Local News

March 22, 2014

Civil War anniversary: The Snowball Battle of Dalton

Weather in northwest Georgia in late winter and early spring is notoriously fickle, and that of 1864 was no exception. January and February had been unusually cold and wet, with temperatures near zero during several nights and long spells of cold rain.

As March arrived, however, the 40,000 or so men of the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee encamped around Dalton enjoyed some warmer days, and many were surprised by a snowfall of four to six inches that began during the night of March 21 and continued into the early afternoon of the next day — the first day of spring.

“Our optics opened wide with astonishment this morning,” wrote a Mississippi soldier on March 22, “when we peeped out from our ‘shanty’ and saw mother earth’s bosom covered with a snowy mantle, four or five inches thick.”

The stage was set for what many troops later considered the most exciting and delightful event of their stay in Whitfield County, “the most prodigious snowball fight in the world’s history” as one man called it. “We have seen more fun to-day than at any one time during the war,” recounted an Alabama private in his diary that night.

After four monotonous months of boredom, loneliness and general discomfort, punctuated by drills and occasional skirmishes with the enemy and relieved mainly by self-made entertainment and sporadic contact with loved ones, thousands of restless young men found the snowfall almost providential.

“As soon as we had gotten our ‘grub,’ we were ready for fun, and immediately the boys of our battery engaged in an indiscriminate snow-balling frolic,” a Mississippi artillerist recorded. Beginning between small-scale units — platoons and companies — the contests quickly grew to engagements between regiments, brigades and divisions, waged with organization and martial zeal little short of what pertained in actual combat.

From the many accounts and references participants gave in letters, diaries and memoirs, it’s clear that there was not one great battle but several large and many smaller ones, at times overlapping and involving anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 men in lines extending more than a mile. Some remembered additional snow falling on March 23, and even though temperatures rose during the following week, snowball skirmishing apparently continued through the end of the month. The heaviest fighting, however, was on the 22nd and seems to have occurred north and west of the town, especially around Mill Creek Gap where the main Union offensive was expected and Southern forces were consequently most concentrated. Units from many different states occupied this area as part of Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s Corps, and within a short time interstate rivalries prompted robust and rapidly expanding snowball campaigns.

One of these was between Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s four brigades of Tennesseans and Maj. Gen. William H.T. Walker’s Georgians, camped on facing slopes about 300 paces apart. Col. George W. Gordon of the 11th Tennessee later wrote that several thousand men were “making the heavens wild with shouts and the air striped with the tracks of flying snowballs. Charge after charge was made and repulsed. Shout after shout rent the sky. For two hours or longer the battle raged ... The prisoners who were captured in one charge would make their escape under the excitement of the next and rejoin their comrades in the fight. Sometimes the assaulting columns would have to retreat because their ammunition would give out, and would in turn be countercharged and routed by the receiving forces who had held their ground and defended their magazines (large piles of snowballs as high as a man’s head all along the line and prepared beforehand), and were thus supplied with ammunition.”    

Soon Col. Gordon was asked to assume formal command from horseback and he readily did so, carrying as his flag “an old bandana handkerchief, about two feet and a half square, and the largest and dirtiest one, I think, I ever saw.”

On the Georgia side a mounted major assumed a similar role, and in the ensuing “fierce and furious, desperate and doubtful” struggle Gordon and his horse were struck hundreds of times as “men were tripped up, knocked down, covered with snow, or run over.” Both he and his counterpart were captured and later exchanged, but only after the Georgians’ position had been flanked and shattered. Their “entire army fled in confusion” through their own camp and into the surrounding woods, leaving the victorious Tennesseans free to rifle their foes’ mess chests for delicacies from home. Despite such plundering, no ill feelings resulted; Gordon recalled that between Cheatham’s and Walker’s men the episode “ever afterward seemed to be rather a bond of sympathy and union” and that in days to come the Georgia boys cheered him as the “Snowball Colonel.”

Similar fights waged with similar intensity pitted other regiments from Tennessee and Georgia, as well as from Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Virginia, against each other in varying combinations. Sometimes units from the same state clashed — the 63rd and 54th Virginia regiments had an especially spirited meeting that lasted two or three hours — or infantry companies fought artillery batteries.

One of the most vividly and fondly remembered bouts involved the brigades of Brig. Gen. Daniel Govan and Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk, both largely comprised of men from Arkansas and both part of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s division. Cleburne sided with Polk’s troops — his own former outfit — and was soon taken prisoner, paroled, captured again, and threatened in mock solemnity with a court martial and a taste of his own stern discipline (including a dunking in icy Mill Creek). Paroled once more, when the fight was over he won the hearts of everyone by authorizing a whiskey ration to all his troops, who “stood around great bonfires singing and yelling in glee.”

The experiences of Gordon and Cleburne, and other general officers such as A.P. Stewart and Marcellus Stovall as well, illustrate one keenly remembered aspect of the Dalton snowball fight and of others elsewhere during the war — the temporary obscuring of the barriers between officers and enlisted men.

“Field officers seemed to be the most desirable game,” wrote one soldier, “and many a major, colonel and brigadier was soundly pelted, and in some cases captured, horse, equipments and all.” A colonel related that “the men did not let off anyone in the brigade except Gen’l M. So I thought it would be best to go down and take part in the fight and be snow balled ... All distinctions were levelled and the higher an officer the more snow balling he received.”

Another welcome dimension of the snowball battle was its spectator gallery. According to Col. Gordon, “Non-combatants had assembled by hundreds on the surrounding hills and house-tops to see the fight.” Many of these were females, and their presence undoubtedly gratified men who rarely encountered civilians of either sex. It could also be distracting, however. A Georgia soldier informed his sister that Brig. Gen. Joseph Wright of Tennessee brought his wife and daughters and “other young ladies ... to see the fight. We got whiped but the ladies were the cause the boys all stoped to look at them and the other side fought so our party kept giving back until the others got the general and the girls prisners [sic].”

Amid all the “pounding and thumping, and rolling over in the snow, and washing of faces and cramming snow in mouths and in ears and mixing up in great wriggling piles together,” injuries were frequent. Most were bruises, black eyes and broken noses, but a Georgia soldier noticed that “the ground was speckled with blood” and an Alabama man recalled that “a number of soldiers had their eyes put out.” There are accounts of broken arms and legs, and at least one source claims that two men were killed. General good nature seems to have prevailed both during and after the engagements, but that didn’t prevent some combatants from dipping their snowballs in streams to coat them with ice or loading them with rocks or lead — a practice which caused some to be reprimanded for stepping outside “civilized warfare.”

Snow war or not, the regular business of the Army had to go forward, sometimes grimly. Pvt. Sam Watkins, whose memoir of his service in Company H of the 1st Tennessee is one of the best accounts of the common soldier’s experience, described seeing a deserter shot while the snow lay “and the boys were hard at it, ‘snow balling.’” The execution was harrowing, since neither the firing squad’s first volley nor a coup de grace from a sergeant’s pistol were fatal and the squad had to reload and fire again. The dead man “had no sooner been taken up and carried off to be buried, than the soldiers were throwing snow balls as hard as ever, as if nothing had happened.”

The troops’ refusal to allow the execution more than a momentary interruption of their wintry horseplay demonstrates the importance they attached to this break in their routine. For many of the men the snow itself was quite likely a novelty, especially if they were from the lower or coastal South. One observer of the fight between Cheatham’s and Walker’s units at Mill Creek Gap thought the Tennesseans owed their victory there partly to being more familiar with snow than their opponents from Georgia and South Carolina. Many who described the snow rhapsodized in the flowery style typical of the 19th century: “We awoke this morning to find Mother Earth clothed in the habiliments, that in all ages have been looked upon as emblematic of innocence, pure white — snow,” or recording the day’s end, “as the last beams of the setting sun gilded the icy branches of the leafless trees with the beauteous tints of the rainbow.”

At both the top and bottom of the Army, the snowball fight significantly boosted morale. Officers were encouraged by their men’s spontaneity, speed and audacity as they organized themselves into effective fighting forces and seized the offensive. Not surprisingly, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee, took advantage of finer weather on March 31 to sustain the spirit of those units of Hardee’s Corps that had been so active in the snow nine days earlier by ordering a sham battle between them, using blank cartridges. The lower ranks were equally invigorated. “Our army here is in splendid fighting trim,” wrote one member of a battery stationed above Mill Creek Gap. “If the Yankee host ... see fit to try our mettle, they will find us ready, and will assuredly meet with something warmer than a snowball reception.”

Although usually cited as the most famous event of its kind during the war, the Dalton snowball battle was hardly unique; an even larger one erupted on the same day in Orange County, Va., where the same storm system dropped 18 inches on the Army of Northern Virginia.

But for the men around Dalton, and in stories they told to children and grandchildren in the decades to come, a member of the 37th Tennessee summed it all up without moderation: it had been “the greatest snow fight that ever took place. It certainly takes a stand as high as the Olympian games of the ancients.”

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the commission, go to dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article, contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.

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