalog and discovered what I needed in the Memphis Daily Appeal.  Using keywords ‘rain’ and ‘snow’,  I was able to fill in the blanks for the weather during those days not included in the battle histories with sufficient accuracy to meet the needs of the novel.

Establishing the Weather for Harper’s Donelson Part I

As I wrote Harper’s Donelson, I wanted to get an accurate description of the weather during the months of January to March, 1862 in the vicinity of western Kentucky and western-central Tennessee.  Of course, I had descriptions available from writers of the histories of the major battles, and relied heavily on Volume One of Shelby Foote’s work, The Civil War: A Narrative (Vintage, Sept 1986); as well as Volume One of Battle and Leaders of the Civil War (Castle, July 1983).

But, of course I wanted more.  The issue with the first two sources was that they only covered specific dates in my time period, but did not cover all of the dates in the story.

After searching Wikipedia and the on-line site of the National Weather Service, I had resigned myself to having to go through the documents available in The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  I felt these would include reports of weather conditions in the various reports from the field.  But I was still not certain that these would give me the day-to-day coverage I desired.  Furthermore, a search of these records would have been quite tedious.  It would be wonderful time-saver if I could read copies of newspapers of the time and vicinity..  The Official Records are now available on-line from the Cornell University Library

I visited the website operated by The Sons of the South.  This site contains collections of many historical documents and images associated with the Civil War, the most important for my immediate purposes being an entire collection of Harper’s Weekly.  This was a national newspaper of the time.  The collection includes all editions published between January 5th, 1861 and December 30, 1865.  Unfortunately, reviewing these news papers had the same limitations as reading Foote’s work.  There was not a complete set of weather data for the time period of the Harper’s Donelson.  Nor did it provide information about the local weather conditions in western Kentucky and Tennessee.

All of these methods led to dead-ends or incomplete data.  Next week, I will describe I how was able to add the weather successfully to Harper’s Donelson.


Finding Historical Paducah

Much of Harper’s Donelson and all of Harper’s Rescue take place in the town of Paducah, Kentucky.

Because the city sits near the junction of the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Ohio Rivers,  Grant designated Paducah to be the supply depot for his operations up  the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers.    I needed to develop a good understanding of the town as it existed during the Winter of 1862 if my books were to have a pretense of historical accuracy.

Harpers Weekly Paducah Kentucky

First stop on the research trail was a quick check of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War to find a map dated November 6, 1861, at Plate 6-2.  Perfect for the time period of the novels.  This map shows that the town extended inland for eight blocks ending at an unnamed street along which the occupiers built fortifications (present Ninth Street).  It stretched along the Ohio-Tennessee Rivers for fifteen blocks from Trimble Street (Park) in the north to Norton Street in the south, with Fort Anderson located on the north side of Hospital Street (Martin Luther King Drive) at its intersection with Oak Street (Fifth Street).   The map also shows a small community south of the city on both sides of the mouth of Island Creek, outside the Federal fortifications.

So now I had the basic geometry of the 1861-2 town.

But I wanted more.  On to Wikipedia.  At the Paducah page on Wikipedia, I learned the background history of the city from the earliest white settlement in 1815, through it’s initial platting in 1827 by William Clark  (of Lewis and Clark fame), incorporation as a town in 1830, and its chartering as a city in 1856.  The page also contained details of some of the earliest industries in the city along with short descriptions of three key events during the Civil War:  occupation by Federal forces on September 6, 1861; the implementation of Grant’s General Order 11 on December 17th, 1862, which led to the eviction of thirty families of Jewish descent; and a raid by Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in May 1864.  I also discovered that I was dealing with a population of about 4,600 people.   All of this information was interesting enough, but it did not give me enough detail about the character of the city that I wanted to include in the novels.

One item that I found useful was the detailed weather norms.  Winter (Jan-Mar) averages are between 58 degrees daytime highs and 23 degrees nighttime lows — much colder than I had expected.  That was significant, because I would have to make sure that my characters had to deal with the possibility of an over-night freeze every sunset.   Also, grass and trees would be dormant, brown and dry.

But, I wanted more.  So, I turned to good old Google to search for sites.  This search eventually led me to several sites from which I gleaned interesting facts which appear in Donelson and Rescue.  These sites include:


The National Register of Historical Places;

This website not only lists the Historical Places but also shows the approved original nomination forms for the sites.  Particularly useful was the description from the nomination form for the Saint Mary’s Academy Complex.  From this document, I was able to hypothesize the composition of the original Saint Mary’s Academy complex in 1858, adjacent to the Saint Francis Church where the Civil War Atlas shows Federal cavalry camped.

The website gave a detailed description of the Market Square  where I had originally intended to place Lafitte’s Hideout.  I learned enough to make reasonable assumptions about the buildings and businesses on the Market Square.  This information caused me to place The French Pelican restaurant near, but not in, the Market Square with Lafitte’s Hideout saloon in an adjacent building farther away from the Market.


The Kentucky Historical Marker Database

From this site I discovered the location of the historical Ferd Hummel’s Gunsmith Shop on Oak/Third Street.  Later, I had to correct this location in the book based on other information that made the Oak Street location an anachronism.

I discovered the location of the home of General Lloyd Tilghman, who surrendered Fort Henry.

In addition, the Google search turned up a bird’s-eye view of Paducah in 1889 from multiple sources, as well as the fact that the City of Paducah has a four-panel display of a bird’s-eye view of the city in 1873.  These I used to get a sense of the density of buildings in various parts of town where the characters were located or passed through.  Unfortunately, I do not have permission to display those images here.


The Market House Museum

This site led to a description of the likely configuration of the Market House in 1862.


The Story of Paducah;  Fred G. Neuman and Catherine Neuman Adams.

This hardcopy book was cited as a reference in several of the historical register nominations.  It tells the story of the political, social, and economic development of the city from 1815 to 1980.  Here I discovered interesting details of city life in the days before the Civil War such as the locations of churches, schools, hospitals, and industries.

That Ferd Hummel’s gunsmith was on Broadway Street in 1862.

That Lloyd Tilghman’s House was across the street from the Federal garrison commander’s headquarters.  This put the headquarters in the same city block as the cavalry camp at St. Francis and the hypothetical billet of Lieutenant Harper’s unit at St Mary’s Academy.

I was even able to learn when, prior to the Civil War, the city macadamized and laid gravel in the streets and which streets were covered under succeeding contracts.  Unfortunately, the book is nearly silent for the four years of the War Between the States, except for a description of Forrest’s raid in 1864 and a very helpful schematic of Fort Anderson.


So now, I am fairly confident that when my characters interact with Paducah City they are doing so in a plausible way, within the limits of fictional storytelling.

Military History Animated

Recently, while searching the internet for open-source graphics to use in the Harper’s Donelson manuscript, I had the pleasure to discover James Cagney’s wonderful website: History Animated (   In spite of the name, the topics covered on the website concentrate on United States politico-history.

The site uses annotated and animated maps of the wars of the American colonies and the United States, starting with European colonization leading to the French and Indian War  through to World War II, although the complete list of WW2 Western front battles continues as a work-in-progress.

Rather than attempt to describe this complex site completely, I shall focus on my current particular area of interest: the Battles of Forts Henry and Donelson.

History Animated LogoFrom the Home page, we get to Fort Donelson by clicking on The Civil War box title within the navigation box.  We arrive at a landing page for the Civil War where we read the following greeting:

Welcome to Civil War Animated

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good animation is worth ten thousand. After reading book after book about the US Civil War and finding only complicated maps with dotted lines and dashed lines crisscrossing the pages, we decided to depict the key naval and land battles using animation technology.

While the animation helps readers view a broader picture of the battles showing the inter-relationships of the opponents in time and space more clearly, it is limited in the detail that can be shown. While accuracy has been attempted, at times the picture of the battles must be simplified to make the battle as clear as possible.

We are not attempting to reinterpret history, but merely to depict it as the best military historians have written it.

On the right-hand side bar, we find a list of Union and Confederate generals mentioned in the animations with links to the animations where they appear.  On the left side bar, we find the list of battles which are supported by map animations.  The list is headed by a pair of listings which cover the War with Mexico and an animation for The Road to War.  The Road to War is especially well done and starts with a discussion of the compromise reached by the drafters of the Constitution on the issue of slavery and how the need to maintain a balance of power among the states evolved during the first half of the nineteenth century as more states entered the union.  My only gripe about this presentation is a minor one.  It does not include a description of how France re-acquired its Louisiana colony in 1800, only to sell it to Thomas Jefferson in 1804, following the destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar

Exiting The Road to War, we return to the Civil War landing page.  In the sidebar, the major battles of the civil war are divided between the Eastern theater and the Western theater.  Clicking on the Battle of Forts Henry and Donelson, we come to a landing page which includes a set-up for the battle, the linking title, and a list of recommended references.  Clicking on the covers for these books leads to the Amazon page where each can be purchased on line.

Clicking on The Battle Animation brings us to a landing page with a more-detailed and referenced set-up for the battle and instructions on how to operate the animation.   We start the animation and the display zooms in on a map of the Western Theater.  We are treated to a description of the strategic situation for both armies before the animation zooms in further to a map of the area near Forts Henry and Donelson.  The animation describes the local situation of the troops and commanders in a series of text boxes augmented by the display and movement of the forces over the map.  Following a description of the fall of Fort Henry, the animation zooms in to the area surrounding Fort Donelson.  That battle is shown in four phases:  Feb 14th PM, Feb 15th AM and PM, and the surrender on Feb 16th.

The story of the battle is told at a high-school/undergraduate level of detail.  As stated in the introduction, the animations are intended to provide a summary of the battle which invites the serious student to investigate further detail through the references listed.

I enjoyed working my way through the various simulations and intend to use this site constantly when researching and drafting my novels.

I commend James and Kimberly on the quality of the presentations, especially when considering the size of the undertaking.  They offer a CD with the animations of the Revolution and The Civil War as a gift for a tax-free donation.