Although skirmishes and battles did occur during the winter months in the Deep South during the Civil War, most Union and Confederate troops in the northern half of the U.S. settled into winter quarters. These quarters were often a welcome relief from the constant marching and fighting of the spring, summer, and fall campaigns.
Large camps were built with more substantial shelter. Winter huts were built out of the surrounding materials including trees, mud, leaves, and soldiers’ canvases. These huts usually included a chimney, which kept the small space warm. The camps were set up much like small villages complete with crisscrossing lanes called “company streets,” churches, and sutlers’ (civilian merchant) shops. Soldiers would make log huts and spend their time relaxing, writing letters home, and generally recuperating from a season of battle.
Although soldiers received much needed rest, most of the winter was particularly trying and monotonous. Impassable, muddy roads and harsh weather precluded active operations. Disease ran rampant, killing more men than battles. But with all of its hardships winter also allowed soldiers an opportunity to bond, have a bit of fun, and enjoy their more permanent camps. Through these bleak months both Union and Confederate soldiers had to keep warm and busy in order to survive.
Although at least four rare wintertime Civil War engagements remain footnotes in history, the scope and ferocity of these battles received mention in many diaries and journals of the soldier participants. In one of these engagements, 10,000 combatants participated. A soldier recorded one of the battles as “one of the most memorable combats of the war. What were these four engagements?
The largest snowball fight involved most of the Confederate troops near Rappahannock Academy in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Va., on Feb. 25, 1863. Diaries show that eight inches of snow fell on Feb. 19. Two days later, nine more inches of snow fell.
The Feb. 25 brought sunny skies and milder temperatures. The snow on the ground softened until the ideal conditions for snowball making infected the encamped soldiers. Participants say some 10,000 men were engaged. The events were recorded just as a newspaper correspondent would report it:
“Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s North Carolina soldiers marched toward Col. W.H. Stiles’ camp of Georgians. The attack force comprised infantry, cavalry and skirmishers. The fight began with a “severe pelting” of snowballs. Reinforcements from the commissary scurried to assist the brigade under attack.
“Hoke withdrew his beaten soldiers. Col. Stiles then held a council of war on how best to counterattack Hoke’s retreating revelers. He decided to organize his men and march directly into their camp, snowballs at the ready. But when Stile’s forces arrived in Hoke’s camp they were met by a force that had just filled its haversacks with freshly made snowballs. Hoke’s men, ‘without the need to reload,’ beat back their attackers, taking many prisoners. The captured were ‘whitewashed’ with snow. Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his staff apparently witnessed the battle but he resisted the urge to participate in any merrymaking. One soldier remarked that he had wished Jackson and staff had joined the fight so he could have thrown a snowball at the old faded uniforms.’”