February 5, 2010

Snowballs and lonely pickets

The record snow that Northern Virginia is experiencing right now gave me pause to think about the winter of 1863. According to the company clerk of the 13th Mississippi Regiment, there were 14 days of significant snow fall in the first three months of 1863 while in winter quarters with Lee's army. Northern soldiers were used to snow, but to the many of the southerners it was an exciting experience. Their exuberance lead to perhaps the biggest snowball fight ever when on January 31, 1863, Gen William Woffrod marched his Georgia brigade two miles with haversacks full of snowballs to "attack" Kershaw's South Carolina brigade. Of course it got out of hand with 4,000 soldiers engaged at ranges less than 100 feet. Boys will be boys.

After the Burnside mud march, both armies set up winter quarters. They built elaborate camps, including huts with fireplaces, wooden beds and numerous other "fine articles to tedious to mention" according to confederate Private Torrance. Military activity was primarily confined to picket duty.

Alfred Waud captured the cold, lonely detail in his sketch of a solitary sentry seeking shelter under a tree. Units rotated picket duty. Normally a whole company would leave camp to spend a few days spread across the front lines at frosty picket posts. Many times soldiers from opposite sides fraternized, often trading tobacco for coffee or other luxuries, but for the most part it was a cold, wet and boring task.


So think about these soldiers while you are shoveling this weekend.

(PS Sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration)





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