Life in winter quarters could be boring, but on Feb. 25, the camp of the Vermont Brigade featured “another great battle on the Rappahannock” which saw “nobody hurt.”
In October the Vermont Brigade was strengthened by the addition of the nine-month regiment, the 26th New Jersey. The unit brought 1,000 men into the brigade ranks. On this February day the Jersey boys issued a challenge to the 3rd and 4th Vermont Regiments that resulted “in a snow-ball battle, so grand in conception and so skillful in execution as to eclipse the school-boy exploits of the first Napoleon.”
The colonel of the 4th Vermont, 21-year-old Charles Stoughton, took this challenge seriously and issued the following order:
“The 26th New Jersey Regiment having challenged the 3rd and 4th Vt. Regiments to meet them in a game of snow ball, the regiment will form in line at three o’clock. It is entirely voluntary but I should like to have as many go as feel disposed. Each company will be paraded immediately, and this circular read to them.”
The 3rd and 4th Vermont Regiments formed at 3 p.m. and formed a hollow square where Stoughton addressed the soldiers. He exhorted, “Soldiers, we have come up here to whip, not to be whipped. We never have been whipped, mind that. You must not use your fists, but use all the snow you can.”
“Hills were covered with spectators” to observe the action taking place in a large open field near camp.
A Vermonter chronicled the event, which commenced with the raising of a red flag:
“There were about nine hundred men on each side. At first two companies of each regiment marched forward and met their whole force, and the snow balls began to flow lively, and then the remainder of the 3rd and 4th came up and the Jerseys were obliged to fall back. They took Major Pingree of the 4th prisoner; but we couldn’t stand that and we rushed forward and got him back again.
“We drove them about a mile and took Col. Morrison, their Major and Adjutant prisoners; and when the battle was over and we had driven them into their tents; Cols. Stoughton and Seaver escorted Col. Morrison to his headquarters. When we passed by the 4th, we gave three cheers for Col. Stoughton and our great victory, and the Jerseys gave three cheers for the Vermonters.
“It all passed off without any hard feelings, on either side. The Jerseys are good boys, but they can’t ‘eat hay.’”
A letter from the New Jersey regiment provides a slightly different perspective of the “engagement.”
“About one thousand men were engaged — four hundred Jerseymen against six hundred Vermonters. Before entering on the engagement, skirmishers were thrown out on both sides, and the conflict began with colors flying and the band playing Rory O’More. Col. Morrison gallantly led on his men, ordering them to ‘charge,’ ‘close up en masse,’ etc., and for some time the issue was doubtful, the air being filled with the flying balls, and each side cheering lustily. The line of the 26th at last began to waver, and though the reserves were brought up they were of no avail. Col. Morrison and other officers were taken prisoners. An embankment in the rear of the 26th was captured, and the balls prepared for the defense were used against them. The colors of the 26th were also taken, and then headquarters seized by the victorious and jubilant Vermonters, amidst deafening cheers.”
Another 26th New Jersey praised their opponents, declaring the “Vermonters fought with the determined energy characterizing them.”
One 6th Vermont Regiment captain observed the lively fray and penned this description:
“The Jerseymen advanced in fine style; skirmishing soon became general along the line; one after another the division advanced, the fight begins in earnest; bullets never flew thicker than did snow-balls there; the roar of musketry and artillery were completely drowned in the fierce shouts and yells of the combatants; soon the reserves advance, and the air rings with the shout of ‘Charge! Charge!’ from the Vermont boys. The lines meet; the Jerseymen waver; another moment and all their field officers are prisoners. Their Colonel, Adjutant and Quartermaster—all splendidly mounted, and their steeds foaming with excitement, are borne to the rear; their lines struggle in vain to re-capture them.
“The day is lost! The Jerseymen break and fly; then such a shout of victory as rises on the air would have excited the patriotism even of a copperhead.”
For one day, all thoughts of war disappeared along the Rappahannock River in this “piece of boy’s play.” As for that “nobody hurt” comment earlier, it depends on your interpretation. One soldier told of “Colonel Stoughton was honored with a black eye and the gallant Seaver fared little better.” Henry Houghton, a private in the 3rd Vermont and an active participant, listed casualties as “heavy” that consisted of “Bloody noses, 53, bunged peepers, 81, extraordinary phrenological (nose) developments, 29.” Whatever the injuries, Vermonter Peter Abbott summed it up well in a letter home, declaring, “it was the most fun that I have had for a good while.”
Such events actually became commonplace on both Northern and Southern sides. They burned off energy and had another subtle use — training. Very often, company officers turned over command to their noncommissioned officers during the snowball fights. Though snowballs replaced bullets, the NCOs received valuable experience in commanding troops in “battle” — experience later used when heavy casualties eroded the number of company officers later on in the war.
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.
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