Here in Pennsylvania, we know about the unpredictable weather of March. Yesterday (when I worked 12 hours), it was sunny and in the 60s. Today, it’s going to be in the 40s and windy.

During the Civil War, the unpredictable weather helped to break the routine of camp life and interrupt the training schedule. On March 22, 1864, soldiers woke up to a fresh five inches of new snow – and since “boys will be boys” a snowball fight broke out.

Of course, as veteran soldiers, this was no ordinary snowball fight. One Arkansas soldier recalled, “Such 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.” (Stephenson, Civil War Memoir)

Here are some other accounts of what occurred:

In Cleburne’s Division, Lucius Polk’s Brigade attacked Govan’s Brigade, pitting Arkansas against Arkansas, and Cleburne could not resist getting involved. He placed himself at the head of his old brigade and led the attack on Govan’s campsite. The snowballs flew thick and fast, and Govans’s men were getting the worst of it when they decided to launch a counterattack. They charged, no doubt yelling for all they were worth and Cleburne suddenly found himself a prisoner of war. After some tongue -in-cheek deliberation, his captors decided to parol their commander, and Cleburne was released.

The snowball fight continued and Cleburne once again entered the fray. At last he was captured a 2nd time .. and this time his captors confronted him with mock solemnity about his violation of parole. According to one veteran, “Some called for a drumhead court martial; others demanded a sound ducking in the nearby creek. Still others, mindfull of Cleburne’s reputation as a stern disciplinarian, insisted that the general be meted out his own customary punishment. The idea caught on and soon the whole brigade took up the familiar order: ‘Arrest that soldier and make him carry a fence rail!’

Cooler heads prevailed, with Cleburne’s defenders arguing that after all this was the 1st occasion on which he had been known to break his word and once again his captors granted him parole. When it was all over, Cleburne authorized a ration of whiskey to the troops, and they stood around great bonfires singing and yelling “at the top of their lungs.” {Steve Davis “The Great Snowbattle of 1864” CWTI (June 1976) }

More snow fell on the 23rd of March, provoking yet another snowball fight and rain and snow continued through the rest of the month. On the 31st a more serious sham battle occurred when Joe Johnston organized a mock engagement involving Hardee’s Corps. Cleburne’s and Bates’s Div. Squared off against those of Cheatam and Walker.

It was a fine weather for a charge, and the troops entered the spirit of the drill, firing off a blank cartridges each, thrilling the small audiences of ladies who had driven out from Dalton to watch. One veteran recalled, “The noise was terrific and the excitement intense, but nobody was hurt. . . except perhaps one of the cavalry men who was dismounted while charging a square of infantry.” That night, back in camp , it was peaches and cornbread again for dinner. (John S. Jackson Diary of A Confederate Soldier)

I hope we are not in for any more snow here in Gettysburg, but if a snowstorm does give us another blast of winter, I think I’m going to go start a snowball fight!


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