This week I promise not to be so somber in tone. I don't know if anyone is still having a lot of snow, but I thought I'd tell you about winter camp experiences. Serious fighting stopped during the winter months and both sides established camps for the duration. Picture yourself in a cold camp for about three months. What would you do to alleviate boredom and keep your spirits high? Think of snowfall and what you did as a child, of course depending on where you grew up. If you lived in an area that got lots of snow, more than likely you went outside and had snowball battles. Well, that's exactly what the soldiers did. However, the intensity and seriousness with which these men fought was much akin to their attitudes during the horrendous fighting they were subjected to during the rest of the year. While this tidbit talks about Confederate soldiers, both armies exploited this diversion to ease their tensions and dispel the agonies of war.
What started out as possibly a snowball fight between two or three soldiers escalated into full-blown battles involving privates and generals alike. In one such battle, two months after the battle of Fredericksburg, one Confederate soldier said there were "2,000 or 3,000 men engaged in glorious snow fights" while another officer reported there were as many as 5,000 soldiers in a line several miles long. The men took these battles so seriously that entire brigades participated and as Major Stiles remembered, they were set against each other with "the line and field officers, the bands and banners, the generals and their staff mounted as for genuine battle." (Civil War)
The battle would start with a call for surrender, which was naturally refused, then grow into full coordinated attacks. The victors claimed the captured camp's equipment and, oft times, the "enemy's" breakfast as the spoils of war. It seems the element of surprise was definitely of utmost importance. One such unit, armed with six to eight frozen snowballs, traveled three miles to begin the fight and surprised their enemies. In another fray, the fighting was so intense hats, haversacks, and parts of uniforms dotted the field of snow.
It was not a good idea to refuse to fight for just punishment was inflicted on shirkers. Often after a battle, opposing forces joined to seek out those who didn't carry their load during the battle and rolled them over and over in the snow. Officers who wished to view the battle were pelted with snowballs and had their faces washed in snow. So it was that most officers were avid fighters, riding among their men cheering them on. Notably, among the officers who fought was General Longstreet, who personally charged the enemy and took prisoners. General Lee, while not an active participant in these battles, was not safe from the barrage of snowballs. During one battle that took place near his headquarters, Lee came out of his tent to see what all the excitement was about and found it hard to dodge the incoming snowballs that filled the air.
Some soldiers, however, fought more zealously than others and loaded their snowballs with lead or rocks. The resulting sprained ankles, black eyes and bumps and bruises caused General Longstreet to issue an order calling a halt to the fights of 1862-63. However, the soldiers, better at fighting than at taking orders, continued the battles but on a smaller scale.
Lagonia, Maria. "The Great Snowball Battles." Civil War. 72:Feb 1999. Pp. 18-24.
In the winter of 1864-65, the 17th of February, the First Vermont Cavalry
"had a great time snowballing with the 22ndNew York Cavalry, who were camped just west of us. We called it "Fisher's Hill all over again," one party flanking on the right, while the other charged in front. The next day the 8th, 15th, and 22ndNew York regiments joined forces and came over and attacked. It seemed as if this must have been more snow than usual this winter for it snowed about every other day and some times a foot or more at once. Coming in one day we met General Custer and some of his staff taking a sleigh ride."
Hoffman, Elliot W., "History of the First Vermont Cavalry Volunteers in the War of the Great Rebellion", Butternut and Blue, 2000. 246
You might wonder why adults would indulge in such games but this was a time when businessmen and farmers alike shed their adulthood and once again became children. By doing this they could forget, albeit for a short time, the awfulness of the war they were fighting.