by Andy Turner
By March of 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia had battled through almost three years of war. After great success at places like Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, the army had suffered a setback at Gettysburg. Through it all, the army had developed into a strong fighting force.
While in camp that winter, the men had plenty of free time. So what did they do when the snow fell? They went to battle. This was more than your typical snowball fight. With hundreds and thousands of battle-trained men and their commanders to lead them, they could fight real battles. Although this time little could be hurt other than maybe one’s pride and both sides could celebrate together a well-fought battle.
John Casler fought in the Stonewall Brigade with the 33rd Virginia. After the war, he recorded his reminiscences and published them in Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade. In his remembrances, Casler wrote about one particular snowball fight in March 1864.
Considerable snow fell that winter, and every time it snowed the soldiers would turn out and have snow-ball battles. One day our division challenged [Maj. Gen. Robert E.] Rodes’ Division to battle in a large field. They came out, and the battle raged with various success until towards evening, when a great many of our division got tired of it and went to camp. When Rodes’ men saw our line weakened they brought up some fresh troops and made a charge and ran us into our quarters, and then fell back, formed a new line and dared us out. It looked rather bad for us to be defeated in that way, so some of the boys went to [Brig.] General [James A.] Walker and got him to come out and take command.
It was fun for Walker, so he mounted his horse, collected his staff, and sent conscript officers all over camp and forced the men out. We had signal corps at work, took our colors out in line, had the drummers and fifers beat the long roll, had couriers carrying dispatches and everything done like in a regular engagement with the enemy.
In the meantime Rodes’ men were making snow balls, and had piles of them along the crest of the ridge ready for us when we should charge. Some of their officers on horseback started on a raid to get in our rear and capture our wagon train. They did get in our rear and came across three wagons that were going to the station for rations, and rode alongside and commenced whipping the mules and started off with them at a gallop, the drivers not knowing what it all meant. But our officers got after them and recaptured the wagons and dispersed them, and they had to make a circuit of about five miles to get back to their lines. Several of them lost their hats and never did find them.
When General Walker got everything in readiness, and the line formed, he ordered us to charge up close to Rodes’ men and then wheel and fall back, so as to draw them after us and away from the piles of snowballs they had made. When the drums beat we were to wheel again and charge them and run them over the hill and capture their snowballs. We did so and the plan worked successfully. At the same time the Louisiana brigade slipped around through the woods and struck them on the left flank, by surprise, and the rout was complete. We ran them on to their camps and through them, and as some of the Louisianans were returning they stole some cooking utensils from Rodes’ men and kept them. We captured several stands of colors, but we had lost several in the earlier part of the fight. Officers would be captured and pulled off their horses and washed in the snow, but all took it in good part. After the fight was over we went out with a flag of truce and exchanged prisoners.
It was probably the greatest snowball battle ever fought, and showed that “men are but children of larger growth.” The Richmond papers had several columns each giving an account of the battle. If all battles would terminate that way it would be a great improvement on the old slaughtering plan.