The Army of Northern Virginia’s Great Winter Battles

Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson
Since nearly half of the authors at Emerging Civil War are snowed in this weekend, and all of us at the site have been living with the great debate of the week—over canonizing Lee and Jackson, or hanging them from the closest gallows. I thought that I would write about some good old military history.

There were over 10,000 skirmishes, engagements, and battles in the American Civil War. Many of these actions are overlooked, yet there are some outstanding accounts of the battles that took place. As I take a break from a major project Chris Mackowski and I have been working on, I thought that I would share some accounts of lesser-known actions that we have pulled.

March 23rd, 1864, marked the second anniversary of “Stonewall” Jackson’s defeat at Kernstown. Noah Collins was a member of the 37th North Carolina. He was from Union County, North Carolina and enlisted with the 37th in September of 1861. By 1864, he and his comrades were veteran soldiers. Their brigade held the unfortunate distinction of wounding Jackson. Collins left an excellent account of what happened that March day.

On that second anniversary of Kernstown, the men of the 37th and 28th North Carolina lined up to engage an enemy, who slightly outnumbered them. Collins recalled that “the battle opened with spirit.” There, in the camp of Lane’s brigade, “a great snow-fight between the 37th North Carolina and 28th North Carolina Regiment[s] and the 33rd, 7th, and 18th North Carolina Regiments [took place].” A number of snowstorms hit the northern and central Virginia region throughout the winters of 1863 and 1864. Many soldiers from both sides took it upon themselves to tangle with rival regiments or brigades. Here in the camp of Lane’s North Carolinians, the battle was particularly fierce, indicative of the fighting qualities of the men who still lined its ranks.

SnowballThe 37th and 28th Regiments “made them[selves] two pieces of artillery by uncoupling a wagon and mounting a flour barrel on each piece of the wagon.” The men of the 28th oversaw their makeshift artillery section. According to Collins the battle started off with the artillery being placed on their demi-brigades left flank “but [the battle] had not raged long, till the-28th regiment gave way and abandoning or forsaking their artillery, [and] it was carried off by the enemy….” Collins went on to say that

the 37th regiment held its ground till it was very nearly flanked by the left, when it and the 28th regiment fell back to the quarters of the 37th regiment and made a second stand; when the fight became exasperated and very furious, and the air became very thickly mingled with snowballs, sticks and stones. Charge after charge was made on the 28th Regiment, and it as often fell back and rallied again, the 37th holding its ground all the time, till at length after it was reported that a colonel had gotten his coat torn open, a Captain of the 28th Regiment one eye seriously injured, several knocked down with stones, several individual, or hand to hand fights and several severely bruised with stones, the opposing forces consisting of the….33rd, 7th, and 18th Regiments cried for quarters and yielded the victory or surrendered to the 37th and 28th Regiments.

Collins description of the battle is quite thorough, and reading between the lines, it is akin to an official report of an actual battle. Like many after action reports on a particular engagement, Collins points the finger at another unit (the 28th North Carolina) breaking and running, while showing his own units fighting prowess. Lane’s great winter battle was just one of many that took place between soldiers.

In the camp of John B. Gordon’s Georgia brigade, the snow was about knee deep. “The brigade is all out snow-balling-having sham battles, etc….” wrote Charles McArthur.

It reminds me of a battle in earnest. It is worth seeing…. The 61st [Ga.] drove the 26th [Ga.] down under a hill. The 13th [Ga.], sympathizing with the 26th, flanked the 61st, double times and drove them back into their quarters pelting them most desperately, when the 60th Regt. came to the rescue of the Sixty-First. Now they are carrying two men to the guard house. They fell out when the play and came to blows….

snowballs_fightWhile the combatants of these battles did not fire bullets, their fists, sticks, and stones broke many bones. Others complained of numerous “smashed noses.” There were thousands of soldiers in Lee’s army that had never seen snow accumulate in an appreciable amount, prior to coming to Virginia. The snow was not welcomed by many of the soldiers. One man complained as it leaked through his tent, when it melted on to the letter he was writing home. Others, like Lane’s and Gordon’s men, found great joy in utilizing it for their amusement, and a way of blowing off steam.

During one engagement, in February of 1863, Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade fought one another in snow “a foot deep.” One man claimed that they had pelted one another with so many snowballs that the men looked like “specters.” Some men formed a battalion for battle, flag and all, and assaulted two other units of the brigade, and even took their fight to an adjacent Georgia brigade.

The mock battles often included every man in a regiment. All were fair game to be targeted by combatants and pranksters; even general officers.

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. “Lee’s Old War Horse”

During the winter of 1862-63, the Army of Northern Virginia camped in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia. James Longstreet’s wife came to the area and stayed close to the First Corps camp. Because she did not stay in the military camp proper, General Longstreet rode to see her every morning. Longstreet’s ride carried him through the camp of the famed “Texas Brigade.” Every day that there was snow, the men of the brigade lined the officer’s street, where the “saluted him with a shower of snow-balls.” At first “Old Pete” took it in stride. After a number of these occasions “he grew tired of the one-sided play.” After the next snowfall, Longstreet approached the camp, “the Texans, and found them drawn up on the side of the road, snow-balls in hand.” Before the Texans could loose their volley, “he reined up his horse, and said to them very quietly: ‘Throw your snow-balls men, if you want to, as much as you please; but if one of them touches me, not a man in the brigade shall have a furlough this winter. Remember that!’” According to his aide, “there was no more snow-balling for General Longstreet’s benefit.”

The numerous snow storms helped the men, even if for a short time, alleviate the boredom of camp life. Work out inter-unit rivalries. And find some measure of joy in the midst of our great American tragedy. The above anecdotes are more than just that, they are a window into one of the coping mechanisms the combatants used to get through it all.

As the East Coast hunkers down for the latest storm of the century, I hope you all try and make the best of a bad situation, like those who came before us. And if you happen to run into Mackowski, whack him with a snowball for me.


10 Responses to The Army of Northern Virginia’s Great Winter Battles

  1. Kris:
    Although our part of the Midwest escaped the Great Blizzard of ’16, your very entertaining post started me shivering. (Where’s my space heater?)

  2. Awesome article! I’d not heard about Longstreet and the snowball volleys before; will definitely have to share that story with my dad since he’s a fan of Longstreet’s character and leadership.
    Enjoy the snow – it looks beautiful in all the pictures…but so does the view out my window: 70 degrees and sunny. Oh, but I don’t have CW battlefields in my backyard – so I’m still jealous of you folks in the east. LOL

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