1863: “Get Into A Battle With Snowballs”

January 20 1863.

I have almost given up writing in my journal for the fact that I have nothing in the world to record. There is too much sameness about this kind of soldier life. One day is the repetition of the duties of the day before, and I can always tell what (in all probability) I will be doing on the same day one month ahead. Capt. Crow is often on other duty, Cannon and Chandler on detached services, and I am generally in command of the Company. Every fifth day at three o’clock P.M. I go on picket and remain twenty four hours. We stand on our side of the river and look at the Yanks. They stand on their side and look at us. Sometimes we exchange papers, though in violation of orders, and sometimes the boys trade them tobacco for coffee. Just below the dam the water is not more than three feet deep, and the boys wade out to a little shoal of rocks in the middle of the stream and meet and take a drink together, make such trades as they wish, then each returns to his own side again. I have to visit some other post in the meantime, or make it convenient to have business in another direction, for it would not do for me to see these violations of orders. And yet I like to read a New York or Philadelphia paper.

The principle amusement of the troops now-a-days is snowballing. A great many of them never saw any snow, or at least not enough to cover the ground, until last winter, and many of the Florida troops have never seen any at all. Sometimes whole brigades and even divisions, with their officers in command, get into a battle with snowballs. Then the sport becomes exciting, and the balls fly so thick that the opposing forces scarcely distinguish each other. I think this imitation battle is decidedly more pleasant than the real. The health of the company and regiment is much better than it was last winter. The men have become acclimated and accustomed to exposure, and it would be almost impossible to kill one of them now, by anything except a bullet. About this time last winter, quite a number of our company was sick, several of whom died. McKelvey, Fowler, Irion, Webb, and several others. Thus far our death from disease has been more than from battle. And I believe that the same thing is true with every command in the army, at least with those from the Gulf States.

Edmund DeWitt Patterson’s Journal Entry for January 20, 1863; 9th Alabama Infantry

Civil War era illustration of a snowball fight (no known restrictions)

Winter Camps

In the cold, snowy regions of the war, winter typically paused – or at least lessened – the war. During the 1862-1863 winter, both the Army of Northern Virginia (Confederate) and the Army of the Potomac (Union) constructed their winter camps on the opposing sides of the  Rappahannock River, in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Patterson mentioned a few common things in winter camps: boredom, picket duty, curiosity about the enemy, snow (and snow “sports”), and sickness. By many accounts, winter camps were boring to the soldiers; it was cold and sometimes miserable weather, their routines didn’t vary much, and with the enemy army as cold and miserable, there usually wasn’t much chance for battle action. Winter camps were relatively safe – except from disease and an occasional cavalry raid. With the immediate dangers removed, soldiers became curious about their enemies, prompting the trades for coffee, tobacco, newspapers, and other items.

The journal-keeper correctly observed that disease killed more soldiers than bullets. From a medical history perspective, Patterson’s observation that his regiment had fewer sick soldiers in the 1862-1863 winter is interesting. He pointed out that the soldiers were physically stronger and used to hardships after a year of campaigning. Still, on the whole, winter camps tended to have sickness, even if it was just the “common cold” – they had their “sick season” just like we have “flu season.”

A sketch by Edwin Forbes of soldiers returning from picket duty in a snowy scene. (Library of Congress)

Picket Duty

What was picket duty? When I was a kid, I imaged soldiers standing by neatly built white picket fences and watching for enemy soldiers. Well, that’s not exactly accurate…

Picket duty was the assignment of soldiers to watch and guard a certain area. It might be a camp, a headquarters, an army perimeter, or a boundary line. In this case, soldiers were picketing along the Rappahannock River, keeping an eye on the enemy soldiers. Sometimes soldiers stood in one place and watched, other times they moved along their section, looking for danger, and then returned to post. An officer – like Patterson – patrolled the picket line, making sure the soldiers were awake and not fraternizing with the enemy (although Patterson and other officers admitted to turning a blind eye to that activity).

A Picket (public domain)

Historical Musings

Edmund DeWitt Petterson was originally from Lorain County, Ohio. He moved to northern Alabama prior to the war, and when the conflict began, enlisted in the 9th Alabama Infantry Regiment. The Peninsula Campaign in 1862 was the first time he was in battle, and he was badly wounded during the Battle of Glendale on June 30. Patterson recovered and rejoined his unit in November 1862, promoted to lieutenant. During the winter, he found himself in command of the company since the company captains were often assigned to other duties.

I wonder what prompted Patterson to move from Ohio to Alabama shortly before the war. Probably work – still it’s an interesting question. And then he chooses to enlist with the Confederacy… Ah, the stories we find as we dig deeper into history!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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