“In war, as in medicine, natural causes not under our control, do much.” Gen. Horatio Gates wrote this about the terrain that so heavily influenced his victory at Saratoga in 1777. Another natural cause that heavily influenced events of the American Revolution was weather.
Here are ten instances where unexpectedly uncooperative weather had a major effect on how a battle or a plan played out, where things might’ve gone very differently if the weather itself had been different. We didn’t include predictable weather like the heat of summer or the onset of winter, only those instances where the weather did not cooperate with otherwise well-laid plans.
Quebec, December 1775
Bad weather can help an attacking force achieve surprise. When the attackers are fatigued, however, and the attack is timed because of expiring enlistments, poor weather might favor the defenders instead. When it is well known that an attack is likely, the chances for success are even further diminished. When an American army attempted to storm the city of Quebec on the night of December 31, 1775, a snowstorm hindered more than helped. Winds and blinding snow probably made the nighttime advance much slower than it otherwise would have been, allowing the defenders, firing from secure sheltered positions, to stop the attackers in their tracks. Whether clear skies would have changed the outcome is questionable, but the attack on Quebec is first battle during the American Revolution where the weather was a memorable factor. According to one participant, “gloomy the prospect in this tremendous storm—snow not less than six feet deep, while yet a heavy darkness pervaded the earth almost to be felt.”
Dorchester Heights, March 1776
By March 1776, the siege of Boston had been an eleven-month stalemate. Commanders on both sides knew that a bold move was required to change the situation, and the obvious place of interest was Dorchester Heights, an eminence across the water to the south that overlooked the city and which was well within range of heavy cannons. Americans seized those heights on the night of March 4-5, 1776, and began building fortifications. Knowing that an American battery there would make the town untenable, the British immediately embarked nine battalions—nearly 5,000 men—to retake the position before it was made too strong to assault. But a sudden squall on March 5 made it too dangerous for the British boats to cross the harbor and effect a landing. By the time the weather cleared, the works had been strengthened enough to make an attack impossible. The weather prevented a major battle and left the British no choice but to abandon Boston. In the words of a British private soldier, “the wind blowing hard and it rained very heavy, so that it was Impossible for the troops to land on the intended place. For the two days and two nights we were on board, the storm lasted and the wind blew right a head. During that time the Enemy were hard at work.”
Long Island, August 1776
After the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, George Washington’s army was hemmed in on Brooklyn Heights. Although their fortifications were strong, their position was perilous; it was unlikely they could stand up to an assault by Gen. William Howe’s army, once it had a day or two to recuperate and regroup after the long, arduous fight on the 27th. Washington decided to retreat, but with the British navy in control of the waters separating Long Island from the mainland, prospects of an unopposed withdrawal were slim. Their salvation was a thick fog on the night of August 29-30 that covered their careful, silent withdrawal to Manhattan. “What was our astonishment upon the morning of the 30th,” wrote a British officer, “to find those stupendous works, which had been constructed with so much care and labour, and which were to have been destroyed with so much danger and expense, utterly abandoned and deserted by the poorest mean-spirited scoundrels that ever surely pretended to the dignity of Rebellion.”
White Plains, October 1776
The Battle of White Plains, New York raged on October 28, 1776, leaving the opposing armies bruised but the British victorious on Chatterton Hill. The American army took positions just a short way to the north and prepared for another assault that they knew was imminent. By October 31, the British were ready to advance, the Americans were anticipating the attack, but weather disrupted all of their plans. Heavy rains prevented a British advance, and the Americans took the opportunity to retreat still farther. Lt. William Carter of the 40th Regiment of Foot wrote, “Every necessary disposition was also made for attacking them on the morning of the 31st, but we were obliged to abandon the design, owing totally to the violent rain which fell during the preceding night and that morning.”
Trenton, December 1776
When General Washington proposed to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey in December 1776, he knew that surprise was essential. His opponents were professional soldiers who had kept his army on the run for four months. With the American army on the brink of collapse, victory was imperative but not assured. Washington came up with a bold, well-conceived plan. A violent snowstorm on the night of December 25-26 almost derailed the attack by preventing two of three attacking forces to cross the Delaware River. But it also served to assure the element of surprise, and the attackers rapidly overwhelmed the Trenton garrison. In the words of a Hessian officer, “our weapons, because of the rain and snow, could no longer be fired, and the rebels fired on us from all the houses. There remained no other choice for us but to surrender.”
Atlantic Ocean on the eastern seaboard, August 1777
Usually, it is stormy weather that impedes military operations, but in the age of sailing ships, calm weather could also have an adverse effect. In mid-July 1777 British troops boarded ships in New York and sailed for the Chesapeake Bay to make a landing south of Philadelphia and advance on the city from the landward side. Once the city was taken, some troops could return to New York to cooperate with another army advancing from Canada to Albany. It was a sound plan, but a stretch of calm days while the fleet was at sea caused the voyage to take much longer than expected. The troops didn’t land until the last week of August, and by the time they finally reached Philadelphia, the northern army was already in trouble at Saratoga. “The fleet made no progress this day,” wrote a British army engineer at sea with the fleet on August 6.
Malvern, Pennsylvania, September 1777
Although the British won a tremendous victory at the Battle of Brandywine, they needed time to regroup after a long and arduous fight. The defeated American army also needed to regroup, and encamped less than a dozen miles away. When this disposition became clear, the British planned an attack on September 16, 1777, and the Americans girded for defense. The British army moved out in the morning, and their advanced elements soon met and defeated parties of American soldiers. Before a major battle developed, heavy rains thwarted the efforts of both sides, soaking ammunition, turning roads into mud, and causing the abortive engagement to be called the Battle of the Clouds. Recalled a British officer, “a most heavy Rain coming on frustrated the good Effects which were expected from this Capital Move & sav’d the Rebel Army from a more compleat Over throw than they had met with at Brandywine.”
Rhode Island, August 1778
A major battle was fought in Rhode Island on August 29, 1778, but it was nothing compared to the battle that everyone thought would happen, not on land but at sea. A powerful French fleet was cooperating with American forces to besiege the British garrison in Newport. A large British fleet came to the garrison’s relief, and the two naval lines of battle began maneuvering to get the best wind advantage. As the two fleets vied for tactical advantage before closing in to engage, a hurricane pressed upon them. Two days of mountainous seas scattered the ships, causing enough damage that both navies made for ports where repairs could be made (Boston for the French, New York for the British). The journal of the French warship Engageante recorded, “the wind blew from the NE with violence accompanied by continual rain. . . . This terrible gale had had no diminution.”
Stony Point, July 1779
The dramatic American victory in storming the British fort at Stony Point on the Hudson River is well known. The midnight attack was well-planned and expertly executed, but was abetted by an often-overlooked contribution by the weather. The southern end of the fort’s outer defenses, a line of abatis that extended into the river, was anchored by a well-armed gunboat. The American plan called for surprising and overwhelming this vessel in order to get around the defenses, perhaps the riskiest part of the entire operation. A surprise rain squall forced the gunboat to leave her station and move farther out into the river; when the American attackers came during the night, they found the flank unprotected. “Had the Gun Boat been at her station, and the People in her Vigilant,” testified a British officer at a court martial concerning the fort’s capture, “I do not think it possible for a Column of Men to have waded thro’ the water without being heard.”
Yorktown, October 1781
Hemmed in by a joint American and French army and without support from the Royal Navy, the British forces at Yorktown, Virginia had one last chance to avoid capitulation. Like the Americans had done so many times during the war, they could escape during the night of October 16, crossing the York River to Gloucester Point, and then moving north to who knows where. Whether this gambit would have prolonged the war for hours or years will never be known, for a sudden and violent squall disrupted the operation. Out of options, Gen. Charles Cornwallis initiated surrender negotiations the following day. He wrote to his superior, “at this crucial moment the weather, from being moderate and calm, changed to a most violent storm of wind and rain and drove all the boats, some of which had troops on board, down the river. It was soon evident that the intended passage was impracticable.”
Charles Cornwallis to Henry Clinton, October 20, 1781, in Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), 6:127.