The Great Snowball Battle – December 1999 Civil War Times Feature

9/23/1999 • Civil War Times

Heroine or Hoaxer?
Heroine or Hoaxer?

Few real battles were fought with as much zeal as this one pitting Georgians against Tennesseans and involving only snowballs.


The Army of Tennessee was passing the winter of 1863-64 in camp Dalton, Georgia under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. The temperature had been near zero for several days, and since it was much too cold to drill or play the usual out-of-doors games, about all the soldiers could do was gather wood and try to keep warm between meals. Most of the men were young and vigorous, and the enforced idleness was making them restless, which presented quite a problem for the army commanders.

On one side of a huge ravine were camped some Georgia troops and on the other, Tennesseans. During the night a huge snowfall had blanketed the area, and the soldiers awoke the next morning to find slightly warmer temperatures and plenty of snow. The combination proved to be too much for some of the younger fellows and they began snowballing amongst themselves. Soon the individual duels gave way to larger engagements, then presently entire companies were arrayed against each other. Finally the inevitable happened. A group each of Tennesseans and Georgians squared off for “battle” and hostilities began in earnest.

The news spread like wildfire throughout the two camps that an engagement of major proportions was shaping up. Now, it was a matter of state pride, and all the minor skirmishes ceased and recruits poured in to both sides until it resolved into a strictly Tennessee-Georgia contest. By this time almost 2,000 men were taking part, and the number was growing. Snowballs were flying everywhere; and charge after charge was attempted and repulsed. Shouting and cheering pierced the air as the struggle seesawed back and forth for several hours.

During the various charges many prisoners were captured, but in the wild excitement of another swooping charge they would make their escape and rejoin comrades in the battle.

Realizing that an ample supply of snowballs would play an important part in the struggle, both sides piled large mounds of ammunition in advance and located them in strategic spots. As can be imagined, these supply depots of snowballs were often the objectives of an attack.

As the encounter grew in intensity, the Tennesseans requested one of the colonels to come out mounted on his favorite war horse and lead them in the attack. Accepting the invitation, the colonel mounted his horse, grabbed a flag that one of the soldiers had made from an old bandanna, and came galloping out to the battlefield to take his place at the head of his troops. When the Tennesseans caught sight of him racing out, a tremendous roar went up from their side.

Across the way, another loud roar went up from the Georgians, because one of their majors had ridden out to lead them.

Excitement was now at fever pitch; not only were two large forces lined up in battle formation, but hundreds of noncombatants had assembled on the surrounding hills to watch. Enlisted men scrambled for good seats, and general officers and their staffs were either mounted on their horses, or were seeking higher ground to watch the action.

Directing his Tennesseans to load up with as much “ammo” as possible, and instructing his ordnance officers to follow up with a fresh supply of snowballs, the colonel ordered the charge. With a loud roar from both side, the affray was on!

As hundreds of snowballs filled the air, men stumbled and tripped over one another in their attempts to dodge out of the way. Others were knocked down by direct hits. Hardest hit of all were the colonel and his horse at the front of the charge. They were the principal targets for the defending Georgians.

The force of the Tennesseans’ charge enabled them to outflank and break through in the center of the Georgians’ line at the same time, thus resulting in a complete rout. Not content with just chasing their opponents from the field, the Tennesseans pursued the Georgians right through their own camp and into the woods beyond. Then, feeling that his men had accomplished their objective, the colonel called a halt to the chase and ordered his men back to camp.

Thus ended an action involving almost 5,000 soldiers. The only casualties were some black eyes and a few broken arms.