Monday, November 26, 2018

Natural Phenomena: How Nature Affected the American Revolution

By J. M. Hochstetler

Throughout history, weather and other natural and sometimes supernatural phenomena have affected the course of history. Today we’re going to take a look at how events beyond human control impacted the American Revolution.

Crop Failures

David C. Smith, emeritus professor of American history at the University of Maine in Orono, and William R. Baron, professor of historic climatology at the University of Northern Arizona at Flagstaff, determined that New England suffered early and late killing frosts from 1697 through the time of the Revolution. During the 37 years leading up to the war, the New England states, which already have a short growing season, experienced 15 even shorter ones, with late and early freezes and other weather that led to widespread crop failures.

From 1765 to the end of the Revolution, Britain stationed a standing army in the colonies, and the colonists were required to provide the soldiers food and lodging. For the British to add more mouths to feed to families who already faced a shortage of food didn’t endear them to the colonists. Smith said, “My guess is there would not have been a revolution if the weather had been different. There were other things exercising an influence on colonists and events, but when you look at the weather, it makes a compelling statement.” Other researchers think Smith and Baron overstate their case, but crop failures certainly didn’t help the situation.


Siege of Boston

By John Christian Schetky
On the night of March 4, 1776, General George Washington fortified Dorchester Heights overlooking British-occupied Boston with the artillery Henry Knox brought overland from captured Fort Ticonderoga, rendering the city untenable. The British immediately set plans afoot to assault the heights the next day, March 6. Since the rebels had long-range cannon and plenty of ammunition this time, the resulting carnage would have been even greater than at the Battle of Bunker Hill the previous summer. But overnight a violent gale some believed to be the hand of God drove the British warships needed to transport the troops afoul of each other as they lay neatly at anchor side by side. The damage was so severe that the British were left no choice but to evacuate the city.

Battle of Long Island

On August 18-19, 1776, while British General William Howe prepared to move his army from Staten Island to Long Island to attack the American force stationed there, thunderstorms moved through the area, ruining some ammunition stores and delaying the transfer of soldiers via ship, giving Washington more time to fortify his lines. On the night of August 21-22, an intense storm of thunder, lightning, and pouring rain rocked New York City for three hours. Witnesses described it as revolving like a giant wheel with a terrible energy that seemed to portend disaster before it finally moved off to sea. A few days later, on August 27, in the Battle of Long Island the British outflanked the American positions, driving them back to the western end of Long Island and trapping them against the East River shore.

Battle of Yorktown

Trapped at Yorktown, British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis planned to secretly evacuate his army across the York River on flatboats, then fight his way north to join the rest of the British forces in New York City in order to continue the war against the Americans. But while they prepared to cross on the night of October 16-17, 1781, a violent thunderstorm dispersed the flatboats, driving some of them five miles downriver where they were captured by the French. The plan had to be abandoned, and “thus expired the last hope of the British army,” according to one of its officers. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, at last sealing the independence of the United States of America.


Evacuation of Long Island

Copyright The Granger Collection, New York
A few days after the Battle of Long Island, the British were poised to annihilate Washington’s army, trapped against the East River. In a desperate gamble he assembled every available boat and under cover of darkness on August 29 began to evacuate men and equipment to New York City, while the last companies kept campfires blazing. Their ruse deceived the British sentries, but with dawn rapidly approaching, many soldiers were still aboard the slow-moving boats with the rear guard waiting anxiously for their turn to leave. Miraculously, as the British kept watch, still unaware, a thick fog rose over land and river, enabling every last man of Washington’s army to escape the British noose to fight another day.


Battle of Trenton

With enlistments set to expire at the stroke of midnight December 31, 1776, Washington made another daring gamble, this time to save his shrinking army. On Christmas evening, in the midst of a roaring Nor’easter, the Continentals crossed the Delaware River to attack the isolated Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. The ice-choked river prevented a second American force from crossing south of the town, but to the north the river was clear enough for Washington’s corps to get across. Emerging like ghosts from the wind, sleet, and driving snow that rendered them effectively invisible to the enemy, they took the Hessian defenders by complete surprise, routing them within an hour and mortally wounded their commander, then withdrew back across the river, taking the remaining garrison with them as prisoners. Washington offered his soldiers a bonus if they would extend their enlistments, and exuberant at their part in the victory, many did, thus saving the rebellion for the time being.


Battle of Princeton

George Washington Rallying His Troops at Princeton
by William Ranney
Not content with the victory at Trenton, Washington soon hatched an even more daring plan. The weather had warmed, melting the snow, so on New Year’s Day 1777 the Continentals crossed the Delaware again and returned to Trenton. This time the British countered with a large force and trapped Washington in fields sunk in mud with his back to the river. Then they settled into camp, planning to finish the job the next morning. Being a Virginia farmer, however, Washington knew that winter days with clear skies and a northwest wind often bring freezing nights. Soon the ground had frozen solid, and leaving campfires blazing to deceive the British, the Continentals moved around the British lines northward toward Princeton, wagon wheels wrapped in cloth to dampen their creaking.

The next morning the British raced after them, but when they caught up the battle was fierce and short, lasting less than an hour. Defeated once again, the British pulled back to their garrisons in the New York area, while Washington settled his army in Morristown for the rest of the winter. The news of the triumphs at Trenton and Princeton swept through the new nation, encouraging the populace and ultimately bringing in new recruits for the Continental Army. It also proved to the French that their old enemy England might just be vulnerable after all and along with the victory at Saratoga ultimately resulted in France allying with the United States in the war against Britain.


An earthquake shook eastern Pennsylvania on November 21, 1777, unsettling both the Americans and the British with concerns about such phenomena heralding impending disaster.


The Northern Lights were visible in Boston and other places unusually far south on November 27, 1777. For the superstitious, these lights were a bad sign.

Interestingly, both the earthquake and the display of the aurora occurred within a fortnight of the murder of the great Shawnee chief Cornstalk by militia soldiers at Fort Randolph that turned his tribe and other native nations into the Americans’ implacable enemies and extended the Indian wars into the 1800s.

Many people believe that phenomena that occur in the natural world are under God’s control. Do you think that He sometimes uses things like weather events, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other means to redirect the course of history, to punish those who do evil, or to protect others? In some instances could the psychological effects have as much impact on people’s reactions as the physical effects. Please share why you think so and any examples you may know of.
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, releases in April 2019. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.


  1. I believe that since God created our world, He has control over its' elements. Other than that statement, I don't think about it too much. I complain about the weather as much as the next person! I do believe that experiencing a weather event can be devastating to the psyche of a survivor. Thanks for your interesting questions!

  2. Connie, I completely agree that God has control over the natural elements of this world. And weather and other events in the natural world certainly have a great impact on us psychologically and emotionally and affect our behavior--which then at times changes the course of history. Historians often overlook these influences, but I just love to dig them out and ponder what effects they had.

  3. These were acts of God! I've read about most of of these, but I sure don't remember reading about an earthquake. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay! I'm (finally)reading RF! (I've got the first six chapters read! There are questions, but I'll let you know when I'm done.)

    1. God is definitely in control of nature, Bev! I just happened to run across a reference to this earthquake when I was researching Valley of the Shadow--hadn't found it anywhere else. Oh, yay! Can't wait to get your feedback when you finish RF!!

  4. Yes, I believe each act of nature has been directed by God for one reason or another in today's world just as in Biblical times. We were discussing this yesterday in SS that some of the recent natural disasters could be God trying to wake America back up to His truths do not change and He's the answer.

    Thank you for sharing this informative and interesting post, J.M.