Friday, December 23, 2016

Civil War Snowball Fights

A snowball fight from A Book of Winter Sports: An Attempt to Catch the Spirit of the Keen Joys of the Winter Season (New York, 1912).
The arrival of the winter solstice often coincides with the first significant snowfall of the season. As adults we mostly view snowfall with dread, knowing that our morning commute to work the next day will be slower and more dangerous than usual. In those moments we tend to forget that snow in the form of snowmen or snowballs can be a tremendous source of entertainment, not only for young children but also, as this blog post shows, for soldiers.

The Clements Library has a multitude of works relating to the Civil War, including many publications written decades after the war by aging veterans recording their regiment's service during the conflict. Two of these books in the Clements collection mention good natured snowball fights that occurred between different Confederate regiments: Personal Record of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Infantry and History of Kershaw's Brigade

While these published accounts of snowball fights are relatively well known (a quick google search of "civil war snowball fights" pulls up numerous mentions of such events), the Clements also has a manuscript copy of a letter from Private Edwin Finch of the 15th New York Cavalry Regiment back home to his sister Thirza that describes a snowball fight between various Union forces in great detail. A full transcription of the account of the snowball fight is provided below:
We have had great times snowballing
since this snowfall the 22nd NY and the 1st Ver-
mont regmt got at it and the 1st Vermont drove
the 22nd completely out of the field into their
quarters, then the nex night the 22nd came up
after our regmt and the 9th NY to go
[end of page]
down and help them drive the 1st Vermont
so we went down officers and all, The Vermont
regmt lay on the hill in edge of the woods
they were all formed in line and deployed
skirmishers, we skirmished with them about
half an hour, then we charged them, we
drove them for a while then they rallied on us
and drove us back down the hill we formed
again charged them and drove them out
of their position down into their camp and
in their quarters, then they surrendered and
gave up, they did not like it much to
think that three regments should all pile
on to one, to be sure there were three reg-
ments of us but we did not number any
more men than they did after all for they were
a strong regment and all turned out and the
22nd only numbered 400 men, the 8th only 500
and our regiment only 600 and out of all three
only about half turned out, so you can see we were
no stronger than they were.  
From Thirza Finch diary and letter transcriptions, Vol. 1, p. 75-76, 1865 February 22. 
Edwin Finch was less than 20 years old when he wrote this letter to his sister. His youthful exuberance and excitement about "snowballing" is palpable in his writing. We sometimes forget how young many of these Civil War soldiers were, free from the sort of cynicism bred by adulthood that looks at snow as an annoyance rather than as an opportunity for entertainment.

Louis Miller
Reading Room Supervisor and Curatorial Assistant

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