When Dr. Ken Noe (’79) was growing up in Elliston he remembers that weather played a huge role in the work done on his grandfather’s farm. “If rain was coming, we dropped everything else to put up hay.” He thinks this experience planted a seed in the back of his mind about the impactful influence of weather. Later, his interest in weather grew when he took a geography course at Emory & Henry with Dr. Ed Bingham.
But even he could never have predicted that he would now be writing a two-volume book on weather’s impact on the American Civil War.
Ken is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. He is the author or editor of seven books, and he has published scads of articles, essays and chapters about the Civil War. He is a decorated history professor serving at West Georgia College before heading to Auburn. He was a Pulitzer Prize entrant and won the 2003 Kentucky Governor’s award, the 2002 Peter Seaborg Book Award for Civil War Non-fiction, and the 1997 Tennessee History Book Award. He has won several teaching awards, has served as president of the Alabama Historical Association, and is serving on the Advisory Board of the Society of Civil War Historians. He has even been a consultant for the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are?
But in all his prolific writing and research and publishing even he is surprised that his biggest and most industrious work to-date will be about weather. “Meteorologists are still trying to work out why the weather during the Civil War was so unusual. They dealt with incredibly snowy and rainy winters and droughts in the summer that affected Southern food supplies. There were dust storms, flooded rivers, and only two hurricanes. It had a profound effect on many campaigns.”
His research on weather has already taken several years, and he still has a few years left before he publishes. And even he was amazed to realize just how much information he had accumulated. “Very little has been written about Civil War environmental history. It is only now becoming part of the conversation about Civil War history.”
Ken says that even in a field of study like Civil War history where so many things have been written, there is still new area for research and a lot of topics that haven’t been covered. He has grad students asking new questions about the role of religion, the prison industries during the war, the role of friendship, and one young man, who is an E&H grad, is looking into camp life.
Even though we have just passed the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, Ken points out that this conflict still has implications for current events; and he marvels that most conversations over the past 18 months have quickly moved from history to current topics like the Confederate flag, U.S. prisons, and race relations. He says his field has gotten so tangled with politics that there is a declining interest in Civil War history among the public. “But this event still has much to teach us. It was a great turning point in American History and opened up questions that are still being answered about equality of humankind, the status of women, states’ rights. I don’t know how we can answer all these questions unless we go back to the beginning.” He consistently stresses to his students the importance of going back to primary source information rather than depending on how the stories have been told and passed down.
Ken actually majored in education at Emory & Henry and still remembers panicking when he realized he didn’t want to be a junior high school teacher. “I had a lot of electives leftover and started taking history classes late in my college experience. I realized what I wanted to be was a historian and teach at a higher level.” A conversation with Patsi Trollinger (’72) reassured him that most alumni do not stick to work within their major. And a conversation with Dr. Gene Rasor in the history department led to a phone call which ended with Dr. Rasor telling Ken he had an interview with the history department at Virginia Tech.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I had a lot of electives leftover and started taking history classes late in my college experience. I realized what I wanted to be was a historian and teach at a higher level.”
— Ken Noe, E&H ’79