- 15 December, 1863 -
(In Camp Near Orange, Virginia)
"It snowed hard the night of the fourteenth. Big, white flakes came floating down in the windless darkness. A new moon did not bestow enough light to see well, but if you left your hut to stand alone in the forest, you could feel the snow in your eyebrows and on your cheeks. You could smell the smoke from the chimneys, and hear the gentle sound of the flakes landing all around. You knew from the sound that it would snow all night, and that there would be deep, heavy, new snow in the morning.
Dawn brought with it the still, shimmering brightness that makes a winter's day seem full of new promise. It was the kind of day which gives men back their childhood for a time.
The snowball battle began about ten A.M. in a skirmish between some Alabama men and a wood cutting party from Coppens' Zouaves. The Louisianans had worked hard since breakfast with two man cross-cut saws, dropping trees for their division's saw-mill. The rasp of the saws and the ribald French songs of the detail could be heard across the surrounding fields. Men stood outside their huts to listen. They scratched and spat while making comments on the singing.
It was probably the obsessive nattiness of the Zouaves that set off the attack, the grey baggy pants and the embroidered red vests. Perhaps that was it, or perhaps it was nothing in particular. Maybe they just happened to be there, looking the other way while they worked, and not seeing the stealthy advance through the trees.
The opening fusillade of snowballs smeared white across the red vests. More than one Zouave combed snow from long hair with his fingers. The trunks of oaks and pines suddenly bore snowy circles. Coppens' men reacted with the ferocity that was their pride. The gaudy red and grey figures chased the brown men back through the woods into the meadow from which they had come.
The spectacle of the “Tigers” in hot pursuit drew the attention of all. Men laughed, clapped hands to thighs and yelled encouragement to the Alabamians who had made the attack. No one liked the Zouaves much. Their finery and rough behavior with the country people were irritating to many. This was an opportunity to pay them back.
The raiding party's friends came rushing across the open ground. The snow was calf deep. The Alabamians ran awkwardly, unused to this strange impediment. Nearing the "enemy," they scooped up handfuls of snow to pack into ammunition. In "line of battle", they laid down a withering fire which drove the Zouaves back to the wood line. Seeing the “enemy,” in retreat the Alabama men ran on through the trees and out into the sunshine beyond. In the open, they looked around, realizing that they had pursued the Zouaves into the very heart of Harry Hays' division camp. The attack lost speed. A run became a walk. The walk slowed to a stop. Then, they began to back away, turning toward their own huts.
Across Hays' division, drums began to beat the long roll.
Over their shoulders the retreating men saw company streets fill as officers formed their units.
All the rest of the day, the fight raged through the woods and fields around the camps. Three times the heavy masses of men from the Deep South drove the Stonewall Division's Virginians and Hays’ Pelicans before them, drove them back through the camps, driving with the force of their numbers the men who had followed Old Jack when all who knew him had thought him mad.
About three o'clock, Brigadier General Jim Walker arrived up to take charge of the Stonewall Division. He stood in the snow laughing and talking with Leroy Stafford and the other senior officers on the scene. Balthazar stood beside him listening to the discussion of tactics with a broad smile. He was a chaos of snow from head to foot, and resembled a snowball more than anything else. They all looked like that, all the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers.
A jug appeared and passed around the circle of officers.
Behind them, Smoot had the battalion in line, a central piece in the defensive position holding off an attack during the staff conference.
"Yer not gonna' thrink all that?" an Irish voice questioned from Balthazar's ranks.
"Shut up ye scut!" roared O'Brien from his post. "The gentlemen will have yer need for liquid sustenance in mind, I'm sure."
Walker sent them the jug.
"Major Balthazar, perhaps you could advise us at this critical moment?" Walker said across the six feet between them.
Balthazar looked pleased, scuffed a foot in the snow, and peered around the group of officers to see if they were watching.
Their friendly faces reassured.
He looked in the snow for a stick, found one the right length, and after breaking off a few twigs, knelt to draw on the white surface.
Roars of triumph shook the trees, as the opponents of the Stonewall Division watched in puzzlement, and not a little disappointment as nearly half their "enemies" threw up hands in disgust and simply walked away, turning their backs on the fight, passing quickly from the scene, striding over a fold in the meadow to disappear from view.
Coppens' Zouave Battalion remained in the center of the now shrunken line of the Stonewall Brigade. Upon their colorful heads a thousand snow balls fell. The Zouaves stood their ground manfully, backed by all the weight of "fire" available to the Virginians on either side of them, but it was not to be. The effect of numbers made itself felt and soon the center of Walker's line began to bow inward as the Zouaves were pressed back. The Virginians moved back to straighten the line, and a howl of victory swept the ranks of the men of the Deep South as they pressed forward.
"Sauve qui peut!" cried someone. There was an instant's hesitation, and then the Zouaves turned and ran, carrying with them the inner flanks of the units to either side. Walker's "line of battle" disintegrated in a flash as men sought escape from the humiliation of capture. They fled along the way that their friends had gone, over the rise in the ground, headed for the distant shelter of the trees.
The foemen followed, pausing only to manufacture new stocks of ammunition. Every few yards they halted momentarily to rain down a barrage on the backs of the defeated.
They chased Walker's soldiers at least three hundred yards, and were beginning to think of giving it up when they saw Jim Walker himself come to a dead stop in the middle of the fleeing mob, holding his walking stick up high over his head, waving it back and forth and yelling, "Rally, Boys! Rally!"
The refugees turned to form their sodden ranks. They stooped to scoop up snow, piling up missiles at their feet.
Their pursuers came to a ragged halt, confused by the suddenness of the change. They looked to their leaders for some indication of what should be done.
A cheer rose over the wood lot to their right. Out of the trees, shoulder to shoulder, marched Stafford's Pelicans, each man cradling an armful of snow balls. At the left, extending their line was Balthazar's battalion.
"Brigaade, Halt!" roared Brigadier General Stafford from his place in front of the advance. "At my command!"
A thousand arms cocked back.
Arrows darkened the sky at Agincourt. Snow balls did the same this day.
"Fire at will!" Stafford commanded. He was laughing and out of breath from dodging the dozens of balls thrown at him from the other side.
The Georgians and Alabamians tried to re-form facing in both directions.
They were halfway through this intricate maneuver when Balthazar judged the moment to be just right and yelled "Charge!" He ran right at the "enemy" line, dropping his ammunition as he went.
The battalion surged ahead, sweeping forward behind him like a pack of dogs. They covered the thirty odd yards in an instant.
Balthazar hit the line like the old Rugby boy he was. He shouldered men to either side, driving through, and out the other side. Brushing aside staff officers who sought to shield their chief, he tackled a tall, mustachioed man who had clearly been the directing force on the other side.
They rolled over and over in the snow, pelting each other, and stuffing the cold whiteness down collars and up shirts.
"All right! I yield!" the victim of this attack said at last.
They climbed to their feet, helped up by the cheering mob of soldiers.
Major General Robert Rodes brushed snow off his sleeves and stuffed his shirt back into his trousers. "My God, Balthazar, I had no idea you were so upset about that Poker game...” He was grinning.
Balthazar smiled back. He had come to admire and like this man, so young for his rank, so upright and unpretentious."
This is from "Death Piled Hard." That is the second volume of my trilogy "Strike the Tent." There were several snow ball fights like this in the Army of Northern Virginia. They involved thousands of men. This one is marked as "15 December" in 1863 but it is an eternal moment. We had regimental snow ball fights at VMI when I was a cadet long ago, one battalion against the other. Perhaps that custom derived from the A of NV as so much else at VMI did then. pl