150 Years Ago This Week: ‘One of the most memorable combats of the war’

February 1863

During the last week of February 1863, several military, naval, national and political events took place, with skirmishes and engagements all around between Union and Confederate forces. On Sunday, Feb. 22, the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, ground was broken in Sacramento, Calif., for the Central Pacific Railroad that would eventually link east and west.

President Abraham Lincoln received a resignation from Simon Cameron, formerly Secretary of War and lately the U.S. ambassador to Russia, on Feb. 23. The next day, the Territory of Arizona was established by the U.S. government, separate and apart from the Territory of New Mexico; the Confederacy had previously established the Confederate Territory of Arizona in 1862. The Cherokee Indian Nation abolished its ordinance of secession, abolished slavery and affirmed its support of the Union.

The Great Snowball Battle near Fredericksburg in February 1863.
The Great Snowball Battle near Fredericksburg in February 1863.

The heavy snow which fell on eastern Virginia on Feb. 19 and 21 left 17 inches on the winter camps of both armies near Fredericksburg and created an unusual military situation. When the weather warmed and mild temperatures and sunny skies prevailed on Feb. 25, Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke’s North Carolina brigade left their camps early in the morning, intent on capturing the camps of Col. William Stiles’ Georgia brigade.

The Tar Heels had left their weapons in their camps; each man had filled his haversack full of snowballs made perfect by the mild temperatures that day. The attacking force consisted of infantry, cavalry and skirmishers. The North Carolinians moved in swiftly in battle formation, catching the Georgians by surprise.

In the ensuing snowball battle, some 10,000 combatants were engaged as reinforcements rushed in from all sides, with the exception of artillery. Even the soldiers assigned to commissary duties joined in the fray, and Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and staff came out to observe the battle. Many soldiers said later that they had hoped Jackson and staff would have joined in the engagement and given the troops the chance to pelt “the old faded uniforms” with snowballs.

Battle lines were drawn, and regiment after regiment moved in for the “kill.” The North Carolinians were soon forced to withdraw, and the Georgians held a council of war. Col. Stiles organized his men and the Georgians counterattacked, snowballs in hand. When they reached Gen. Hoke’s camps, the Tar Heels were surprised to find their adversaries had rallied.

The fighting was as severe as on any field of mortal combat against the Union army; the North Carolinians rallied and provided an endless barrage of snowballs with no need to reload. Many soldiers were “captured” and “whitewashed with snow” as the attacking force was quickly overwhelmed. In many spots, red stains appeared in the snow from bloodied noses and faces; medical officers were kept busy and many blackened eyes were observed in the following days.

Toward late afternoon, the battle ended and both sides withdrew to their respective camps. “Prisoners” were “paroled” and returned to their comrades, where they received a lot of heckling and jeers. One North Carolina soldier who participated said “it was one of the most memorable combats of the war.”

This snowball fight, one of the largest ever fought, was among the first of several well-known snowball fights during the war. The snow battles relieved boredom, increased morale and fostered camaraderie among the Confederate soldiers. The fights gave the officers and men a chance to practice their combat skills for the ensuing active military campaigns without the dangers of being exposed to enemy fire.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.