- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

At least four rare wintertime Civil War engagements remain footnotes in history, even though the scope and ferocity of these battles received mention in many diaries and journals of the soldier-participants.

Troops from Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina fought bravely. In one of the engagements, about 8,000 troops faced each other. In another, some 10,000 combatants participated.

A soldier recorded one of the battles as “one of the most memorable combats of the war.”

Gen. Patrick Cleburne found himself a prisoner of war but escaped. He was recaptured, and a soldier wrote that his foes “called for a drumhead court-martial; others demanded a sound dunking in the nearby creek. Still others, mindful of Cleburne’s reputation as a stern disciplinarian, insisted that the general be meted out his own customary punishment. The idea caught on and soon the whole brigade took up the familiar order: ‘Arrest that soldier and make him carry a fence rail!’ ”

What were these four engagements? Snowball fights. Snowball fights between men of the Confederate Army.

One grand snowball fight engulfed Confederate troops near Rappahannock Academy in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Va., on Feb. 25, 1863. Diaries show that 8 inches of snow fell on Feb. 19. Two days later, 9 more inches of snow fell. Feb. 25, 1863, brought sunny skies and milder temperatures. The snow on the ground softened until the ideal conditions for snowball-making infected the encamped soldiers. Participants say some 10,000 men were engaged.

Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s North Carolina soldiers marched toward Col. W.H. Stiles’ camp of Georgians. The attack force comprised infantry, cavalry and skirmishers. The fight began with a “severe pelting” of snowballs. Reinforcements from the commissary scurried to assist the brigade under attack.

Hoke withdrew his beaten soldiers. Col. Stiles then held a council of war on how best to counterattack Hoke’s retreating revelers. He decided to organize his men and march directly into their camp, snowballs at the ready. But when Stile’s forces arrived in Hoke’s camp they were met by a force that had just filled its haversacks with freshly made snowballs. Hoke’s men, “without the need to reload,” beat back their attackers, taking many prisoners. The captured were “whitewashed” with snow.

Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his staff apparently witnessed the battle; but the teetotaling, Bible-thumping Jackson resisted the urge to participate in any merrymaking. One soldier remarked that he had wished Jackson and staff had joined the fight so he could have thrown a snowball at “the old faded uniforms.”

Another grand snowball fight delighted Father James Sheeran and Confederate troops on March 23, 1864. Sheeran records this battle of some 8,000 men, probably near Orange Court House, Va. Eyewitnesses recorded the snowfall at 18 inches.

Chaplain Sheeran recorded the battle this way: “Lines were so regularly formed, the movements so systematic, the officers displaying so much activity at the head of their commands, their men fighting so stubbornly, now advancing on their opposing column, now giving way before superior numbers. … At one time we would see a body of troops marching though an adjacent woods endeavoring to flank their enemy; soon a counter movement would be made. Now a charge and a yell and many prisoners captured. For nearly two hours this battle … lasted.”

On March 22, 1864, near Dalton, Ga., the troops from Arkansas found 5 inches of new snow, and a spontaneous snowball fight erupted all across the camp.

The men of Cleburne’s Division from Lucius Polk’s Brigade attacked Gen. Daniel C. Govan’s Brigade. Here the famous Irish Gen. Cleburne suffered the embarrassment of capture, twice.

This Georgia battle became a total melee. One Arkansas soldier recalled, “Such pounding and thumping, and rolling over in the snow, and washing of faces and cramming snow in mouths and in ears and mixing up in great wriggling piles together.”

When it was all over, Cleburne authorized a ration of whiskey for all the troops, who huddled around huge bonfires singing and yelling “at the top of their lungs.”

More snow fell the next day and the snowball war continued. Rainy, snowy weather continued until March 31, when another huge engagement erupted. Commanding Gen. Joe Johnston organized an attack involving Gen. William J. Hardee’s Corps. Cleburne’s and Gen. William B. Bate’s divisions battled the troops of Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham and Gen. William H.T. Walker. A small audience of ladies who had driven out from Dalton were delighted by the sheer joy of the scene.

One veteran recorded the day: “The noise was terrific and the excitement intense, but nobody was hurt … except perhaps one of the cavalry men who was dismounted while charging a square of infantry.”

Most of Civil War camp life was neither joyous nor memorable, especially as the armies hunkered down for winter. But these snowball fights broke the monotony, increasing morale and camaraderie among the Confederate troops.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to this page.

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