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The Famous Snowball Battle in the Confederate Army At Dalton, Ga. 1864 by General George W. Gordon

The Famous Snowball Battle in the Confederate Army At Dalton, Ga. 1864.
by 
General George W. Gordon

That subdivision of the Confederate forces known as the "Army of Tennessee," and then commanded by General Jos. E. Johnston, passed the memorable winter of 1863-4 m camp at Dalton, Ga. The winter was one of unprecedented severity, the thermometer registering in January, 1864, three degrees below zero. During the cold weather an unusual amount of snow fell for that latitude; and the chief occupations of the soldiers were getting wood, cooking, eating, and keeping warm. It was too cold to drill or to indulge in the usual out-door games, "stag dances," etc., tents being too small for these purposes. And as most of the "boys" were young men, naturally there was an accumulation of physical energy that constantly sought issue in athletic exercises. When the copious fall of snow came, it brought the opportunity not only for exercise, but for royal sport as well. But before proceeding further, let us explain that in selecting a camp, the subdivisions of the same command are placed as near together as sanitation, water supplies, the conformation of the ground and general convenience, will allow; that is to say, the regiments of a brigade are located near each other, so the brigades of a division, and so the divisions of an army corps. General B. F. Cheatham's Division of General Hardee's Corps was composed of four brigades of Tennesseeans — Maney's, Vaughan's, Carter's and Strahl’s — and was camped on one side of a considerable depression in the ground, not sharp enough to be called a ravine, but through which a small branch ran during wet weather. On the opposite summit and slope to this depression, and about three hundred paces from the Tennesseeans, was camped General Walker's Division of Georgia troops—also of General Hardee's Corps. The day after the snow had ceased to fall "snowballing" first began among the men of the same companies and camps, and many interesting, exciting and clamorous contests were had for several hours. But finally a body of Tennesseeans and Georgians became arrayed against each other, and very soon the contest became highly exciting. As the news spread through the camps that a fight was on hand between the Georgians and Tennesseeans, division pride and state pride became excited, the small fights ceased, and reinforcements poured into both sides of the state forces until all interest was absorbed in one grand bat tle between Georgians and Tennesseeans, in which several thou sand men were now engaged, 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, with partially varying successes. 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. Sometimes these magazines would be charged and captured by massing a force for that purpose. In these charges the supreme efforts made by the defending forces to resist the momentum of the assaulting mass raised the excitement to its wildest height. The place where a magazine was captured was always retaken, but sometimes not until the ammunition had been used up on those making it, or carried away by the enemy into his own lines. Finally, after alternating successes of a very partial and indecisive character, the battle ceased as if by common consent and the weary combatants "rested upon their arms"—each upon his original ground and upon opposite sides of the depression or small branch before referred to, and not more than a hundred paces apart. Neither side seemed to be satisfied. Neither was whipped and neither appeared inclined to leave the field. Besides, during this cessation of hostilities, both armies were vigorously engaged in making ammunition, which, with other demonstrations of a hostile character, clearly indicated that the battle was soon to be renewed and upon a much grander and more imposing scale than ever before.

Up to this juncture, the writer had been only a highly interested spectator of the contest from a distance, and had not expected to take any personal part in the fight. But at this moment a messenger, and one of my own command, came running to my quarters and said that he had been sent by the Tennesseeans to ask me to come and command them, and to come mounted; that with a mounted commander to lead them, they thought they could win the fight. With my interest already highly excited, it needed no persuasion, and I told my colored boy to saddle my horse immediately. By the time he had done so the messenger had improvised a flag for me to carry out of an old bandana handkerchief, about two feet and a half square, and the largest and dirtiest one, I think, I ever saw. I mounted my horse, a beautiful dappled iron gray, and with the bandana flag in my hand flying to the breeze, I charged to the field, my horse leaping logs, ditches and other obstructions and running faster as I approached the exciting scene. When I checked up in front of the Tennesseeans (now in battle array) and waved my flag, such a tremendous shout shook the air that the very atmosphere seemed to quiver around and above us. Excitement was now in tense, and the men wildly impatient to make the charge. Immediately after my appearance on horse-back in front of the Tennesseeans, Major (whose name I regret to have forgotten), of General Walker's staff, appeared mounted at the head of the Georgians. His coming was greeted with a tremendous shout from his men, and was answered by mine with another shout, as if to say: "We accept your challenge." Excitement was now extreme. Non-combatants had assembled by hundreds on the surrounding hills and house-tops to see the tight. General officers and their staffs, at their headquarters, had mounted their horses or ascended higher elevations to witness the impending struggle. All was now ready. And after directing the men to fill their pockets, bosoms and hands with balls, and the ordnance officers to follow the line with all the ammunition their details could carry, I ordered the charge. With a shout that signaled victory, and an impetuosity that seemed irresistible, we dashed upon the brave Georgians, and for a few minutes the struggle was fierce and furious, desperate and doubtful. The air was white with whizzing and bursting balls; men were tripped up, knocked down, covered with snow, or run over. The writer was struck with at least a hundred balls, and his horse by as many more. The momentum of the charging column was too great, however, to be successfully resisted, more especially so when it outflanked both wings of the enemy, which soon gave way. The center, then being flanked, and at the same time being sorely pressed in front, also gave way, and his entire army fled in great confusion. The rout on the field was now complete, and the enemy was not only driven therefrom, but through his own camp and into the woods beyond. The object of the campaign (victory) being now accomplished, I ordered the pursuit to cease and the men to return to their camps. As they did so, however, some of them stopped in the deserted camps of the Georgians and plundered their mess chests, which had been well filled by supplies from their friends at home. When I heard of this, and reproved it as not being a legitimate object of the campaign, the reply and defense were in that questionable old maxim, "All is fair in love and war."

So fur from this episode of camp life having been a source of unkind feeling between Walker's Division of Georgians and Cheatham's Division of Tennesseeans, it ever afterward seemed to be rather a bond of sympathy and union. The writer never afterward passed or met the Georgia Division, that its men did not greet him with shouts, often with "Three cheers for the Snow ball Colonel!" "Colonel" was my rank at the time, and "The Snowball Colonel" was the designation ihey ever afterward gave me. This "snowball battle" seems to have made a deep and indelible impression on all the soldiers who took part in, or who witnessed it; for one of the first questions I am often asked by old soldiers whom I have not seen since the close of the war is: "General, do you remember the snowball battle at Dalton, Georgia?" This and the additional fact that it is still so often a topic of conversation among the old soldiers is, I suppose, why I have been requested to write an account of it.

In concluding this report of the celebrated snowball fight, I suppose the writer can say, without being charged with vanity, that he won more "reputation" ("that idle and most false imposition; often got without merit and lost without deserving") than in all the other battles in which he participated during the war. He is said to have performed prodigies of daring and desperation during the action, as men can generally do when there is not much danger in front, and no disgrace in defeat. With a bowed head (after the manner of a pugnacious sheep) to protect his face and eyes from the balls of the enemy, he rode right into and through their ranks, amid a deluging snowstorm of flying missiles, and emerged therefrom with a floating flag, but a hatless head. He congratulates his command and himself that though the battle was intensely boisterous, it was practically bloodless—the only casualties being a few blinded eyes and two or three broken arms, during an action in which not fewer than five thousand men were engaged.

The Tennesseeans were so enthused with their great victory over the Georgians, that they wanted another fight before the "weary sun," then sinking low, "had made his golden set." But as there was not time to seek it with troops in a distant camp and from a different state, they concluded to fight each other. Accordingly an issue was joined between Maney's Brigade, commanded by Colonel Hume Field, mounted, and Vaughan's Brigade, commanded by the writer, also mounted. The dispositions for battle having been duly made, the charge was mutually sounded, and when the opposing lines, advancing on each other with great speed and impetuosity, clashed the shock was tremendous. Men fell right and left, in front and rear. Some were dragged from the field, hatless and coatless, amid the greatest cheering and wildest shouts. "When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war." The battle raged till all the reserves had been brought into action, when a supreme effort was made by both sides to close the fight with victory. The writer, venturing too far into the enemy's ranks, had his horse seized by as many of them as could get hold of him, and was thrown to the ground; the rider was grabbed by the head and arms (his bandana flag going down in the wreck), and was being dragged to the enemy's rear, when a large squad of his own men seized him by the other end in an effort to recapture him, and he was raised from the ground and actually strung up between the heavens and the earth by the pulling forces at each end of him. At this moment he felt that his situation was now serious indeed, and that it was time to stop such "d — n foolishness." So, by vigorous kicking, "cussing" and yelling to his men to release him, they did so, and he was left a prisoner in the hands of the enemy, but without any serious injury. In the meantime, however, his own men had captured the commander of the enemy, and as neither side now had a leader, the men ceased fighting and entered into negotiations for an exchange of prisoners. By the time the exchange was effected, the ardor of the combatants had greatly cooled, and neither side seemed disposed to renew the contest.

As to the result of the fight, it may be called a drawn battle, or described by an anecdote of a darkey attached as a servant to General Floyd's command in Virginia. When General Floyd had been beaten and was being pursued by the enemy, the darkey moved to the rear far in advance of the retreating troops, and when he was met by a soldier going to join the command and was asked what was the news from General Floyd, he did not want to admit that he had been defeated, but said: When I lef 'em, our men wuz vancin backwards on de Yankees, and dey wuz retreatin' on us." As the last beams of the setting sun gilded the icy branches of the leafless trees with the beauteous tints of the rain bow, the soldiers returned to their camps from the white field of the great "snowball battle," and retired that night with the fade less memory of a glorious day.

Ben LaBree, Camp Fires of the Confederacy: A Volume of Humorous Anecdotes, Reminiscences, Deeds of Heroism (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1898), 48-54.

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