150 Years Ago This Week: Two intense (snowball) fights

March 1864

On the high seas on Sunday, March 20, the Confederate raider Alabama arrived at Cape Town, South Africa, on a respite from attacking Union commerce and warships. In Louisiana, the Red River campaign was well underway; at Bayou Rapides, Union and Confederate troops clashed.

On the first day of spring, March 21 — a rather mild day in the North and the South — President Abraham Lincoln approved an act of the U.S. Congress enabling the Territories of Nevada and Colorado to become states, despite their relative small populations.

Nevada was to become a state on Oct. 31, 1864; Colorado was not admitted as a state until Aug. 1, 1876. In Louisiana, as part of the Red River campaign, opposing troops fought at Henderson’s Hill; Union troops captured 250 cavalrymen, 200 horses and four light artillery pieces. This action deprived the Confederates for a time of their means of scouting.

Not unlike the winter of 2014, a heavy snowfall in the latter part of March 1864 blanketed most of the east coast of the American continent from the northeast into the south. On March 23, Father James Sheeran, a Confederate chaplain assigned to the 14th Louisiana Infantry in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army recorded in his diary near Orange C.H., Va.:

“This morning, after a most delightful day yesterday, with soft Southern breezes and the gentle rays of the morning sun to remind us that spring is at hand, the snow is 18 inches deep. Two of our divisions, Gen. Johnson’s and Gen. Rodes’, fought a regular scientific battle with snowballs. This was the first battle I have ever witnessed with pleasure. There were some 8,000 men engaged and the lines were so regularly formed, the movements so systematic, the officers displaying so much activity at the heads of their commands, their men ‘fighting’ so stubbornly, now advancing on their opposing column, now giving way before superior numbers that one would forget for a moment that it was all merely a sham.

“At one time we would see a body of troops marching through the adjacent woods endeavoring to outflank the ‘enemy’; sooner a countermovement would be made. For nearly two hours this battle of the snowballs lasted. Johnson’s whole division commences a rapid retreat but with solid and unbroken lines, Rodes’ division following them in utmost disorder and almost exhausted with laughter. Now the order is given: ‘Halt! Change front! Charge!’ Now commences one of the most amusing and laughable scenes. Rodes’ division is routed and driven for over half a mile and even through their own camp. Our boys came back as proud as if they had gained a substantial victory over the Yankees.”

At Dalton, Ga., where the Confederate Army of Tennessee was camped, five inches of snow fell the same day as in Virginia, and additional snowfalls occurred there over the following three days. Both Union troops in camp around Chattanooga and the Confederates in Georgia engaged in snowball battles in their own camps during that week.

One Arkansas soldier recorded in his diary of the fight near Dalton: “Such pounding and thumping, and rolling over in the snow, and washing of faces and cramming snow in mouths and ears, mixing up in great wriggling piles together.”

In Tennessee, the 3rd and 4th Vermont fought against the 26th New Jersey, resulting in black eyes and bloody noses. One New Jersey private wrote home of the snowball battle that “the fighting was majorly intense. Every Jerseyman who emerged from his tent was met with a shower of snowballs.”

In Virginia, Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg was temporarily assigned to command the Union cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac on Friday, March 25. Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was relieved of command and transferred to Missouri.

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.