Some of the most memorable Civil War battles to occur during winter were fought, not the bullets and swords, but snowballs. Throughout the Civil War, and not just during the winter months, one of the main things the soldiers battled was boredom – even more so during the cold and snowy winter months. Accounts of these often fierce snowball battles were recorded in soldiers’ diaries.
The early winter months of 1863 were filled with accounts, both Yankee and Confederate. In early 1863 the Army of the Potomac had been encamped at White Oak Church since November of 1862. Since October the Twenty-Sixth New Jersey had been attached to the First Vermont Brigade. According to A War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters, the “Vermonters disdained the Jersey men, whose bravery and honesty they doubted.”
The Jersey soldiers, believing their snowball skills superior, challenged the Third and Fifth Vermont Regiments to a contest. According to one New Jersey soldier’s diary account, the Vermonters had been taunting them, making “an attack on the encampment of the Twenty-sixth, sending a perfect shower of snow balls at the head of every luckless Jerseyman who made his appearance without his tent.”
The Jersey soldier went on to describe the snowball fight with references to strategy, blow-by-blow accounts and casualties. The Jersey men were taken off guard, completely surprised, and as darkness neared the combatants retreated to their tents. A few days later another attack commenced and of course, according to the Jersey soldier, their side more than held their ground. His descriptions were vivid:
A few days afterwards the attack was renewed, but we took up a strong position on a hill in the rear of the camp, and repulsed every assault of the foe. The snow was crimsoned with the blood issuing from the olfactory organs of the Vermonters, and the appearance of the battlefield indicated the fierce nature of the contest. The enemy raised a flag of truce, an armistice of a few hours was concluded, and then ensued that novel spectacle of war – men, who but a few minutes previous were engaged I none of the most sanguinary battles of modern times, harmonizing and fraternizing with clasped hands.
On February 25 Colonel Morrison of the Twenty-sixth issued a challenge to Colonel Seaver of the Third Vermont. The challenged was accepted if the Third Vermont could have the help of the Fourth Vermont. Agreement was made and the battle was to commence at three o’clock that afternoon.
Morrison was taking the battle seriously, directing Lieutenant McCleese of Company C to fortify a small hill on their right, make as much ammunition as they could (snowballs, of course) and pile them in pyramids. The Jersey men were ready, secure in their strong position near a brook (which they strategized to be a moat of sorts). Spectators had also gathered to watch.
Morrison was dashing around encouraging his snowball-troopers to stand fast as the two sides prepared to do battle. At the drop of a red flag, the Vermonters drove straight for the Jersey center. Simultaneously, more Vermonters advanced against the Jersey right, which turned out to be a feint as they wheeled around and charged the Jersey center as well.
One of the benefits of these snowball fights was the morale boost it provided, and it appears from the soldier’s account that the presence of Colonel Morrison and his full participation accomplished just that. “Animated by the presence of the Colonel, they fought like veterans, and the white snowballs eddied through the air like popping corn from a frying pan.” The Vermonters turned out to be the expert snowball fighters, overwhelming the Twenty-sixth, this despite the fact that Morrison continued to rally his troops.
At one point, a junior officer had tried to rally his men, only to be mistaken for a Vermonter and pelted by his comrades. Colonel Seaver made an attempt to capture Morrison, but the Jersey boys defended their commander by pelting Seaver in the face. Despite all that, Morrison was “captured” and most of his staff as well. A failed rescue attempt followed.
When “the bugles sang truce,” the great battle was ended, “unequalled in desperateness, and the theme of many future poets’ cogitations.” The Jersey losses were heavy and the diarist admitted “we were severely defeated.” To add insult to injury, when the Vermonters attacked the Jersey center, the spectators had joined the fray, “acting on the well-known principle of kicking a man when he is down.”
Lots of bloody noses, black eyes and knots on the head were poetically noted: “Bloody noses, fifty-three; bunged peppers, eighty-one; extraordinary phrenological developments, twenty-nine; shot in the neck after the engagement, unknown.” The diarist ended his account by giving high praise to the “enemy”: “The Vermonters fought with the determined energy characterizing them when engaging Jeff’s myrmidons.”
This wasn’t the first, nor the last, of the great snowball fights of the Civil War. Watch for more accounts, perhaps later this winter, including some involving several thousand men. In case you missed last week’s pre-Revolutionary War snowball fight, you can read it here.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.