Here are seven occasions when weather may have changed the course of American history.
If it hadn't been so cold in 1604 . . .
New Englanders might speak French. French explorers under the Sieur de Monts were the first to establish a colony on the North Atlantic coast, on an island in the St. Croix River in 1604. But the winter was so "cold and dreadful" that the little group decided to move to a more sheltered spot in Nova Scotia. The first English settlement, near the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine, was also abandoned after the fierce winter of 1607-08.
If it hadn't been so warm in 1620 . . .
The Pilgrims might not have survived their first winter in Massachusetts. That winter of 1620-21 was described as "a calm winter such as never seen here since," with mild temperatures and only one substantial snowstorm. Even so, only 50 of the 102 settlers lived until spring.
If it hadn't been so foggy on August 29, 1776 . . .
George Washington and most of the Continental Army might have been annihilated at the Battle of Long Island. After British troops won a smashing victory on August 27, 1776, the Americans were trapped at the western end of Long Island. Washington managed to save his army by crossing the East River to Manhattan Island under cover of a thick fog on August 29-30. Though he had suffered a defeat, Washington had reserved his army as a fighting force.
If it hadn't been so stormy on October 16, 1781 . . .
British commander Lord Cornwallis might have escaped from Yorktown to prolong the Revolutionary War. On the night of October 16-17, 1781, Cornwallis proposed to evacuate his trapped army across the York River estuary on flatboats, then fight his way north to join British forces in New York. But in the middle of the crossing, a violent thunderstorm dispersed the flatboats, pushing some of them five miles downriver where they were captured by the French. The crossing 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, assuring American independence.
If it hadn't rained on July 4, 1863 . . .
General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army might have suffered worse losses, or even been destroyed, in the aftermath of Gettysburg. The great battle took place July 1-3, 1863, and on the last day, Pickett's Charge, the Confederates' final assault on the Union lines was repulsed with enormous losses. Lee expected Union General George Meade to counterattack, but Meade hesitated. Rain began to fall on the night of the third and continued throughout July 4. Under cover of the rain and darkness that night, Lee began his retreat to Virginia. Despite President Lincoln's frantic urgings, Meade was slow to pursue the battered rebels, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia escaped intact to fight on for another 21 months.
If it had snowed harder on November 7, 1916 . . .
President Woodrow Wilson might have lost his reelection bid in 1916. In one of the closest elections in history, Democratic incumbent Wilson defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes and went on to take the United States into World War I in 1917. Wilson won the state of California by less than 2,000 votes on a day when heavy snow kept Democratic turnout low in mountain counties. Had the storm been worse, Hughes would have won the state and the national election. America probably would have entered the war anyway; Wilson had been regarded as the peace candidate. But as historian Paul F. Boller Jr. said, Wilson "made world pacification. . .the primary objective of American foreign policy," a position that has shaped our history and the world's—ever since.
If there hadn't been a freeze on January 28, 1986 . . .
The Challenger disaster might have been avoided. The space shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing seven astronauts, including Concord, N.H. schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Investigation showed that a sudden temperature drop the night before the launch had caused rings sealing the joints between segments of the solid-fuel booster rockets to become brittle and fail. The disaster forced a temporary halt in the U.S. space program, which has since been dogged by technical troubles and doubts about its cost and benefits.