There are some things that are not being taught in History class. Perhaps they were not as necessary as the other details of history, or maybe it’s an event or detail not known to many. One of these stories was called “The Great Snowball Fight of 1863” among the Confederate soldiers. It is literally what it sounds like: fun, cold balls of ice thrown at your face like what you probably did with your friends. The only difference was that these were 9,000 men lunging snowballs with their arms and hands that were familiar with grasping rifles. This was perhaps one of the biggest snowball fights ever recorded.

January of 1863 was an icy season in Rappahannock Valley in Northern Virginia. It was about a year away from the end of the Civil War. The start of the year had been challenging for them as President Abraham Lincoln just issued  the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” This would, later on, result in almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fighting for the Union, and the Confederates would fight desperate battles against them at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. But before all that, the icy war.

The snowball battle that happened near Dalton, Georgia in 1864, illustrated by Alfred Rudolph, 1828-1891, from Morgan collection of Civil War drawings (Library of Congress)

This Means War

In the journal entry of Confederate soldier Edmund DeWitt Patterson published in Gazette 665, “he mentioned a few common things in winter camps: boredom, picket duty, curiosity about the enemy, snow (and snow “sports”), and sickness. By many accounts, winter camps were boring to the soldiers; it was cold and sometimes miserable weather, their routines didn’t vary much, and with the enemy army as cold and miserable, there usually wasn’t much chance for battle action. Winter camps were relatively safe – except from disease and an occasional cavalry raid.”

Perhaps that’s one of the major reasons that prompted the huge battle that started when the First and Fourth Texas Infantry launched a massive snowball barrage on the Fifth Texas Infantry, who were taken by surprise but were definitely up for a counter-attack. They fought back, but because they were outnumbered, they were compelled to merge with the First and Fourth Infantry and join the assault on the Third Arkansas Infantry next. They did, and the Arkansas troops quickly surrendered and joined in, their force now 1500-strong and ready to battle their next victim: the Georgia Brigade.

Things Got Serious

On the other side, the Georgians were alerted about the icy attack coming their way, and they were ready for it. So when the parade of battle flags, drummers, and buglers came marching their way, they held the high ground and threw their snowballs with all their might, successfully driving the combined Texans and Arkansans forces back with heavy casualties.

Not accepting defeat, the Texans and Arkansans immediately called for reinforcement. When the new troops came, they barraged the Georgians with their slushballs again, this time fighting their way up the hill successfully and forcing their surrender as well.  The combined forces were now led by Gen. Lafayette McLaws, ready to conquer another division. At this point, some 9,000 troops in the Army of Northern Virginia were engaged in this massive cold war, chucking snowballs in all directions.

Officers became involved, and formations were organized around tactical plans of assault.  There was a moment of silence as the men faced each other on both sides, then a few moments later, a huge Rebel Yell would announce the beginning of the battle.

After hours of fighting, all of them now exhausted and covered in snow like dough dusted with flour, the Texas Brigade claimed victory, with more than a few soldiers sustaining slight injuries.